By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
Lemon-braised artichoke with roasted garlic herb butter. Venison carpaccio with Humboldt Fog blue cheese, organic olive oil and black pepper. Steak Diane with truffled garlic mashed potatoes, and a New York strip with white cheddar sweet-potato fries. There was also a quote/unquote Niçoise — a loose chef's interpretation with Colorado bibb lettuce and asparagus, egg and roasted baby potatoes, olive tapenade and grilled fish du jour. And chicken fingers (for lack of a better term), smoked and fried and served with summer sweet corn and blue crab risotto and grilled squash.
I actually felt my knees go a little weak when I read that one. Standing right there on the sidewalk, about to go into a swoon.
Only one problem: Relish wasn't open. We were stuck with just the menu, locked inside a glass case by the door.
We'd found ourselves in Breckenridge almost accidentally — Laura driving, blue-routing it, randomly taking passes through the mountains, winding up and down roads whose beauty was surpassed only by their danger: a lane and a half of dirt and dust or crumbling pavement; precipitous drops into wooded vales, rushing water or, sometimes, just air. I was starving. Laura was starving. Because I don't ski and have no particular love for T-shirt stores or year-round Christmas shops, this was the first time I'd been to Breckenridge. It was like Boulder with all the hippies and college students replaced by day-tripping foreign tourists gabbing away in a dozen languages and sidewalk-stalking yuppies complaining about the crowds, all the head shops and toy stores swapped out for different toy stores, different head shops and a thousand real-estate offices.
Lovely, though. Cool and beautiful and clean. But as a stranger, I had no idea where to eat beyond Relish. And it was closed.
I cursed under my breath, craned my neck to look at the second-floor deck, hoping for...I don't know. A miracle. A sudden decision by the staff to just show up and open the restaurant for a hungry critic looking for Niçoise salad and carpaccio.
"What now?" Laura asked.
We went to Starbucks, bought a bag of scones and half-stale muffins full of palm oil and gooey blueberries, then drove home — down the mountain the fast way, stopping only long enough to pick up a pizza that we ate in the car.
Relish's menu hung with me, though. Something about its balance, its poetry and promise. The tag line — Colorado Inspired Cuisine — was a three-word summation of the trend starting to break through with some of the area's more forward-thinking chefs who've discovered the power of place and the evocative strength of the seasons: California cuisine gone regional, the outflow of revolution from St. Alice's back yard to the middle and mountain West. Not dogmatic, Colorado-only cuisine (which would be Mexican, melons and steak, I guess), but cuisine inspired by the land, the tastes of the people living on it, the flavors of product taken from it. Sweet corn risotto, grilled squash, chicken fingers and Colorado bibb: This was Relish chef/owner Matt Fackler's summer menu, Colorado-inspired, not bound, making (presumably) best use of whatever he could lay his hands on, bringing a distinctly nouvelle bent to regional Americana.
Trained at the CIA in Hyde Park, Fackler is no green schoolboy, having done fifteen years of journeyman time (peripatetic line work in Nantucket, North Carolina, Chicago and Florida) before wandering into Colorado. Two years ago, he was head chef at the Ski Tip Lodge at Keystone when he and his wife, Lisa, decided to take on the space that would be Relish. Fackler has been in Breck more than ten years — enough time to get a handle on Colorado, on the flavors that define it and the availability of stock. He also has the transplant's zeal — the sure knowledge that the place he has come to is better than what he left. And he expresses it fully on Relish's menu.
But would it translate to the plate? It would take a while before I knew for sure — until autumn's first weekend and another long ride up the mountain.
This time, I'd checked to make certain Relish would be open. We went inside, were seated at a table with a view of the mountains — first flaring golds of the aspens changing and a storm coddling the peak, bringing a dusting of snow — and then the waitress informed us that the menu had just changed. I hadn't realized that the very dawn of the new season would be when Fackler would get it in his head to amend the menu I'd lusted over — an equinox switch, beating the temperatures for sure, even most of the leaves in their change.
Niçoise gone. Steak Diane gone. Chicken fingers, smoked and fried, with the sweet corn and crab risotto? Gone, replaced by something with fall flavors, textures, the last flowering, rich harvest vegetables and fruits before the heaviness of winter descends. The new menu had been introduced just two days before, and while there'd been tastings for the staff, not everyone had attended. We would spend the next two hours being quizzed by passing servers, asked how we liked this, what was in that — a weird inversion of roles but almost welcome, because so much of the menu was so good that we couldn't stop talking about it anyway.