What's better than a pile of sweet potato fries?
A pile of sweet potato fries drizzled with balsamic glaze.
The gourmet touch, offered next to my precisely medium rare buffalo burger ($9.29), caught me off guard and reminded me how refreshing it is to be surprised when dining out — especially in Woodland Park.
Big Rock Steak & Seafood opened roughly a year ago in a beautiful, split-level space with hardwood everything that was originally a RE/MAX office. Java the Hut occupied the building for a while before closing in late 2007; when Nancy Emily took over the space, she opened the Sweet Tea Country Café, then shifted the concept to Big Rock. In mid-April, she hired chef Robert Melanson, who's been cooking for 16 years, most recently out of the Picnic Basket's catering kitchen.
Aside from nailing my burger, Melanson pulled off a respectable calamari appetizer ($7.95) on my first lunch visit. Large, well-breaded strips paired nicely with a thick, spicy lemon butter and sweet red pepper coulis.
My friendly waitress handled a small rush alone, checking in often and helping shuttle me inside the main dining room when the patio became too windy. She also convinced me to leave with a slice of three-layer chocolate cake ($5.50), which wound up bearing a strange, overwhelming clove taste.
(Though Melanson makes his own pies, the cakes, I later learned, currently come from Sysco. "It's a new era up here," Melanson says, implying changes may be en route.)
Returning for dinner, we opted for a gorgeous mountain view in a quiet corner on the upper level. At night, the tablecloths come out, as does the alluring scent of barbecue from the active smoker out back (and from heaping plates en route to tables). Still, we decided to forgo the four-leggeds to test the seafood portion of the menu. (Plus, I saw a bad omen in finding A1 as a table setting.)
A shrimp scampi appetizer ($9.99) landed first, with a tasty enough sauce unfortunately sucked into fairly generic white bread points, upon which the otherwise fine shrimp sat. Next, the soup-of-the-day ($3.95/cup, $4.95/bowl), a green chili, brought heat but also an odd abundance of oregano seasoning in a thin veggie broth.
We sought refuge in a delicious, thick peanut dressing I chose for my dinner salad (free with entrée), a simple, fresh spring mix with a couple carrots and tomatoes. The dressing was so good that when the equally yummy mango chutney ran out on our tuna steak salad ($11.95), we dunked the fish in it. Cooked through, the tuna was dry, and large slivers of green bell pepper seemed out of place on the salad.
The halibut ($18.95), which was also a little overcooked, brought several sizable bones, which I suggest the servers warn customers about if they're common. I'd also recommend cooking the fish just past rare, and with the tuna, moving to sashimi-grade and aiming for just a sear.
After an unusually long wait, our crème brulée-flavored cheesecake ($5.50) arrived almost indistinguishable from a standard cheesecake, but not bad. The whipped cream was half melted on our blackberry cobbler ($4.50), which rated average.
On the way out, we passed three employees who failed to say goodbye — a stark contrast to my day-visit's warmth. Suffice to say, Big Rock has kinks to fix, but also some promising offerings that should carry it through.