There's the marvelous Southwestern Art Deco architecture and the most stunning patio-view in the city, yet for all its charms, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center's dining space has remained a revolving door in recent memory.
Once The Food Designers held the contract. Then Picnic Basket. Then Garden of the Gods Gourmet, operating Café 36. Then all three as "preferred caterers." For another stint, we saw the chef-driven concept Amuzé at the FAC. When the facility last transitioned from GOGG in 2010, then-owner Sandra Vanderstoep said the "terms and conditions they were asking to change made it impossible for me to say yes and stay profitable."
But a new day has dawned under FAC CEO David Dahlin, and GOGG has undergone sweeping changes as well with incoming CEO Mitchell Yellen, who signed an exclusive FAC contract this past May for what's now called Taste.
That's on the heels of the $12.5 million construction of Pinery at the Hill in 2013, GOGG's $1.5 million build-out on Highway 24 last year and an exclusive catering contract with the Olympic Training Center this year. And it's ahead of the $11.5 million, 17,000-square-foot restaurant/market expansion onto the Powers Boulevard corridor, which breaks ground next month for a tentative May 2016 opening. Yellen envisions six more locations in-state, and is also touting a new GOGG training arm called Altitude Hospitality.
As I said in my review a year ago, pricey plates have not deterred diners from mobbing GOGG's 92 seats plus pastry/juice bar and Colorado-centric retail market. As they've consistently done in the past, chefs Amy Fairbanks and Larissa Vendola nail a Napa-inspired, fresh mix that's increasingly farm-to-table. (They designed and oversee Taste's menu from afar.) Yellen's proud to claim 90 percent GMO-free sourcing and maintains he's more motivated by quality than money, echoing his familiar refrain about never being satisfied and always striving to be better.
The good news for him is that Taste, although delightful overall, does leave room for improvement. The gut-punch ahead of Altitude Hospitality is that much of that improvement is needed on the service side, mainly with product knowledge. The staff was at least friendly enough to concede that they didn't know answers, openly consult recipe guides in the case of our exhibit-tied Georgia O'Keeffe-inspired cocktails, and perform the always-wise go-ask-the-kitchen maneuver otherwise.
Though Taste is a couple months in, our visit felt like it was everyone's first day. I had to hide my menu after three attempts inside of 10 minutes to clear it, despite my request to hang onto it for future drink and dessert ordering.
Obsequious attention can be as bad as vaporous. And side query: Who closes on Wednesdays only? It's a blip in consistency to surprise those (like me) who, midweek, don't think to check hours on the website before venturing.
Anyway, those cocktails — a fair $6 to $8 on a menu otherwise requiring $9 to $17 for an entrée — are overly reliant on St. Germain elderflower liqueur and generally a petal short of a blossoming flower when it comes to balance. Lavender syrup is nice in the margarita though; a Malbec finish is oddly interesting in a stiff Wild Turkey and OJ sour; tarragon and bitter grapefruit work with cucumber vodka; but gin and Champagne clash with lemon, strawberry and the St. Germain for a sour, tart mess in the Lady Flower.
The launching menu, which Yellen says will grow by several items soon, commendably manages to squeeze two vegetarian and four gluten-free choices into just a dozen options. The house veggie burger — sweet potato, quinoa, black beans, sunflower seeds and kale — served over red pepper vinaigrette greens as a salad (making it vegan) actually proved our favorite plate, bursting with brightness. So much brightness, factoring garnishing accouterments, that still hours later we could taste raw onion in our mouths. (Squirrels fell out of nearby trees when I burped.)
Though fries are crispy and killer with Sriracha aioli dip, the $12.50 basic burger on brioche is easily bested for less at Bingo Burger or Skirted Heifer nearby. Better and still pricier is The Brooklyn: two sliders of buffalo pastrami, cheddar, mustard and sauerkraut on a lovely pretzel bun. Daily specials range from a perfect, flaky-crusted Cotija (mild Mexican cow milk cheese) and pork belly quiche to watery and unmemorable pork green chile soup and a pretentiously meager $6 "melon salad" composed of a couple sliced fingerling potatoes, four chorizo slivers, three Manchego slivers and a couple cantaloupe squares, all oil drizzled with tarragon garnish.
A like-priced coffee ganache brownie is great but smaller than the scoop of accompanying vanilla gelato, which is $4 on its own, as is sorbet like a zesty lime with faint coconut finish.
All the frills certainly match the setting, but before the empire expands, GOGG needs to ensure final execution uniformly reigns as critical as composition — just as the finest flowers are sweetly fragrant, beyond pretty to look at.