There's a new standard of excellence in our little town set by Chef Paul Jensen at Old City. Opened in 1999 as Old City Cafe, the restaurant suffered some growing pains and identity issues. First a breakfast and lunch locale, then extending into bistro-style evenings, Old City's menu and hours seemed to change with the seasons. Things have settled down nicely under Chef Paul; "Cafe" has been dropped from the name and a confident sophistication has taken over the menu.
Now concentrating on lunch and dinner (with a special brunch menu and hours on Sunday), Old City's slant on food defies categorization. Pan-Asian? Well, there is that Trio of Egg Rolls appetizer and the ginger-infused Ahi. Mediterranean? Sure, with the Scallops Provenal, the grilled asparagus accompaniment and the gazpacho starter, as well as the risottos and Chef Paul's masterful use of flavors like thyme, lavender and lemon. But just when you think you've got Old City defined, it transcends expectations: Fried Calamari is coated in a coconut batter; where other restaurants have crab cakes, Old City offers smoked trout cakes; and Caesar salad here takes a tangy turn toward a cheesy garlic vinaigrette.
This is a menu that begs to be eaten. Our choices were difficult. We took the easy way out and started with the Appetizer Plate for Two ($17) that allowed a sampling of four appetizers. If God is in the details, this dish is heading for its heavenly reward. Two delicate raviolis dabbled with a smoked Gouda and artichoke puree; some of the pan-fried trout cakes with a lovely corn and pepper salsa; calamari; and morsels of the egg rolls that were so good we ordered the Trio of Egg Rolls as well. As with almost everything we tried, the accompanying sauces showed the extra effort and talent that take a typical dish into the realm of the ideal. The egg rolls came with the yin and yang of a sweet thick plum sauce and a horseradish dipping sauce. (These starters can be ordered separately for $6 to $8.)
The menu will change regularly so get in soon before the Lobster Tart Gratinee entree vanishes. As tempted as you might be by other options like the grilled Colorado lamb chops with lavender infused potatoes (raves all around for this dish), baked Arctic Char with Citrus Tarragon Sauce or the Lemon-Thyme Brined Chicken with White Truffle Oil Risotto, none can surpass the Lobster Tart -- a brilliant construct of layers of finely sliced vegetables and chunks of lobster meat suffused with a smoked Gouda sauce flavored with hints of cardamom.
The other entrees we sampled (ranging from $15 to $25) came with the same gorgeous presentation and innovative blend of colors, tastes and textures. Even a dish as traditional as a New York strip steak transcends the typical. It came sliced and fanned over a deep red Beet and Potato Dauphinoise and topped with a fragrant dollop of spinach. The Scallops Provenal balanced its tomato topping with saffron rice and grilled asparagus spritzed with lemon.
Desserts come proffered on a silver tray by a server intent on ruining any resolve you might have to avoid sweets. We highly recommend the coconut cheesecake baked not with a crust but over a ring of pineapple. It was like a pia colada on a fork. The crme brle was gone in a nanosecond. Pay close attention to that silver tray.
Lunch offers interesting items ($7 to $11) seldom seen on local menus. Amidst the buffalo burgers, the Reubens, and the club and steak sandwiches, are a Grilled Vegetable Club with a strawberry-Camembert spread, and a Buffalo Meatloaf Melt. A smoked chicken BLT comes on toasted challah bread; the signature Spinach and Frisee salad can be bulked up with the addition of grilled chicken, calamari, seared tuna or Arctic Char. Meat lovers might enjoy the chipotle glazed short ribs; vegetarians have some tempting choices. A caramelized onion and tomato tart, also available at Sunday Brunch, is sweetly delicious although our serving had a disappointingly mushy crust.
Brunch-goers will see the usual suspects Eggs Benedict, Breakfast Burrito, omelets -- and some new faces: Belgian Waffles or oatmeal served with dried cranberries and raisins. Whatever you order, consider the addition of a cinnamon roll and a Bloody Mary. The former will come warmed (in an oven, not a microwave), soft and just sweet enough -- no overloading the glaze to disguise bready dough; these rolls could float away. And the Bloody Mary will be the biggest and spiciest of your life. Sit near one of the floor-to-ceiling storefront windows and bask in the sunlight. Relax into the comfortable seats and let the warm colors of the room -- aubergine, creamy yellow and green -- soothe you.
A word about service: If you're in a rush, let your server know. The assumption otherwise is that you're there to enjoy a leisurely meal. Servers are attentive but service is slowly paced, a tough concept for many people to grasp, much less appreciate. And that's a pity because Old City is a place to slow down and savor.