Eating on the back alleyway patio at Swirl Wine Bar — sitting next to the fire pit and downing hoppy beers from Green Flash or Lagunitas, amid tall walls dangling with greenery, conversational noise and white Christmas lights — is like eating inside an Instagram pic.
Or, it would be like that if the app wasn't hackneyed and tired, but rather fresh and innovative. Because the new Swirl, the Swirl where owners Sharon and Andrew Palmer killed their retail wine space, expanded everything and turned it all over to a 24-year-old Manitou Springs native with experience at the Culinary Institute of America, is very exciting.
Seth Jaray is that native, and besides the CIA, he boasts time at Adam's Mountain Café and, most recently, the Craftwood Inn with its chef, Brother Luck. "He was just an inspiration," Jaray says. "He was all about teaching us, and bringing in different ingredients, and I'm definitely trying to take a lot of that and bring it to Swirl."
From its start as a scattering of imported meats and cheeses, the wine bar's menu now sports hand-pulled mozzarella, house-made pasta, and an inventiveness that has speck (a moist, smoky ham) being wrapped around nutty Manchego shavings and bright, tangy artichoke hearts ($7.50), the latter a fascinating replacement for the more traditional sliced melon. Consider the lily gilded when you taste the drizzles of truffle oil.
It's all just so damn fresh and clean.
A small bowl of ceviche and chips ($8.50) pulses with life, the chopped chunks of shrimp and avocado lighting up underneath a layer of citrus, chopped cilantro and a whisper of habañero pepper. A cold chicken-salad sandwich ($9) is summer incarnate, with its thick tomatoes and creamy basil-avocado aioli hit with Dijon mustard; while a garlic chicken panini ($9.75), with Gruyère, more artichokes and bell peppers, is all the more compelling for its simplicity.
And there's just something about fresh pasta — so tender, with the lightest brush of egg-rich flavor — and the Pesto dish ($13) knows it, with its über-creamy red-pepper sauce buffed with goat cheese.
Or take the Deconstructed Sliders ($10). Though the name makes no sense, considering the small burgers arrive almost fully built with grilled tomatoes and lettuce on pieces of buttery toast, the thick lumps of beef squeezing meaty juices from every bite are like dessert for sugar-haters.
I can say the Drunk Goat panini ($9.75) wasn't doing it for me, but I'm a texture person and bringing back a mouthful of hot, gushing goat cheese and slightly slimy portobello mushrooms was a little unsettling. And between a dense crust and a sauce that seemed half-asleep, I wasn't a big fan of the "everything" pizza ($10), as recommended by our charismatic server Max (who, disclosure, is a former roommate of my sister's).
But then you run back into the arms of something like the Wild Boar Caprese Bruschetta ($9.50), where quarter-sized slices of sausage are stacked over fat Colorado tomatoes and a half-inch-thick layer of gooey mozzarella. The balsamic reduction hits, and the chiffonade of basil pipes up, and soon you're scraping the plate with bits of leftover crust and wondering which jerk ate all your food.
Then you look around, and hear the conversation drifting in from the street, and feel the glow of the lights. And then somebody pulls out their smartphone ...