Any realtor will tell you the most appealing feature of a property is location. While location contributes to the success of a restaurant, oftentimes the more critical factor in the culinary world is atmosphere. Call it a restaurant's character. You've either got it or you don't -- that ineffable pheromonic attraction that will get people not to visit once, but to return.
After many years at the Garden of the Gods Club and the Woodmoor Country Club (respectively), Walter Iser and Marcus Guiliano have joined forces and opened Walter's Bistro in the Eighth Street location vacated by Marigold's Bistro. Though Walter's greeting was cordial, the linens were crisp and the service attentive, something ineffable was missing on recent visits. Maybe ambiance takes time to develop. Maybe the site is unduly affected by its brick squareness, or its car-wash neighbor. Maybe it's the fact that recessed ceiling lights don't cast an intimate glow, or that it's difficult to feel cozy in a long open space. Marigold's had a rough time there; something I don't want Walter's to share, because the food is terrific.
And, after all, the food is what really counts.
The menu is ambitious and successful. Items change with remarkable frequency, which is generally the mark of a creative chef who prefers to work with available fresh ingredients. This is certainly true of Chef Guiliano, whose menu proclaims, "We proudly support local farmers and their produce," and whose New England roots have given him a penchant for fresh seafood (lobster, crab cakes, salmon, skate and scallops have been featured lately) seldom seen in our landlocked restaurants.
You could make a luscious meal of appetizers alone. The fricassee of wild mushrooms had the same sort of redolent beefy reduction that accompanied the filet mignon. The goat-cheese trio (also appearing this week on the lunch menu) offered plain, sun-dried tomato and herb (the herb detectives thought parsley and dill) goat cheeses on crostini, each creamy dollop draped with a piquant piece of roasted red pepper. Field greens in a lively vinaigrette balanced the colors and flavors on the plate.
A similar dish, the salad of fresh mozzarella, tomato and basil, was far less exciting. If you are torn between the two, go with the goat cheese. Two other salads, the Caesar and the Colorado salad, are also better choices. The Caesar was garlicky and full-bodied, with lots of cheese and anchovy flavors. It would have been even better had our waitress offered some freshly ground pepper. The Colorado salad was made the clear winner in the salad sweepstakes by its lavender-honey vinaigrette. Walter's should take a cue from Gertrude's and bottle its vinaigrette.
We tried both soups, a Maine lobster bisque, which was rich without being overwhelming and hinted of paprika, and a cream of five onion soup, which was heavenly. Chives, scallions, Vidalia, white and green onions blend in a base as creamy and full-bodied as a potato soup. Do not pass this soup by.
In a menu with as many entrees as Walter's, there are bound to be a couple of minor disappointments. On one occasion, the trout's presentation was as bland as its flavor. Though buttery and lightly breaded, when served over orzo, it became too much of a grandmotherly meal -- suitable for picky palates and delicate systems. It especially paled in comparison with the filet mignon with its robust Cabernet sauce, and with the pan-roasted pork tenderloin, which was served over a bed of blue-cheese spaetzle and savoy cabbage. The latter sounds like something you'd put together on a dare, but it worked. My mouth is still singing.
The surprise entree hit was the grilled chicken served in a roasted garlic cream sauce with fresh spinach and, on one occasion, organic Colorado potatoes, and on the other, polenta. The polenta made the overall dish a little more interesting, but both times, the chicken was fabulous, delicate and succulent, a flavorful elevation of fowl to a new level.
The Colorado bass (described by our waitress as a victory of aquacultural breeding -- sea bass with freshwater bass -- but I think she was making it up) was perfectly cooked, melt-in-your-mouth sweet, and served over a pilaf that could have been even better with a little more quinoa with the rice. Circling the plate were broccoli flowerets and fresh green beans thin enough to pick a lock, and perfectly steamed. You will eat all your vegetables at Walter's.
You will also eat all your dessert, especially if you order the crme vanille, a panecotta served with poached fruits; seasonal berries with crme Anglais; or, if you've been very, very good, the chocolate gateau. Such ecstasy can be yours for around $5.
The wine list is arranged by type and body, and includes more bottles under $30 than bottles over $40. California and Oregon wines predominate, with representation from Italy and France. All in all, it's a very solid little list from which you should have no trouble finding a bottle to accompany whatever you decide to eat. My only quibble is the lack of half-bottles and the limited range of wines by the glass.
Food prices are as reasonable as the wine prices, given the caliber of what you'll eat. Appetizers range from $6.50 (for the goat-cheese trio) to $9.95 for a seared duck breast with apple salad, curry crme frache and cilantro oil (doesn't that sound fabulous?). Soups and salads range from $3.25 to $6.50, and entrees from $11.95 for the orecchiette pasta to $25.95 for the filet mignon. Twice as many are under $20 than are over $20. A night out will dent the credit card a bit, but it will be worth it.
Many of the dinner items (including the only two vegetarian entrees -- a pasta dish with eggplant and smoked mozzarella, and portobello Wellington) appear on the lunch menu. Lunch being lunch, the menu features lighter fare, more bistro cooking, actually: more salads, ragouts, risotto, pizzas, bruschetta and sandwiches. Business has been lively, so maybe the loyal diners who followed Walter from the Garden of the Gods Club will return and create their own atmosphere. The momentum has already begun.