Last Sunday night marked the annual culinary extravaganza known as Taste of the Nation, a benefit for hunger relief held in cities across the United States. Locally, over 30 of Colorado Springs' finest eateries were in attendance, as were 15 different local beer, wine and coffee purveyors.
Just as debutantes dress in gowns which best capture their personality and bring out their eyes, the participating chefs prepared house specialties, signature dishes and mouthwatering specials which best represented their skills and establishments.
Luckily, I arrived early, and I was fortunate enough to be standing in the very middle of a group of people who were let in about 30 minutes before the masses. Who was I to say no? You can do a lot of eating in 30 minutes -- or at least get a good start.
My gustatory adventure began in the southeast corner of the room with samples from three of my favorite restaurants: the Craftwood Inn, the Stagecoach Inn and the Briarhurst Manor. For meat connoisseurs, this was nirvana.
The Briarhurst had prepared an Applewood Smoked Pork Roast, stuffed with French bread, celery, apples, onions, cranberries and hazelnuts. It was complemented nicely with a simple side of couscous. This was one of the few dishes that drew me back for seconds.
The other was a Slow Roast Buffalo with boysenberry gravy from the Stagecoach Inn. Normally, I don't like anything too fruity with meat, but the gravy, which had a consistency similar to a wine sauce, was not overly sweet and coaxed out the flavor of the meat. The buffalo, served rare, was succulent -- it practically melted in my mouth and was easily cut with a fork.
Rounding out the carnivore's corner was the Craftwood Inn's lamb wrapped around spinach leaves, seasoned with an assortment of very tasty spices, garlic, pion nuts and black olives, wrapped in phyllo dough. The complex mix of flavors melted into a tasty dish.
Searching for lighter fare as a follow-up, I ventured over to La Petite Maison, one of the few restaurants serving a salad. This was not just your average assortment of fancy greens -- the presentation was truly a work of art. Lightly breaded clams rested atop a small bed of spring greens with a lemon-dill dressing lightly drizzled on top. The result was simple and refreshing.
Palate cleansed and appetite still intact, my next stop was the Cliff House, where chef Craig Hartman and his crew were hard at work. Their two choices were my favorites of the event. I started with the Pan-seared Medallions of Lamb served with smoked tomato and leek compote and fresh basil and manchego pesto. It was outstanding, the lamb tender and flavorful.
Even more impressive was the Bisque of Mountain Morels and Blue Crab, served with white truffle oil. In spite of the fancy name, this was essentially a very, very tasty mushroom soup served over a piece of blue crab, with a dab of oil on top. By either description, it was superb.
Also notable was Lemongrass Pork, served by the Picnic Basket. While I am not normally a huge pork fan, an evening at Taste of the Nation was changing my mind. This version was quite flavorful and again, exceptionally tender. And the two accompanying sauces -- a mango salsa and a plantain chutney -- really enhanced the dish, providing complementary flavors.
The Food Designers served a sumptuous chicken and mushroom strudel, served with a lemon and dill caper sauce close to the consistency of mayonnaise -- an excellent dish though by this time I had almost reached calorie capacity.
The Food Designers were situated near the Ann and Mann's Ice Cream table, offering, among other choices, a raspberry sorbet. It was the perfect palate cleanser and transition into dessert.
Representing the major chocolate contingency was Michelle's. As always, their English toffee ice cream made me drool. Marigold Bakery served a fabulous dark chocolate cake I nibbled off the plate of a friend.
In spite of my overstuffed state, previous to discovering Marigold's, I had stopped at Phantom Canyon's table and consumed a large piece of what I think is one of the best carrot cakes in town. Then I ended up at Antonio's, whose dessert options included tiramisu and cannoli. Captive, I indulged yet again. The tiramisu was creamy and fluffy with a hint of espresso and more than a hint of Marsala. The cannoli, not sample-sized but full-sized, was notable for its substantial, crisp crust and creamy but not overly sweet filling.
With over 30 restaurants in participation, it is impossible to mention every single dish represented at the Taste. I can honestly say, though, that I sampled everything and didn't encounter a single disappointing morsel. And I discovered that there is such a thing as a food hangover.
While the evening left me completely sated, my one note of criticism would be that a true vegetarian would have been hard pressed to find something suitable to eat. With the exception of the alcohol, the desserts and Walter's Bistro's offerings, everything served was meat or fish.
In the end, though, it doesn't matter so much what was served. Share Our Strength's Taste of the Nation is a great nationwide benefit for hunger relief -- profits go to local food banks -- and the Colorado Springs event stood as testament to the fact that some fine restaurants have established themselves in our city in the past five years or so. That, truly, is the icing on the cake.