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.
137 South Main Street, Breckenridge
Hours: 5-9:30 p.m. daily
Soup du jour: $6.50 Carpaccio: $10 Pork ravioli: $9 Roasted half chicken: $20 Veal meatloaf: $21
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.
Fackler and his crew do a different soup every day, changing it the way responsible cooks should: running out leftovers, making best use of yesterday's stock so that nothing goes to waste. In some places, this practice is frightening (why would I want yesterday's product when I could have today's?), but not here. A cream soup of smoked fish and buttery, soft, roasted sweet potato, built from the ground up with a French mirepoix and topped with chive sticks, was delicious — the fish tender, not at all oily, and the cream base richly seasoned, thick as a chowder. I scraped the bowl, mopping at it with hunks of good bread still warm from the basket on the table. Then came a Kurobuta pork shoulder ravioli, fried, topped with sharp cheddar and a sauce of green pear and brown butter. It was so stunning that after the first bite, I stopped eating long enough to consider just how much thought, planning, training, practice and talent can sometimes go into the creation of a single dish. Handmade ravioli, slow-cooked and shredded pork dosed with chile pepper, the balance of pear and sharp cheese (classical, but rarely employed) — this was a masterwork, a perfect example of inspiration and ingredients coming together in the service of the diner, creating something so much better than the sum of its parts.
A server stopped by the table, asked us how we liked it. We stammered, almost breathless, as we told her how amazing the ravioli was. "You're the first people I've seen order it," she said. "It looks good."
She had no idea.
The special that night was ruby red trout, crusted in almonds and served over goat cheese polenta. Or sheep's milk cheese polenta. Or sheep's milk goat cheese polenta. It all depended on which server you had, since the staff was still trying to get their heads around the new board. I heard the fruits de mer salad (crab and shrimp and other sea critters in mayonnaise, served inside half an avocado) described as a fruit salad with fish, and the carpaccio (which had remained on the board) described as seared. The kitchen never tripped up, though. Two days in, and the crew seemed to have been banging out this menu for months, years — every presentation identical, every plate balanced. I'd say it was just short of miraculous, if not for the fact that our server told us that Fackler had been working on the change for weeks — tinkering, trying this with that and that with this. The staff tasting had just been a final rehearsal: two hours of non-stop courses before a weekday rollout.
The smoked and fried chicken had been replaced with whole roasted chicken, the skin rubbed down with coarse grain mustard, served swimming over a sausage-and-bean ragout in thin, savory broth that tasted like cassoulet turned into soup. There were piles of mandoline-shredded autumn squash demarcating the four cardinal compass points of the plate, bleeding sugar and butter as though mortally wounded. Fall squash are sweeter, richer than their earlier cousins. Summer? You grill or sautee 'em and throw 'em on the plate, knowing that not one customer in ten will take more than a courtesy bite. Autumn squash, though, is like gold, like vegetables made of pure, savory sugar.
The only marginal failure of the night was a holdover from the previous menu: veal meatloaf with goat-cheese mac-and-cheese and sausage gravy. Ugly, lumpy and soft, the meatloaf looked like a baseball mounted over a mini-casserole. None of the flavors stood up on their own — the delicate flavor of veal washed out by the sausage gravy, texture wrecked by the grinding, the mac-and-cheese rich and greasy with leaked veal fat — but neither did they come together into an elevated whole. I can understand why Fackler keeps this dish on the board (it's meatloaf, after all, and meatloaf sells), but it fell flat for me.
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The kitchen recovered with dessert, though: an exquisite tarte tatin with maple sugar ice cream and homemade caramel, and a revelatory gelato. We asked our waitress what flavor it was. "Cupcake," she said.
She wasn't lying. White and decorated with sprinkles, it tasted exactly, amazingly, like a cupcake — a cold, melty, frozen cupcake. For the life of me, I couldn't figure out how Relish had done it; I only knew that I wanted more.
Which, all things considered, is a good way for any restaurant to leave a customer feeling. One of the greatest strengths of Fackler's kitchen is its ability, through change and a careful balancing of product and desire, to send a person home always wanting a little bit more.
Even before he's had a single bite.