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Peaks and valleys

With a new dinner menu, the Cliff House's dining room dazzles; eats at its Red Mountain Bar & Grill, though, could use a boost


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As Manitou Springs' pinnacle hotel, site of four-diamond fine dining, the Cliff House needs little introduction.

Historic boardinghouse, closed in 1982 by devastating fire, becomes a popular destination for raccoons for 15 years. Rises like a phoenix in 1999. Currently under expansion. Got it.

If you've driven down Cañon Avenue in the past couple months, you've likely noticed the new Red Mountain Bar & Grill addition, directly across from the Penny Arcade. And if you're a west-sider, you've probably heard the buzz surrounding the excellent atmosphere in the chic interior space (sporting a fireplace, large flat-screen TV and commanding polished-rock bar), as well as the fine view to be had from Red Mountain's four-table terrace. You may have heard about some modestly priced eats, too.

It's true, a meal out there on a warm evening surpasses most for ambiance, and the food, for the most part, is relatively inexpensive.

We started with tempura vegetable ($6) and antipasto ($9) appetizers: the latter a standard and completely average take on the classic platter of Italian meats, cheeses and olives; the former a perfectly fried (as in non-soggy) variety of crisp, fresh veggies like sweet potato and zucchini paired with delicious, sweet soy and sweet chili dips.

Next up: a plate of Buffalo Bill Sliders ($8), a seemingly surefire tourist pleaser. But our thin trio of lightly barbecue-sauced mini-burgers came cooked past our requested doneness, and on the whole, the dish was again just average.

We got our hopes up for the Wild Sausage pizza ($16), a blend of smoked venison, Italian boar, rabbit and rattlesnake (we trust), served over pepperjack cheese on a 10-inch thin crust. I say "we trust," because the nicely spiced sausage didn't taste much more exotic than gourmet Italian sausage. Good, but no noticeable rattle, hop or forest gallop for the premium fee.

And a premium fee is also what you'll pay for a microbrewed beer, our one gripe about the otherwise reasonably priced and extensive alcohol list. A $5.50 Fat Tire doesn't mesh into an affordable bar menu.

It's not that Red Mountain's a bad option for dining affordably at the Cliff House. But you'll get much more for your money if you try the new dinner menu in the regular hotel dining room.

During our visit there, we opted for seating outside, rather than in the lacy and quaint, but viewless dining room. (Well, OK, it faces the post office.) The Cliff House's veranda, with cushy wicker chairs and the relaxing sound of the courtyard fountain, is the type of space where you could envision lounging and reading a thick book, every day for the rest of your life.

Our overall exquisite meal started with honey thyme vinaigrette-drizzled golden and red beets ($8) topped in grilled shallots and sparse goat cheese crumbles. (Charge me two bucks more and load 'em up!) For entrées, we stayed local with outstanding Colorado striped bass ($21) and Colorado lamb ($22) plates. The bass came blackened with spicy Cajun seasoning, permeating both skin and flesh sides, next to grilled squash and papaya chunks.

The lamb, which left me damn near breathless with delight on first bite, came wrapped in phyllo dough with a mint, apple and apricot purée, over spinach swimming in a sweet balsamic redux. Complex, vibrant, unusual — possibly my dish of the year.

Dessert brought a trio of petite and pleasing, if not remarkable, crème brulée ramekins ($8): a strawberry vanilla in which we couldn't taste or see any sign of the fruit, a chocolate that tasted more like toffee, and a unique passionfruit that was a first for us.

Something in the night air or veranda vibe convinced us we needed a second sweet, hence the Strawberry Rhubarb Clafoutis ($6): chopped fruit baked into a tarragon custard and topped with two small scoops of basil mascarpone ice cream. Yeah — basil mascarpone ice cream. Another first for us and a stunning, dynamic complement to the classic French treat.

Considering that a meal of equal caliber, to be found at only a handful of local places, might cost you between another $10 and $20 more, the Cliff House's dining room (and veranda) offers a relative bargain without compromising creativity or quality. Hit it on your next anniversary, and Red Mountain Bar & Grill on your next whim.


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