A Prize Inside
In Breakfast at Tiffany's, the characters played by Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard stop by the venerable jewelry store to ask if a ring from a Cracker Jack box can be engraved as a gift from him to her. The stately, stuffy gentleman behind the counter looks the ring over and gets all misty. "They still have prizes in Cracker Jack boxes, do they?" he asks. "That's good to know. It gives one a sense of continuity, of connecting with the past, that sort of thing."
These days, the list of things that can be counted on from year to year gets shorter and shorter. Beloved historic buildings are razed for parking lots, steadfast authors run out of steam, decades-old Broadway shows call it quits. Snow skips a season. Cracker Jack is purchased by Frito-Lay. Heck, you can't even depend on an election to decide who's going to run the country.
But there are some pockets of reliability. The Nuggets still stink. Madonna keeps making music that sells. Employees at daily newspapers are eternally miserable. Stores insist on playing White Christmas way too much during the holidays. And The Briarwood Inn continues to be a citadel of warm hospitality, dining elegance and culinary classics.
Although Reid Pasko opened the Briarwood back in 1979, you can probably count on one hand the number of people now working at this elegant Golden eatery who weren't there in the beginning. General manager Lynn Ramondo came on board twenty years ago, and while she should get much of the credit for the impeccable service --flawless, really, the kind of unobtrusive table waiting that gets the job done with sincerity, warmth and a professional attitude -- she passes the credit on to the staffers. "I hire them, and I've trained some of them, but the way we work it here, the new servers are trained by the veterans," she explains.
The system works remarkably well. So does the Briarwood's atmosphere. It's homey but elegant, with three dining rooms lined with pieces of dark wood furniture that you only wish your grandma would leave you: credenzas and breakfronts, hutches and curios, all stocked with the Briarwood's old-style china (Villeroy & Boch) that, along with real silver, is used to set the tables formally. Right now the dining rooms are also decked with boughs of holly and other holiday trappings, so sitting down for dinner here feels like you're dining on the set of The Nutcracker. The chairs are soft, the tables are spaced far enough apart that your conversation isn't everyone's conversation, and the lighting is diffused and inviting, low enough for intimacy but not so low you can't tell what your date looks like.
And you'll want a date to bring you to the Briarwood, because all of this opulence doesn't come cheap. But at least the whopping entree price includes the restaurant's trademark appetizer and dessert trays -- and the lazy Susan filled with starters arrived at our table before we did, so we didn't waste a minute. Or a bite: A dozen large, chilled Gulf shrimp, charmingly arranged tail up around a mound of shaved ice, topped the assortment; below were compartments filled with a rich duck and chicken-liver pate, a savory salad of marinated vegetables, a port-spiked cheddar cheese, a mousseline of spinach and water chestnuts, and smoked salmon butter -- our favorite. A basket of focaccia, rolls and lahvosh came with the appetizers, and the breads proved the ideal transportation system for the mostly spreadable array.
That's it for starters at the Briarwood; the menu doesn't include any trendy calamari, escargot or carpaccio. But we didn't need anything more, not when our next course was a spinach or "vinaigrette" salad. The former consisted of fresh spinach leaves tossed with caramelized onions, mandarin oranges, sliced button mushrooms and bacon bits, all slicked with a hot bacon dressing that boasted a good balance between sweet and sour. The "vinaigrette" turned out to be romaine tossed with feta, shredded red cabbage and black olives in a Mediterranean-style (plenty of oregano and garlic) dressing.
And then, the main event: the sort of rich, traditional entrees that could have been offered back in 1979. Heck, Hepburn and Peppard could have been eating these dishes in New York between Tiffany takes. Executive chef Tom Morris has been cooking at the Briarwood for two decades, and although he's made some minor changes in the recipes and the menu over the years, these were classics you could count on.
The filet Wellington was a delectable Christmas package of pastry-wrapped beef filet sandwiched with duxelles, the French concoction that calls for sautéeing minced mushrooms and shallots in butter and then mixing them with cream. Morris's version had been cooked down thicker than is customary, which made for a concentrated mushroom flavor and a foie gras-like consistency. While this denser texture might have been a problem for a less juicy piece of meat -- the satiny-textured beef was cooked a perfect medium-rare -- or a heavier pastry, this crust was thin and flaky, and a textbook Bordelaise sauce kept the package moist. A traditional brown sauce made from shallots, red wine and bone marrow, Bordelaise requires extra effort and a commitment to the final product that few modern restaurants are willing to make. Some cooks might even say the sauce is archaic, and that a lighter, more contemporary creation would work better. But in fact, the Bordelaise served as an excellent example of why the Briarwood deserves its fine reputation. The sauce was so smooth, so glossy and rich, with a slight meaty undertone and a dense, faintly grapey sweetness, that it was truly intoxicating. Escoffier himself must have been looking over Morris's shoulder when he made it.
And Escoffier apparently decided to hang around the kitchen awhile, because the rest of the entrees were just as commendable. The exquisite rack of Colorado lamb had been cut so that a thin ring of fat protected each chop, and then cooked just barely medium; it arrived atop pan juices thickened with Grey Poupon and mellowed with well-roasted garlic. A whole Rocky Mountain rainbow trout had been pan-fried until crispy on the outside and velvety tender inside, then topped with buttery sautéed shrimp, bay scallops and crabmeat, all draped in a hollandaise so sweet that it clearly had been made with a high-quality butter. Butter is the key to great hollandaise; lemon juice is added to heighten the creamy butter flavor, not to create a lemon sauce. But Morris also understands lighter sauces, as evidenced by the seafood au gratin. Lobster, crabmeat, bay scallops and shrimp had been sautéed, then mixed with cream thickened with Swiss cheese and enhanced with sherry. The trick here was to make the sauce taste heavy without actually giving the diner a heart attack; a nutty-flavored sherry was Morris's secret weapon.
After all that, the waiter brought a cake stand overflowing with fresh grapes and blueberries, along with thick slices of macadamia-packed brownies and bananas coated with toasted coconut. Although you can also order the classically prepared, absolutely perfect chocolate mousse or a surprisingly stunning peach sorbet, the generous dessert tray was really all we needed to wrap up a gorgeous meal.
You can count on finding not just crackerjack service, but a prize meal at the Briarwood.
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