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A Gift for You

Walking into Paul's Creekside Grill at the Inn at Silver Creek was a little like opening a gift wrapped in the funny pages and tied with a shoelace. The package was cute, but I didn't have high hopes for what might be inside.

But despite the strange setup, Paul's is a gift to treasure: From my first bite, it became clear that this could be one of the best restaurants in the state.

Paul's, which sits in the Inn two miles from Silver Creek Ski Resort, has an odd fishbowl feel, since diners are always under the curious gaze of passersby who can look down on them from the hotel balcony above. And the casual grill decor would be more at home in Miami than in the mountains: formica tables and green chairs, with striped tumblers to match. But the food would be welcome anywhere. Paul's dishes have so much flavor, so much flair, that I could have eaten everything on the menu in one sitting and still have wanted more. (And been able to pay for it, since Paul's prices are low not just by ski resort standards, but by Denver standards.)

The colorful, savory fare comes courtesy of executive chef Seth Daugherty, who arrived at Paul's last year with two broken legs and an impressive resume. The former sous chef and saucier for the prestigious Le Bernardin in New York--which earned four stars from the New York Times and was named New York's best restaurant by Zagat during his tenure--had been looking to move back to Colorado, where he'd once worked at The Charter in Beaver Creek. After a skiing accident put him in a wheelchair for a few months, he came on board at Paul's. "Seth was pretty limited in what he could do at that time," says restaurant owner Paul Streiter. "He came in as the pastry chef, and then in September, when our chef left and Seth's legs were healed, he moved into the executive spot. And he and I have clicked real well ever since."

Even before Daugherty joined up, though, Streiter had worked some magic of his own on a space that had been in foreclosure for seven years. "When the Inn at Silver Creek was designed in the early Eighties, it was all condominium-ized, and a group of bigwig hustler kind of guys owned the hotel," Streiter explains. "These guys went under--they had all these fuzzy land deals going--and the homeowners' association that owned the condos bought the restaurant out of foreclosure two years ago. They wanted someone to operate the restaurant and the bar and take over the banquet operations, and I'd been at the Grand Lake Lodge for nine years. I was looking for a challenge."

He found it. Drawing on his experience at the lodge, as well as his degree from the Culinary Institute of America and time spent at the Waldorf-Astoria, Streiter turned the space he leased from the hotel into a casual spot that would fit in with the value-oriented ski resort down the road but still offer extraordinary food. All he needed to complete the picture was a great chef--which he found in Daugherty. Since both men had some New York in them (Daugherty is also a CIA grad and a former sous chef and saucier for the Four Seasons Resort Hotels), they quickly found common ground. "We wanted to do a sort of California bistro that would have Asian influences," explains Streiter. "But everyone's doing that fusion thing, so I looked to Seth to come up with something different."

And with the help of his trusty sous chef, Joe Lavato, Daugherty certainly has. Take that first bite, for example. It was a spoonful of carrot and ginger soup ($3.50) that actually tasted like carrots and ginger. Essentially a carrot puree (see Mouthing Off for the recipe), the soup contained an uncommon amount of ginger, and the result was one of those winter comfort foods that feels like a curative. Another soup, the potato leek included with the entrees (you can get a salad instead), was just as unusual, with garlic bolstering the flavor quotient and crisply fried leek strands offering interesting texture against the creamy richness.

Like the soups, the rest of the starters were astonishing--both in taste and in their low prices. The roasted risotto cake with balsamic vinegar sauce ($4.50) was a simple but savvy pairing of a creamy-centered, crispy-shelled cake atop a bed of sauteed mushrooms awash with a sticky-sweet balsamic glaze. The supple, house-cured Norwegian salmon ($5.50) was another winner, the salmon strips soaked through with a soy-based liquid that carried over into the crunchy Asian vegetable slaw--a combination of just-cut julienned carrots, red peppers and green and yellow squashes that had just enough chile heat to bring the slaw alive without numbing our tongues and ruining the delicate salmon. A second house-cured salmon ($5.50), this one flavored with cilantro oil and carrot puree, came with another superb salad: seaweed mixed with sesame seeds and faintly sparked by chiles.

Daugherty clearly has a way with chiles, whose bite showed up in several of the dishes but never overpowered anything else. "Sugar is the secret," he later confided. "Throw a tiny bit in there, and it will mellow the chiles without taking away all their taste." Daugherty has one exception to this rule: the Thai noodle bowl with shrimp and tofu ($10.95) that's become his signature. The sauce was a heady, complex concoction of ginger, shallots, garlic, soy sauce, sesame oil, sweet Thai chile glaze, fish sauce, lemongrass, cilantro, lime leaves, ginger and habaneros. Daugherty says he places those last five ingredients in sachets that infuse the liquid base for one or two days; the sap that remains is then mixed with rice noodles, shrimp, Roma tomatoes, red pepper, zucchini, yellow squash, scallions, tofu, bean sprouts and roasted peanuts for a lush dish that made us weep--and not just because of the chiles.

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