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A stroke away from genius

Amuzé at the FAC stands just a step removed from artistic excellence

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Amuzé Bistro's reputation succeeds it. Under chef and owner Bill Sherman, the Palmer Lake fine-dining destination routinely sculpted masterful plates. Our April '09 review said its compositions "could be called art before food," and quoted from the restaurant's guest book, where diners gushed about having had one of the top meals of their lives.

It was a four-table corner of culinary heaven, and Sherman shut it down in its prime to go all in at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center's restaurant.

"I literally walked out, jumped in my car and drove down here immediately for lunch, and looked at the space and went, 'I love it.' I fell in love with it," Sherman says, noting a friend had tipped him off that Garden of the Gods Gourmet would be leaving the space. "So I went out to the parking lot, and called the [FAC] director of communications, and said, 'I'd like to set up a meeting.'

"It was really bittersweet closing the other place, because I loved it, like a captain loves a ship, you know what I mean? But I couldn't pass this up, because [there's] the patio, and the art and the way we view food as art. I just had a good feeling in my heart about it."

Blank canvases

Now it's up to Sherman to turn that good feeling into something more than good food, knowing that among some people, he'll be competing against memories of a beyond-intimate dining room, and a menu that would accommodate a $32 wild Carolina duck breast.

At the FAC, what might "food as art" look like?

The beef carpaccio ($12): four thin slices of buttery filet mignon, covered in fried capers and a mustardy aioli, arrayed symmetrically around a powdery Parmesan-crisp full of guacamole. Sherman designed the dish's presentation to mimic the Zia sun symbol stamped into the terrace's ceiling, and the plate is an impressively cool tie-in to the Southwestern Art Deco architecture.

Lighter options bring the fun and original, hand-held Caesar salad ($7), with an olive tapenade crostini on the side. The "salad" is actually a stick of lettuce comprised of layered leaves with a rice-paper handle, all of which is swabbed through a great, anchovy-rich dressing. The wonderful polenta, eggplant and goat cheese salad ($10) comes with warm discs of mild, crumbly polenta, stacked with greens, surrounded by a pool of pesto-like roasted red pepper vinaigrette.

Equally virtuosic is the French-inspired simplicity of the mushroom cardamom crêpe ($9): A clean and rich beurre blanc sauce plays background for chunky spikes of thick mushrooms wrapped in thin crêpe. The cardamom is perhaps too subtle, but the dish still tastes superb. Later, so does a shingled line of sesame-seed-crusted ahi tuna ($12), the creamy fish acting as the perfect canvas for neighboring splotches of sweet honey sesame vinaigrette and neon-hued turmeric and paprika oils.

Sitting alongside Bistro stalwarts like the vanilla-infused cream of tomato soup ($8) is another heat-beater: Amuzé's chilled asparagus soup ($8). Poured tableside from a stainless steel coffee pot over a tangle of fried onions, the soup is pleasantly cold in its curvaceous, swooping bowl, but lacks any defining flavor after the onions are gone.

It, in miniature, is the expectation problem: Though the soup is inoffensive with some nice touches, alongside its breathtaking tomato companion it leaves me wanting more. (Disclosure: We were spotted during one of our visits.)

Almost there

I run into a different issue with the seafood risotto ($19), a mixture of scallops, prawns and seared cod on saffron-infused, red pepper, mushroom and minted pea risotto. The scallops and prawns are perfectly seasoned, fleshy delight itself, but the cod is overcooked and the risotto mysteriously sits in a puddle of white-wine-and-butter sauce, taking the saffron-mint combination in slightly unpleasant directions. Not a complete miss, but no sure hit either.

It's a similar story with the lobster macaroni and cheese ($16) daily special: The dish offers delicious and decadent, butter-poached lobster on a skewer, and it's popular enough that Sherman plans to add it to the main menu. But the four-cheese macaroni accompaniment, while tasty and hot, basically brings captivating crustacean into the cafeteria.

A mucho-macho wild game cassoulet ($15) — tender Russian wild boar (from Denver), plump bison-and-Asiago-cheese sausages, and steamed kale, all over a salty white-bean-and-suckling-pork-leg stew — seems a heavy choice for a summertime lunch menu. That said, it satisfies every carnivorous inclination I have.

Starting Aug. 10, dinner will be served at the Amuzé incarnation, giving Sherman and Co. a chance to better the ratio of well-executed dishes to those that are almost there. It'll also allow for a chance to better align price points; at lunch, some dishes, particularly the lobster mac and cheese and seafood risotto, feel a few dollars high.

I'm optimistic, though that could be our desserts talking: a superb, velvety chocolate mousse with Chantilly cream and blackberries ($8), and an intriguingly complex huckleberry-and-lime ice cream ($8). A couple bites and you'll believe that Sherman has the ability to lead anywhere the wind wills — even if the memory of his beloved bistro follows close behind.

bryce@csindy.com

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