In 1880, Denver welcomed Ulysses S. Grant to town, throwing a dinner rich in French technique and loaded with Colorado trout, pike, prairie chicken and snipe, as well as locally farmed produce and meats. Arcana chef Kyle Mendenhall, an advocate of Colorado cuisine, came across the event's original menu, printed on fabric, at the History Colorado Center, and decided to use it as a launching point for the restaurant's new Colorado Heritage Dinner series.
"It was one of the oldest menus I came across," the chef explains of his search through the museum's menu collection. "A lot of it had stuff that we're still doing here."
While Mendenhall admits that he's too busy to be a true history buff, he enjoys researching the history of food in Colorado as part of Arcana's ongoing mission. "We focus on three pillars: relationships, season and region, and heritage," he notes. "We're constantly looking to the past and respecting and using history. I wanted to feel like we're backing up the historical part."
While the original dinner prepared for Grant, who was the eighteenth president of the United States, from 1869 to 1877, covered multiple entrees, cold dishes, appetizers and desserts, Mendenhall is paring down his version, based on currently available ingredients, to keep the cost of the dinner reasonable. So there won't be turtle soup or prairie chicken, which is now a threatened species. But Arcana sources fish from Frontier Trout Ranch in Saguache, so he's looking forward to re-creating the "brook trout fried with rashers" from the original menu, noting that he doesn't often get the chance to match fish with bacon, which his team makes in-house.
"It won't be an exact replication, nor am I presenting it in a way that makes you feel like you're in 1880," Mendenhall says. He'd rather take the ideas and techniques from the period and present them for modern sensibilities than attempt to conjure an exact slice of the late nineteenth century. "That's the way I see the progress of food."
Also, he adds, "the quantity of items on the menu was pretty intense." In fact, it comprised two fish dishes, two soups, four entrees, four vegetable dishes, two game dishes, and fifteen separate desserts, along with beverage pairings for each course, something that Arcana will also attempt to reproduce. Here's Mendenhall's menu, which will be served on Monday, July 16:
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Colorado Rainbow Trout fried with Rashers
Green Peas, Eggplant, Stewed Tomatoes, New Potatoes
Lamb Chops a l’Auglaise
Prairie Chicken roasted, Bread Sauce
Peaches, Grapes, Fruit Jelly a la Chantilly
In place of true prairie chicken, Mendenhall will be using a domesticated chicken breed called Red Forager from McCauley Family Farm; he says the breed's flavor comes much closer to that of game birds than standard chickens. "We're also taking some liberties with desserts," he adds. For example, the Charlotte Russe on the original menu is very similar to icebox pie that's already part of Arcana's repertoire.
This is the first in what Mendenhall plans to be an ongoing series. "Ideally, I'd love to do a partnership with the history museum," he says.
The four-course dinner will be available from 5 to 9 p.m. on July 16 for $75 per person, including drink pairings. Call 303-444-3885 or visit Arcana's website for reservations.