'I really miss Saigon Stars," will say no one, ever.
Garden of the Gods Gourmet, benefiting from the Pinery Enterprises Hospitality Group's deep pockets and pedigree, has accomplished such a complete and alluring overhaul of the old Asian haunt that it simply won't come to mind. Especially when scanning a sexy pastry case immediately inside the tri-purposed building's entryway; touring the mini marketplace (complete with Colorado products, from meats and sweets to bottled beverages) stage left; or relaxing in the bright dining area, stage right.
The whole affair, modeled in part after Napa wine-tasting rooms to fit a Two Rivers Winery sampling site (coming soon), feels swank, fresh and truly gourmet, like the produce section of Whole Foods mated with a wedding banquet. Which has a little to do with fold-up white banquet chairs, playing an interim role, pressed up to light-wood tabletops above faux distressed-wood flooring for a historic feel. White rafters add an open, church-like vibe, while scented glass-jar votives and brightly painted reclaimed window artwork suggest Pinterest with Pier 1 adornments.
All of which is to say it's damn pretty, despite what feels like a heavy-handed move to incorporate Colorado spirit with an imposing stone fireplace — I can't say that taxidermy and tarts really mix fluidly — that bottlenecks guests to a hostess stand, where a wait, especially on Sundays, is common already, a couple months in.
Just as weddings aren't cheap, neither are meals here. You're talking $10 pancakes and $13.75 for the Southwest Eggs Benedict at breakfast, or an $8 up-charge for salmon on the Beet Love salad to loft the total to $19 at lunch. Twelve bucks scores you only two carnitas tacos. And yet that wraparound parking lot, plus the adjacent street-side, is often jam-packed, luxury cars comprising much of the lot. Seems we're looking at a honey badger scenario here.
Hefty peso-pour aside, GGG generally executes excellence with authority, its bustling staff visible through a partly open kitchen led by Amy Fairbanks and Larissa Vendola — the power duo known for many wins at local chef battles. They're creative on command and excel with uncluttered flavor compositions. Nothing here will likely push your boundaries, but these versions of some classics are easily more vibrant.
Take a catering keystone, curry chicken ($12 on a salad or sandwich), which shines here as a banana-yellow paste with almond and celery sliver crunch and currant sweetness on seed-flecked La Brea whole grain (one of the few items not made on-site). Or a turkey sandwich ($8.25 from the grab-and-go menu) on the same bread, made exotic by a cranberry relish amped by cassis.
The aforementioned beet salad sees candied walnuts and local goat chevre, with an orange balsamic vinaigrette giving the grill-marked salmon a little swim. The double-layer soft corn tacos do contain a bounty of black-edged, juicy pork bits with a fresh bell pepper, onion and cilantro relish, but could use more tomatillo salsa; the double-down on side corn chips, despite a great ramekin of guacamole, feels redundant. (I craved a kimchi slaw or something pickled.)
A mound of salty and crisp-till-drenched Colorado Disco Fries (a fair $7, actually) sport a flavorful but mild green chile dousing under a cheddar-Jack melt, doing comfort food to delight. Balance the grease at the juice bar ($5.50/12 ounces), where the Pretty in Pink's pear-beet mix gains zest from ginger's bite and pineapple's bromelain tingle. The Ruby could use a touch more apple to balance the celery's saltiness, with kale, cucumber, carrot and beet delivering the garden elements, and lemon and ginger getting mostly lost in the mix.
At breakfast, Colorado Coffee Merchants' 1918 or Italian decaf roasts ($2.75) handle the aromatics and cut through the Benedict's fat, delivered in the form of an awesome brown-butter variant of Hollandaise. Bacon, organic eggs, Pueblo green chili bits, ample wilted spinach and flaky house buttermilk biscuits combine for one of the best Bennies in memory. Were it not for burned bottoms, our quinoa-and-hemp-whole-grain pancakes would have reached ideal splendor too, with bananas and honey pecan butter being lavish enough, prior to real maple-syrup splashing or a coconut-milk simple-syrup pour.
House sweets by pastry chef Sue Sanicky are proficient, but don't quite hit uniform perfection. A sandy textured pecan bar ($2) bests a tartlet with a difficult-to-cut graham-cracker shell and runny Key lime curd. Advertised balsamic scantly appears in the strawberry cake ($4), which otherwise hosts a wonderful filling and thick, sweet frosting.
Still, the display case will talk you into something, and you'll want to linger and maybe shop on the way out. Those types of inspired behaviors are the mark of success, and why this location incarnation won't easily be ignored or forgotten.