- Griffin Swartzell
- Barnwood shines stylistically but comes at a steep cost for small portions.
Great Wolf Lodge opened its 14th U.S. resort in mid-December, off Interquest Parkway. The 50,000 square-foot water park at the 311-room resort isn't open for day passes, other than $50 wrist bands for guests of those rooming overnight — a stay I price out online a few days out for $240 to $420 a night for a family of four depending on a standard, themed or premium suite.
But after a $107.6 million purchase and renovation of the unfinished Renaissance hotel, according to recent Colorado Springs Business Journal reporting, six eateries are open to the public, including the Springs' first Ben & Jerry's scoop house. Inside Great Wolf's cavernous lobby, decked out with big antler chandeliers, a giant faux-stone hearth, a cartoonish forest installation and commanding mountain view, guests roam wearing cute wolf's-ears headbands, some into a buffet line called the Loose Moose. (No good mental images come from that moniker, so we give it a miss.)
We're here instead for lunch at Barnwood, an upscale eatery commendably founded on local food principles, and designed with ample weathered, reclaimed planks, which gain an accenting assist from whiskey barrels, Edison bulbs, bucolic photography, and so much blinding daylight that some shutters are in order.
Executive chef Hector Gonzalez, reached by phone post-visit, elaborates on what the large chalkboard map of Colorado near the bar illustrates: It pinpoints farms by name and location. As per corporate director of food and beverage Chris Hammond's vision, Barnwood's local chef team is forging steady partnerships in-state for everything from cheese and chicken to lamb, bison and beef — even farmed seafood. Though other Great Wolf locations have a high-end option, Colorado Springs' is the first to push local sourcing, and Gonzalez says future locations will open with a similar concept to drive sustainability-minded options.
The group-think versus single-chef-driven concept reveals an eclectic, approachable menu. From a featured items selection by chef council member Tory Miller — a James Beard Foundation Best Chef Midwest Award winner in 2012, currently co-owner and chef of Madison, Wisconsin's farm-to-table spots L'Etoile and Graze — we select a pair of grilled prawns ($12), which will be sourced in-state as of March. They're a touch tough but still delightful, chili-dusted over a firm wedge of squash, with playful popcorn and a garnishing drizzle of hot sauce butter; we taste an intoxicating saffron-like flavor as we suck the heads.
The gluten-free soup of the day, a $6 bowl of brisket stew poured tableside, lands perfectly hearty but plain, lacking any special touch, so we make liberal use of fiery Colorado-made hot sauces on the table, a Burns and McCoy mango-habanero and Horsetooth tomatillo-habanero, both out of Fort Collins. A trio of street tacos of the day, in this case blackened, aquaponic striped bass, sport a nice, crispy sear at the expense of a mildly dry interior, but crumbled queso and crema garnish help round out a good flavor. The only issue is they're tiny tacos for $12, which includes house salsa, and chips that could soar with a lime squeeze.
Two cocktails we pair show proficiency but again are pricey ($10 to $13; which maybe beats the $7 draft beers) for portion and scantly boozy, especially the Herbal Remedy in a heavily iced copper cup, which laces Manzanilla sherry with basil, lemon juice and a faintly hoppy hopped grapefruit bitters. Aperol helps lift the Smoke & Mirrors, composed of pineapple-infused mezcal, its smokiness further teased by a cinnamon-and-smoked-chili syrup and chili rim garnish.
The priciest plate on the menu at $30, chile-coffee rubbed lamb with a safe and sweet mint gastrique over slender halved baby carrots and a lovely, almost foamy potato purée, would howl just fine if they were more sizable chops. Instead they're Lilliputian lollies — four bites and gone — more fit for kids on the water park side. A simple side of Fort Collins' organic Hazel Dell mushrooms for $7 were almost more worthy of the $30, somehow meatier (vegan's revenge!) and starkly sexy, roasted then sautéed with just salt, pepper and garlic oil accentuating the deep earthiness. Epic.
At dessert, the Wisconsin State Fair Cream Puff could easier be called a French profiterole, but with Great Wolf being Madison-based, it pays homage to the home-style treat, of which 400,000 were sold during the 10-day fest in 2015, according to the fair's website. Whatever you call it, pâte à choux gets stuffed with an airy sweet cream filling, and again $8 feels overly steep for it. We sip a thin, scorched coffee I presume comes via the in-house Dunkin' Donuts location, but our waitress says no, it's from somewhere with "peak" in the name. The front house staff can't answer many of our questions, but at least relays answers from the kitchen.
Still, for semi-captive fare, Barnwood's pretty bully for the locavore love alone, and the price may not deter vacationers as much as locals not there for a water slide thrill.