Venue Review: Cafe 36
“Art,” Pablo Picasso said, “is a lie that makes us realize the truth.”
This line came to mind on a recent visit to the Fine Arts Center’s Café 36 when a woman at the table next to me took the first bite of a dish of polenta drizzled with roasted tomato vinaigrette and blended basil.
The museum’s café has been through many versions in the last few years — none of them really worth hanging on your wall — but this time a small, smart menu by Garden of the Gods Gourmet has all the makings of a masterpiece.
The woman took a bite and settled into a deep, silent smile. I’m pretty sure her eyes rolled back in her head.
She leaned over to a friend and said, “You HAVE to try this.”
Strip the dish down to unburnished truth, and it was nothing more than a mush of Mesoamerican grain dropped in hot oil, then covered with a mash of fruits and leaves mixed with more oil and a little acetic acid.
But that’s not the truth it made this woman realize. The art of good food is that it can make anyone, no matter who, feel important or sexy or rich. It can rescue moods. It can end arguments. It can suspend time. The polenta, fried in four thin patties and stacked in a slender tower with layers of spiky mesclun in between had an unstuffy elegance and a wonderful flavor that, paired with the breezy art deco patio and unhurried service, seemed to say, “Hey, whatever else you have going on, you are here now. Enjoy it.”
I have no idea what the conversation was, but the woman leaned over to her friend and said, “If you’ve got it, you might as well live it up.”
Café 36 is a good place to start. The menu is full of fresh, delicious food presented with the visual flair befitting an art museum. The bill is a bit more hefty than most lunches, but order the threecourse, $20 prix fixe and you get a tremendous value. The cafe also does occasional pre-theater dinners, but a server explained it is “more banquet-style and not as good.”
I practically had to drag my wife to Café 36 after eating here under the last chef a year ago. His strategy was to hang all sorts of nouveau cuisine bobbles, frills and aioli on fancy and exhaustively described, but ultimately mediocre food that tasted, in her words, “Holiday Inn-esque.” I panned the restaurant. So did the Independent. The chef departed.
When we scanned the new menu full of things like “apple, potato and brie timbale watercress salad in tri-pepper vinaigrette” ($6) and “roasted red pepper soup finished with whipped crustacean butter” ($6), I thought, “here we go again.” But no. Everything I’ve tried here is fantastic.
That timbale thing with the watercress salad turns out to be a stack of thinly sliced potatoes alternated with brie, baked and set in a cool blend of savory apple sauce that lends heft to the light, delicious greens.
The soup’s “crustacean butter” is redolent with crab and lobster stock and packed with bits of lobster that add a sweet, rich swirl to the tart, red broth.
Behind the frills, chef Ben Hoffer, who worked for years at the Craftwood Inn, curates an inspired exhibit of dishes that draw inspiration from good ingredients and are vaulted to the next level by stylish preparation.
Take the new potatoes that come with the Brandied Mushroom Flat Iron Steak ($14.50). The small potatoes are boiled until light and floury inside, then smooshed until they burst slightly at the seams, flash fried to crisp them up and dusted with the slightest rumor of quatre épices, an almost forgotten French mix of ground pepper, cloves, nutmeg and ginger. They’re spectacular. And so is the 6-ounce steak they accompany. I recoiled when I saw the brandy and wild mushroom sauce. I’ve had too many bad, brown steak sauces. But this one is a work of art, with mushrooms, not thickeners, taking the lead, backed up by complementary shades of soy sauce and real maple syrup.
Then again, everything here is good. The Soft Shell Crab Verrine ($14.50) fills a large martini glass with layers of avocado and cevichelike lump crab and apple salad. Alone it would be a thing of beauty, but it comes with a crispy, delicious fried soft shell crab sitting on top of the whole thing like a lid, wearing a red splash of spicy aioli.
The Grilled Caesar Supreme of Chicken ($11) is a deconstructed salad, with a grilled free-range Statler breast surrounded by a long wedge of romaine and an even longer saber crispy crostini. It all rests on a canvas of toasted pine nuts and house-made dressing.
The menu ends as strong as it starts.
A dish of berries drizzled with honey and house crème fraiche ($6.50) is the perfect, cool dessert to savor on a hot day on the balcony.
The dark, rich dome of chocolate mousse with a pistachio meringue disk protruding from the top and a Jackson Pollock spatter of bright yellow mango coulis ($6.50) looked so good that the ladies next to me stopped, midconversation and stared longingly. The chilled chocolate tasted as good as it looked.
Even the Crème Brûlee ($6.50), which every restaurant in town serves, rises above.
I scrawled a few nitpicks in my notebook. On one visit, the server forgot to tell us the specials, leaving us to eavesdrop on the next table over. On another visit, a small part of the grilled chicken was a little too pink to eat, but overall, both service and food are exceptional.
On a day when the whole Downtown Partnership of Colorado Springs arrived en masse to try the food, the small staff seemed cool and collected and never neglected seemlingly less important guests like me.
The Fine Arts Center has proved to be a hard place to have a restaurant. Many have tried and failed. Let’s hope the latest version of Café 36 attracts a large enough base of customers to be added to the museum’s permanent collection.