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HEAD FOR THE HILLS

It's hard to imagine, but as recently as a hundred years ago, no one but a few goats and some crazy rugged individualists cared much for traveling into the mountains. Hey, who could blame them? You either had to pack in your own food, live on berries--or kill your dinner.

Things have gotten a little easier since then.
Particularly at Gold Lake Ranch, a former miners' retreat built in 1937 that, after many years as a boys' camp and a conference center, opened to the public last summer, offering accommodations in quaint cabins ($55 a night, including breakfast) and dinner in its Bearberry restaurant. The ranch itself, set far back behind the unlikely town of Ward (be prepared for three long miles of washboard dirt road), rests comfortably in the mountains, boasts a small lake negotiable by paddleboat and features a laid-back atmosphere where dogs and cats are welcome and people party all the time--between attempts at tennis, horseback riding and canoeing. Sort of Woodstock meets the Catskills.

Then it's time for dinner--and suddenly, you could be at a place like Cliff Young's. The change in atmosphere isn't all that peculiar, actually, since chef d'ranch Ken Moody and proprietors Bert Gehorsam and Lisa Smith are all veterans of that restaurant. They say they don't think Bearberry's six-entree menu is too limited or its prices too prohibitive (one dish costs $16; the rest range up to $24), but then, the ranch's overnight guests are pretty much a captive market. (The restaurant is open to nonguests at dinner, too.) Since the nearest eating alternative is the Mill Site Inn, a pizza-and-burger joint closer to Ward, I'm guessing that most people make Gold Lake a weekend destination or bring a few items to throw on the ranch's grills (no refrigerators in the cabins, though): You couldn't eat off this menu for a week without repeating yourself, much less putting a major dent in your bank account.

Not that Bearberry's isn't worth the price of admission. On the contrary, the food is quite good. But the elegant, expensive cuisine does seem at odds with the ranch's casual setup.

Still, we were able to overlook any incongruities as we sank into oversize twig furniture (the dining room looks like it was imported from the Ponderosa) and concentrated on our meal. We started with a honey-smoked trout timbale ($6.50), a light, fluffy mound of shredded fish placed atop an artichoke fennel salad and dotted with salmon caviar. The trout was succulent and the presentation lovely, but the mustard both in the timbale and drizzled around it obliterated any flavor but artichoke. The green-lip mussels (given to us gratis after the chef discovered he had only a partial order left) were a more cohesive combination. Despite apparently being left over from the weekend, the mussels held their own; the shellfish had been steamed in a rich, sun-dried-tomato broth touched with chardonnay that was great sopped up with Bearberry's fresh baked goods--a light wheat bread, a green-chile-studded biscuit and rolls flecked with cinnamon and currants.

The kitchen's culinary skill (if not its generosity) was again evident in the roasted Colorado lamb loin ($24), a miserly serving of six thin slices of succulent lamb crested over a smallish pile of mashed sweet potatoes mixed with apples, all of which sat on a pool of thick, saucy, rosemary-scented merlot butter. Although "chitlins" had been listed as part of the entree, only four matchstick-size pieces of lamb chitterlings were sprinkled over the plate. The dish's flavors were superb, but its size was better suited to an afternoon of bridge than to a day at the ranch.

Our second entree more than bridged the hunger gap, however. The aged Black Angus steak ($18.50 for ten ounces) was even larger than promised and arrived splendidly rare, as I had requested. The steak itself was first-rate, and the accompanying corn, black bean and tomato salsa, lathered with creamy goat cheese, was a filling portion that nicely complemented the musky meat. After the fancy entrees, the desserts were surprisingly low-key but still satisfying. The blackberry cheesecake, while fudging a bit on the blackberries (there were exactly two in our slice), was an absolute feather pillow of cheese. And the chocolate pecan pie ($4.50), while a little heavy on the chocolate and short of pecans, was so good that we scraped the plate.

You won't find such high-falutin' food at the down-to-earth Gold Hill Inn, in Sunshine Canyon outside of Boulder. The quaint dining room, with its mismatched chairs and tables and boardinghouse feel, is part of a two-building package that includes the Bluebird Lodge; the lodge (where you can stay for $45 a night) was built in 1872, the inn in 1925. Until the Fifties, they were owned by a group of women from Chicago who came to the mountains to bird-watch; Frank and Barbara Finn bought both places in 1962. Their sons Brian and Chris took over fifteen years ago, continuing the tradition of a six-course, fixed-price meal (the tab is now $21.50) with a changing roster of five or six entrees.

Our meal began as Gold Hill dinners have since the elder Finns' time: with a honey-laced bread baked from white and wheat flours, each individual loaf served with a dish of strawberry-rhubarb jam. Next came the appetizer--only one is offered each day, and this time it was a truly appetite-whetting square of bruschetta covered with shreds of smoked salmon, feta crumbles, black olives and a light pesto. That was the fanciest thing we encountered during our meal, except for the overpowering strawberry vinaigrette that came on one of our salads. A better choice was the dressing called "Casey's," which the maitre d' described as their version of Caesar. (The only menu is written on a blackboard outside the dining room.) Although we never figured out the connection between Casey and Caesar, his/her dressing was creamy and mild and went well with the toss of greens, tomatoes, cucumbers and honey-wheat-bread croutons.

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