If there are people somewhere on the face of the earth who don't know about The Fort, it's not because Sam Arnold hasn't tried to reach them.
A shameless promoter who hawks his Morrison restaurant like a culinary snake-oil salesman, Arnold has made this replica of a southwestern trading post into a must-stop on the nation's food map. And he will be the first to tell you that. And then he will follow up by having his PR person send out stories from People, the New York Times and Gourmet, all filled with the same anecdotes: Sam made eggs for his dorm mates on a Sterno stove, Sam taught Julia Child to open a champagne bottle with a tomahawk, Sam couldn't get the banks to finance his dream of building what turned out to be the most incredible thing ever.
But the fact remains that Arnold has put his money where his mouth--and his heart--is. He travels and tastes, then tests and trumpets every item served at the Fort. And it deserves trumpeting: Arnold's unique combination of promotional savvy and sophisticated tastebuds produces food that is innovative, entertaining and just plain good.
But even before you eat, the Fort is a feast for the eyes. Arnold built this model of Bent's Fort, whose remains stand near La Junta, back in 1962. Originally it was to be his home; today the 80,000 adobe bricks enclose nine dining rooms, a kitchen, a taproom, a courtyard, a Plains Indian-style tepee, Arnold's offices, two towers, a library and several bars, not to mention hundreds of historic knickknacks, paintings, photos, beaver pelts and antique furniture that Arnold and his wife, Carrie, have collected over the years. Taking in all of this stuff is difficult; fortunately, Arnold provides visitors with a detailed printout complete with self-guided tour.
Once you're inside, though, it's hard not to follow your nose to the exposition kitchen, where my grandmother (hey, she's from out of town--and this is the place to take out-of-towners) counted 32 dishes being placed on the counter for simultaneous pickup. The scents of grilling, smoking and baking are strong, and the kitchen staff moves like a well-oiled machine. During our visit, they didn't seem bothered by the noise coming from the largest dining area, occupied by several birthday parties (beware the buffalo hat and attention-grabbing song trotted out for such occasions) and boisterous groups imbibing the Fort's unusual cocktails. These drinks boast historic antecedents--one recipe dates to 1732--as well as an alcoholic kick. We tried the strawberry Sangaree ($4.50), a blend of strawberries, red wine, sugar and lemon juice that tasted like a lame daiquiri. Equally disappointing was the New Orleans Sazerac ($4.50); labeled on the menu as "perhaps the best drink of the nineteenth century," it left us feeling sorry for those who had to live through the period. Although we could taste none of the promised embellishments (sugar, Peychaud bitters), the bourbon seemed fine. My grandparents' more modern drinks went both ways: The whisky sour was a thumbs-up, but my grandfather thought the bourbon Manhattan was weak.
We followed the aperitifs with an appetizer sampler ($13.95) of hot bean dip, "boudies," Comanche buffalo heart and buffalo tongue that was more than enough for four. The bean dip, made spicy with sausage and serrano chiles (Arnold is a chile aficionado of epic proportions), was served with yellow- and blue-corn chips and had the ideal refried texture: spreadable but not too mushy. The fiery boudies were sausages made from buffalo, the Fort's favored meat; the sampler also included tender, fresh pieces of the animal's heart and tongue that came with a caper-laden horseradish mayonnaise so addictive we found ourselves finishing it with chips.
Just as hard to stop eating were the complimentary pumpkin muffins, baked on the premises and soft and spongy, with a hint of walnut flavor. They were the perfect accompaniment to the salad included with each entree, a pile of greens liberally sprinkled with toasty pumpkin seeds, diced jicama and ripe tomatoes. The real topper was the pickled ginger, which has an unusual flavor that eludes identification but leaves a lasting impression. The kitchen creates its own dressings, too, including an intriguing damiana vinaigrette made from an herb that few people know exists.
The damiana is just one of the unusual ingredients Sam Arnold has tracked down. Another is the black quinoa, the seeds of a pigweed that is native to Colorado but largely ignored by most kitchens. The Fort includes quinoa in a pilaf with long-grain rice that's offered as a side dish option, along with a marvelously potent concoction of potatoes mixed with white corn, red and green chiles and Anasazi cliff-dweller beans, the descendants of 900-year-old legumes found in Mesa Verde. The chiles set off the potatoes and also permeated the corn; although we couldn't taste the beans, they made for interesting conversation.
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So do most of the Fort's entrees. We ordered the Gonzales steak ($18.25), an excellent, nine-ounce cut of top sirloin split and filled with wonderfully hot, garlic-heavy green chile. The meat in two other offerings, Zeb Pike's prime rib ($17.95 for a regular cut) and the special trio of elk, buffalo and musk-ox fillets ($34.95), also proved to be top-grade, although the price was a little scary. The generous portion of prime rib was cooked precisely to Grandma's medium specs; the jus alongside was strong but unnecessary, since the meat itself was dripping. And Grandpap couldn't finish the fillet special, with its six- to eight-ounce cuts; the buffalo was typically lean, the elk slightly dry (that, too, is typical, and not a bad thing) and the musk ox--Arnold's current pride and joy since he got it through a complex deal with Canada's Inuvialut Indians--a tasty slice of a fairly intensely flavored animal.
Once we got away from the red meat, the meal wasn't nearly as exciting. Chief Colorow's trout ($14.95), broiled with apple-smoked bacon (mostly an afterthought) and herbs (mostly parsley), was way underdone. I like my fish on the rare side, but this wasn't even warm. And while the charbroiled pork chops ($18.50) were served with an intoxicatingly mellow and smooth red chile--made from red chile peppers from Dixon, Colorado, another of Arnold's finds--the chops themselves were dry and chewy.
But the desserts more than compensated for these minor disappointments. The fabulous negrita ($3.75), a chocolate-mousse-like mixture, was enhanced with rum; we got even more of a chocolate fix with the ice cream pie ($3.75), in which Dutch chocolate ice cream infused with coffee and creme de menthe had been frozen in a chocolate-cookie crust, then dribbled with Hershey's chocolate syrup. To make up for the excesses of those treats, we also tried a heavenly canola brownie ($3.75). The Fort uses the healthy canola oil in many dishes, and Arnold even adds canola seeds to several preparations; topped with unhealthy French vanilla ice cream, this brownie tasted a lot like butterscotch.
As it turned out, the Fort more than lived up to its advance billing: This meal was one of the very best I've experienced in Colorado--or anywhere else, for that matter. As long as Sam Arnold is holding down the Fort, he's got full bragging rights from me.