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Mountain Hopping

Dining in Crested Butte's a great reason for a visit



Tis the season to get out of town. Though someplace warm would be my first choice, Crested Butte is a close second. A recent visit brought home all the reasons why.

Crested Butte is a town for everyone. Those craving ski resort glitter can head for Mt. Crested Butte and, before checking in to Club Med, marvel at all the McMansions newly sprouted on the hillsides. Those seeking a little more history and personality can wander the narrow streets of Crested Butte, a town where historic preservation restrictions have been applied to marvelous effect.

As you might expect in a town dependent on tourism, Crested Butte has a disproportionate number of T-shirt shops and restaurants. Skip the former and save your money to spend in the latter.

From brewpubs to fondue, Greek to Mexican (Donita's Cantina is the oldest and best), you will not go hungry. One of my favorite places is Ruby Mountain Bakery, vaguely misnamed since it offers a full breakfast and lunch menu, complemented by a small selection of beer and wine. Start your day with buckwheat, buttermilk or cornmeal pancakes, or build your own omelette with choices like artichoke hearts, spinach, mushrooms, tomatoes, jalapenos or bell peppers. The Butte Bomb is Ruby Mountain's version of a breakfast burrito filled with scrambled eggs, black beans and ancho chilies. Teocalli Tofu Scramble tosses sauted vegetables with ginger, garlic and tofu. Be sure to save some room for one of the terrific pastries -- an almond or chocolate croissant, for example, or a cream cheese Danish or a piece of Linzer torte.

If you find yourself at Ruby Mountain for lunch, be prepared to make some tough decisions. A blackened yellowfin tuna sandwich on homemade garlic and rosemary focaccia, or grilled chicken with green chili, roasted red pepper and jalapeno jack cheese on a baguette? Honey turkey with smoky Gouda, sprouts, tomato on thickly sliced farmer's bread, or roast beef with tomato, mozzarella, chipotle mayonnaise and mixed greens on a croissant? The daily homemade soups are pretty good as well. We lucked out the day we were there: Manhattan clam chowder, that spicy tomato-based challenge to New England's creamy chowder, was one of the soups. It almost took me all the way back to Brooklyn.

The jewel in Crested Butte's restaurant crown, however, is Soupon, hidden away in an old miner's house down an alley. (There is a sign, but you have to know where to look.) Two low-ceilinged, cozy rooms are warm and inviting, decorated with Victorian tables, lace clothes and wine posters. Mac and Maura Bailey have owned Soupon since 1982, changing little except the menu with its daily preparation variations of elk, lamb, beef and seafood.

And the food that comes out of that microscopic kitchen (I've seen bigger galleys on sailboats) will amaze you.

Although the featured soups -- New England clam chowder and butternut squash -- sounded good, we started with the Alsatian onion tart, creamy sweet caramelized onions in a savory tart shell, and the shrimp potstickers served with two dipping sauces, one tangy and one whose delicate hotness bounced on your tongue. It was tough to pass on the oven roasted Lacquered Quail served with braised red cabbage, caramelized Granny Smith apples and thyme, but we had to save some room for the courses to come.

We followed the appetizers with two beautifully dressed salads of wild greens tossed with piquant balsamic vinaigrette. They were a lovely prelude to the entrees.

Though preparations change daily, I couldn't imagine treatments any better than the night we were there. The fresh salmon was encrusted with ground pistachio nuts and served with mashed sweet potatoes drizzled with vanilla rum butter. The pan-seared swordfish was presented over a bed of wilted baby spinach and accompanied by black lentils and a Bermuda onion marmalade. The red snapper was coated with cornmeal and finished with jalapeno vinaigrette, caramelized shallots and wild mushrooms. Meat lovers faced the difficult choice of rack of lamb seasoned with rosemary and truffles, grilled elk tenderloin with a Pommery mustard and honey glaze, or filet mignon marinated in black vinegar. We were dazzled by our selections of the elk and the salmon: gorgeous presentations, and deep and unusual balances of flavors.

That we were drinking a very nice bottle of Silver Oak cabernet from the small but impressive wine list only enhanced the entire experience.

Then on to dessert. Any restaurant even nominally French should shine here, and Soupon did not disappoint. Crme brle led the list, followed by a chocolate bourbon cake, hazelnut tart, a fresh berry cobbler and a generous scoop of their homemade ice cream -- eggnog flavored with bourbon -- served in a tuille basket. We waddled the three blocks to our hotel in a daze of overeating.

Because Crested Butte relies on seasonal tourism, you may find Soupon and other restaurants closed during certain off-season months like October and May. Your best source for information on lodging and dining is the town's Web site:

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