It's not the freshest idea, but it's a new one for Colorado Springs: Offer a menu of fresh fish, poultry and meat, prepare it simply, and offer a dazzling choice of accompanying sauces in which to dip. Et voil: an entree personalized to the taste of each diner. Vesta Dipping Grill in Denver's LoDo has used this approach with great success. And it looks like there could be a similar fate for The Cerulean Grill, Joe Coleman's latest addition to our restaurant scene.
Most things Joe has touched have turned to gold. Old Colorado City, not exactly a restaurant mecca, was brought to culinary life by The Blue Star in its original site (now home to Old City Caf). When Joe moved the restaurant to, of all places, lower South Tejon Street and encountered neighborhood opposition, naysayers everywhere thought he was doomed. Fast-forward a year or so. The Blue Star is thriving, possibly the best place in town to eat and drink, see and be seen.
On to Bell's Deli, a favorite of soccer moms, and its transformation into Del's Beli, after Coleman took over last spring. It took its time settling into an identity, and closed long enough to become transformed. Like a wallflower at a school reunion, Del's Beli is back as The Cerulean Grill, looking and tasting better than ever.
First, the space itself: wide open and welcoming, no easy combination. Deep, rich colors on the walls, tables covered with dark cloths topped with heavy white paper on which are written the night's choices and their oh-so-reasonable prices, a curvy glass-block wall separating the bar from the dining room, a few cozy booths along the wall. Some magic has improved the acoustics of the room since its previous incarnations; you can hear your dining companions now.
And hearing each other will be important if, like us, you want to order a variety of entrees, sides and sauces, and place a premium on your companions' opinions. Make it your mission to duplicate nothing. With over 50 sauces (pick any two) and nine different side dishes (pick any two), duplication would be a pity.
On our visit we tried three different fish: escolar, halibut and mahi-mahi. The fish that didn't make the cut included swordfish, ahi, grouper and salmon. (Depending on availability, on other days there might be snapper, sea bass or monkfish.) The halibut was sauted to a juicy perfection; the other two firmer fish could handle a gentle grilling.
Choosing the accompaniments took some time. This is the arena in which Cerulean's Caribbean/Cuban/dash-of-Asian influence becomes evident. Sweet Potato Hash or Rum Black beans? Got 'em both. Feeling less exotic? Go for the leek mashed potatoes and the sauted spinach. They were terrific.
But the real dilemma was the sauces. We hemmed and we hawed. Shortly before our waiter -- attentive, friendly and helpful -- despaired, we narrowed it down: Chimichurri and Dijon Horseradish Aioli for the halibut, Coconut Lime Aioli and Mango Chutney for the escolar, and Sweet Ginger Garlic Soy and Red Curry Honey for the mahi-mahi.
Dinners come in oversized bowls as deeply colored as the walls. Side dishes form the base upon which the fish serving sits. Completing the tableau are two small ramekins of the chosen sauces, a good thing as we could pass the sauces around, trying them all with each fish. The fish portions seemed at first glance to be modest. With the generous portions of the accompaniments (did I mention the sprinkling of sweet potato chips atop the bowls?), none of us went home hungry.
All the fish was moist, sweet and flavorful, a testament to freshness. The sauces were as advertised: some sweet (like the coconut lime), some zingy (like the Chimichurri) and some bit back, though in a friendly way.
If all this decision-making seems overwhelming, there are standard entre items with sauces already assigned. Try the St. Martinique Pork with Chimichurri sauce, Basmati rice and the rum black beans, or the Jerked Chicken, rotisserie grilled and dabbled with pineapple coriander smash.
Vegetarians will have a tough time; there are presently no veggie entrees on the menu. The soba noodle stir-fry can be made minus the shrimp, but be aware that the soba noodles are slowly being phased out in favor of a lighter rice noodle, more in keeping with the style of food elsewhere on the menu. Salads and a black-bean soup are the best a vegetarian can hope for at this writing.
But then again, that lucky vegetarian will have room for dessert. True to the Caribbean style, desserts feature coconut, pineapple and banana. What could be better on a sizzling summer night than a coconut panna cotta with a luscious strawberry reduction? Or Banana Death, a light alternative to the ubiquitous chocolate desserts at other places.
The wine list, currently in its own revision stage, presents a nice assortment of light wines reasonably priced. With market entrees (Cerulean's term for the "Choose Your Own" options) ranging from $17 to $23, one can eat and drink well without maxing out that Visa card. All this and ample parking: another solid winner for Joe Coleman.