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The Balcony Challenge

The ups and downs of dining al fresco at the Fine Arts Center



Most of us eat at restaurants without ever thinking about -- much less seeing -- the kitchen space in which our marvelous meals are made. We assume commercial kitchens are grander, better equipped, more strategically arranged than any domestic kitchen. They'd have to be, given the variety and volume of what they produce. Right?

Not necessarily. Consider the Fine Arts Center's Balcony Restaurant, run this year by the Dale Street Caf. There is a small kitchen nearby but because it isn't licensed for commercial use, it can only be used for re-heating food.

Despite this significant constraint, many of Colorado Springs' more interesting and innovative chefs have risen to The Balcony Challenge for one or more seasons. The Warehouse Restaurant and Blue Star have been the most recent restaurants to open a seasonal branch at the Balcony. Prior to that, the Food Designers Fine Catering ran it for a record five summers. Years earlier, the Picnic Basket spent several of their early catering years at the Balcony.

It is significant that caterers have a longer stay at the Balcony than do restaurateurs. Caterers are, as Kathy Dreiling at the Picnic Basket says, "nomadic." They are used to designing moveable feasts -- and then moving them. And that is the defining challenge at the Balcony: Food can neither be stored nor prepared on site.

Why would anyone want to tackle such a project? Probably because it is such a lovely spot -- overlooking Monument Valley Park with spectacular views westward -- that a restaurant ought to do a booming business. Ah, but that's where the secondary challenges appear.

The Balcony Restaurant is seasonal, making it difficult to develop a regular clientele. Plus potential diners might have conflicting objectives: Downtown working people want a quick bite while Arts Center docents and members might be more inclined to linger away the hours. It's tough to gauge the speed of service to please both extremes.

And then there's the menu. It must be simple enough to transport each day and innovative enough to bring diners back. The Food Designers built its menu around the nearby paintings, a clever and creative ploy. Their presentations were as colorful and delicate as the artwork on the walls.

The folks at Dale Street Caf have taken a simpler approach, investing less in presentation than their predecessors. The menu is basic -- soup, salads and sandwiches -- but broad enough to appeal to varied tastes. There are three salads available, all generously sized. Salad Nicoise, the least expensive at $8.50, was a mound of greens, tuna, green beans, hard-boiled eggs, Kalamata olives, tomatoes and potato salad. With the exception of the tuna, which had a nice flavor, the rest of the salad was a little bland. The Chicken Caesar Salad ($9.50) was delicious and also tumbling off its plate. (Larger plates or smaller portions are in order here.)

Although we didn't sample it, the Poached Salmon Salad looked terrific. There's something about raspberry vinaigrette on a piece of rich salmon that seems a perfect marriage of flavors. And judging from the way the folks at the table next to us tucked into it, it tasted as good as it looked. At $12.50, this is the priciest item on the menu, but money well spent.

We were hard-pressed to select a sandwich; all four (priced at $9.25) sounded delicious. Should it be the Muffalatta -- ham and provolone topped with an olive tapenade? Lemon Sesame Teriyaki Chicken? Roast beef with cheddar and tangy horseradish-mayonnaise? As tempted as we were by these, we chose the Grilled Portabello Mushroom sandwich. It was, like the salads, a more-than-adequate serving with layers of Portabello, provolone cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion and a tangy red pepper hummus. My only quibble was with the bread. Sandwiches come on a soft white bread baked daily at Dale Street. These sandwiches would be even better on a crusty baguette.

All sandwiches come with a pasta salad that either doesn't travel well or shouldn't have been allowed out of the house to begin with. It lacked any noticeable dressing and, although it had been heavily doused with dried herbs, the seasoning added more texture than flavor to the salad. Pasta salad can be so simple or so dreadful; in this case, there's lots of room for improvement.

Coffee, tea and soda are the drink options; berries or cheesecake with berries were the desserts when we were there. Remember, everything on the menu had to be brought in that morning, all but ready to serve.

What's to be done then? Far be it from me to lecture the Fine Arts Center, but how about a permanent restaurant on the premises? Do what needs to be done to get licensed as a commercial kitchen (although I'm not enough of a Pollyanna to think this would be easy or inexpensive) and have a year-round eatery. Serve on the balcony when the weather's fine. We are so eager to dine al fresco, tables share curbside space with car bumpers along Tejon Street. Think how much lovelier it is to dine on a shaded balcony over expansive lawns. And how much yummier it would be if the chefs had a kitchen to cook in.

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