You can always tell when a restaurateur is apathetic, even when it's his first rodeo and the balls are to the walls. Phil Armstrong is the antitheses of the indifferent restaurant owner. Armstrong, who first made a name for himself five years ago, when he started an underground supper club in Denver called Hush -- a supper club that put chefs, both lionized and unknown, in the spotlight -- has spent years behind the scenes, consulting for restaurants and working in restaurants and hotels, but Aurum Food & Wine, which opened last week in Steamboat Springs, on the rushing banks of the Yampa River, is all his, and it's clear that this is a guy who couldn't be more thankful for a shot at his dream.
"I've always -- always -- wanted my own restaurant, but for one reason or another, things didn't work out, so my mom calls me a modern day prospector panning for my golden opportunity, and she's right: I'm chasing my pot of gold, and I feel so fortunate to have found it," says Armstrong, whose mom also suggested that Armstrong call the restaurant Aurum, which happens to be the Latin name for "gold," a color that's dominant throughout the fabrics and furnishings in his two-tiered restaurant.
But while gold typically refers to prosperity, neither Aurum nor Armstrong are high and mighty. In fact, Armstrong, who spent the past few years in Telluride, got a lot of his inspiration for Aurum from a weathered saloon in Telluride named There. "There is this little bar in Telluride that's insanely fun and has ridiculously good energy, and when I was thinking about what I wanted for this restaurant, I knew that I wanted to put the fun back into fine-dining," explains Armstrong. "I want my staff to have fun while they're working, and I want to turn fine-dining on its head and make it an experience that's engaging and incredibly hospitable for our guests," he adds, noting, too, that he's obsessed with Danny Meyer, the famed New York restaurateur who wrote Setting the Table, a must-read for anyone employed in the hospitality business, restaurant or otherwise. "Hospitality is a lost art," insists Armstrong, "but Danny Meyer is my idol, and I try to embody his philosophies, part of which means putting your employees first, because happy employees who are treated well translates to happy guests."
And happy chefs.
Armstrong met Aurum executive chef Chase Wilbanks, an Estes Park native who was most recently behind the burners at Shanahan's, in 2009, during a Hush dinner event in Denver. And the two immediately hit it off. They kept in touch over the years, and when Armstrong had solidified the concept for Aurum, the first person he thought of to run the kitchen was Wilbanks, a young chef who shares Armstrong's infectious enthusiasm. "This restaurant is our baby, and Phil and I have the same vision for its future: genuine hospitality and service, a space that's warm and friendly; and really great food," he says.
His menu, a homage to seasonality, bright flavors and elegant presentations, focuses on produce procured from Yampa Valley farmers, meat sourced from local ranchers and whatever's available at the town's farmers' market. "This is the first time in several years that I've had the freedom to just create, and I'm in a restaurant -- and in a town -- where there's an amazing commitment to seasonality and locality, and that really inspires me," he says.
Wilbanks will redo the menu every three months to coincide with the change in weather patterns, but during the month of May, at least, the dishes are rooted in springtime, with nods to fresh herbs and pickled vegetables, vibrant candied lemon and early heirloom tomatoes, wild mushrooms and light vinaigrettes. "I love showcasing seasonal ingredients in their purest form, and I believe in clean, light, bright and simple flavors -- and just letting the ingredients speak for themselves" says Wilbanks."
His menu is complemented by a strong cocktail program, one that encourages the bartenders to head into the kitchen to cook their own concoctions: jalapeno-orange marmalade, for example, to pair with a mezcal cocktail; there's an oak-aged scotch, too, and a prep-intensive fresh pineapple and rosemary shrub foam. The wine list, curated by sommelier John Witmer, is impressive, too -- and not just for its breadth and depth; Armstrong has his own 150-acre vineyard on the grounds of Sutcliffe Winery, and eight of the wines at Aurum -- all of which are keg wines -- are blended with grapes hanging from the vines at Sutcliffe. "We're their restaurant, and they're our vineyard, so it's an exclusive relationship, and I love working with them," says Armstrong, who also features a collector's list, courtesy of his business partner who put his entire cellar collection on consignment at the restaurant.
And there's no better patio in town on which to eat -- and drink. The restaurant, which accommodates more than 200 between its two floors, seats an additional 100 people on its sprawling patio that sits just a few big boulders away from the sweep of the river and the railroad track that parallels the river's flow. Bedecked with lounge furniture, canopies and tables and a view that stretches far and wide, it's a patio that commands long days of lingering. There's a rooftop patio, too, that gazes over the rapids, along with an upstairs private dining room.
The main level dining room, bordered by an entire wall of windows that also peers over the river, is contemporary, but Armstrong rusticated it with amber lighting and photos of old prospectors. And the bar and lounge areas, which intersect, feature live music five nights a week. "When you think about it, there are four distinct dining experiences in one building," points out Armstrong. "There's the beautiful patio that looks across the river; a private dining room with its own balcony; the dining room overlooking the river; and a bar and lounge with live music -- and there aren't a whole lot of places that can offer that kind of diversity," says Armstrong.
Aurum is open seven nights a week for dinner, beginning at 4 p.m. I had the pleasure of spending the weekend in Steamboat, a town whose dining landscape is graced with terrific restaurants (two new breweries, Butcherknife and Storm Peak, will also open within the next few months), and my dinner at Aurum was one of the highlights. If you find yourself in Steamboat, make sure it's on your list. If you go, here, in photos, is what you can expect.
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