Intentionally or not, the new restaurant inside our museum of record offers a menu more attractive to grandmothers than gourmets.
Not that one can't be the other, or that the difference means anything concrete, except that a certain culinary panache previously found at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center disappeared when Bill Sherman and his Amuze Bistro departed late last year.
Now, instead of a lunch or dinner menu featuring wild-game cassoulet or seafood risotto, Garden of the Gods Gourmet stocks Café 36 with safe options like hummus, and artichoke-spinach dip, and curry chicken salad. About as out-there as it gets is a walnut pear chevre salad ($8), with nuts and goat cheese beautifully opposing in texture and flavor, and dried d'Anjou pears coming off gummy and distracting.
The menu is also designed to help GotG keep costs in check, according to general manager Justin Trudeau. (Disclosure: Trudeau is married to the Indy's director of digital media.) The catering company is on its second go-round running the museum's kitchen, and you can tell it's got a system. When the barbecue sauce on the kalua pork pineapple sandwich ($9) looks slightly dull and opaque, like it's been in the refrigerator, it's because it has: The ingredients are made back at GotG's kitchen and used there as well.
That said, the sandwich, if a little sweet, is tasty enough. The same could be said for the soup of the day, a bowl of three-bean chili ($6) full of black, pinto and white navy beans that, while nice on a cold day, could've been made by anybody.
No question, the outfit can plate impressive food: Its run from 2007 to 2010 proved that. But this time, it's like the FAC (with new chef Gennae Brooks) decided to go more snack bar than four-star. Disappointing considering the surroundings, though it seems to be working OK: During both our visits, the dining room was half full of the leisurely ladies-who-lunch set.
And there are highlights, to be sure — the art deco interior, for starters. One wall's still strictly windows that lead to that amazing balcony. Service is lovely, and table settings artful in their simplicity.
There's also the juicy half-pound monster of a hamburger ($11) — whose crisp, thin garlic fries are best consumed en masse — and whose caramelized onions and sharp white cheddar make it seem a French onion soup in beefy disguise. And the bowl of curried butternut-squash soup ($6) that comes salted too hard to taste the gourd, but whose coconut-milk base and curry aftertaste is too delicious to ignore.
Along with great Serranos Coffee, Café 36 sports pretty good desserts, too. Like a lemon shortbread bar just zinging with zest in the Sweet Bites collection ($8), or the Vanilla Custard Brulée ala Café 36 ($6), layered between crisped filo-dough rounds.
But mostly we ate food like the mahi-mahi ($12) or buttery steak quesadillas ($10). The fish is as flaky as it gets, but tastes like the grill and sports sour orange slices; the steak's soft and plentiful, but under-seasoned.
It all comes off like the piped-in tunes of jazz musician Django Reinhardt: generally pleasant, sometimes interesting, but hardly exotic. And after roughly a decade of struggling to support a full-service destination restaurant, maybe it's time the FAC stopped, and basically oversaw a space catering to blushing brides and the dinner theater crowd.