It's that time of year when your company, which is filled with employees who normally can't stand each other, hosts a festive luncheon outside the office where those same employees can overindulge and exchange such enchanting, thoughtful gifts as coffee mugs shaped like breasts or cows.
It's also that time of year when family and friends come in from out of town, and rather than waste valuable holiday time cleaning your house, you instead treat your relatives to a meal at a fancy restaurant where Uncle Ed will forget what year it is and Aunt Edna will spend the entire time with denture paste in the corner of her mouth, all the while remarking on what a lovely place you're in.
The Wellshire Inn wants to be that lovely place--and this massive complex certainly has the looks for it. Although the restaurant is located just off Colorado Boulevard on the edge of one of Denver's public golf courses, the seventy-year-old building resembles a Tudor mansion. But like an elaborately wrapped Christmas gift that turns out to hold a pair of socks, the Wellshire is all packaging: The blah food is not what you'd expect to find inside such a classy exterior.
Right now the wood beams, chandeliers and stained-glass windows are decorated with lights and pine boughs, which further warms the already comfortable and elegant atmosphere. Especially inviting are the bar and the banquet rooms--the former features a brick fireplace, soft couches, counters dotted with brass elephant heads and a unique ceiling fan composed of several vertical paddles. The spacious banquet spaces are perfect for parties; they have names like "The Oxford" and are filled with the same accents--white linens, silver flatware, stained glass and exposed brick--that make the main dining rooms so attractive.
The food, overseen by chef Steve Ford, is equally attractive. Too bad it doesn't taste as good as it looks.
An appetizer of seared duck breast slices ($6.95) included six pieces of tender duck fanned around a mound of fried leeks and slashed with an orange-chile vinaigrette. The meat itself was wonderful, but the vinaigrette tasted barely of orange and not at all of chiles, and the leeks were a mistake--they were bland on their own and added nothing to the duck. Our second starter was a duo of crab cakes ($10) that represented the Atlantic (a blue crab) and Pacific (a Dungeness) oceans. The blue crab had been pressed into a ball resembling a little croquette and was too heavily coated with breading; it rolled around ridiculously when the waiter set down the plate. The Dungeness, however, was fantastic: loosely packed, lightly breaded and simply adorned, the crab cake went beautifully with the garlic tomato sauce. But the kitchen could have held the second condiment, purportedly a picante mayonnaise, that seemed like plain old mayo to me.
And so it went with the rest of our dinner: nice touches here and there that failed to add up to anything special. The onion soup ($4.25) benefited from a mixture of Swiss and romano cheeses, but the base was lifeless and choked with bread. We had better luck with the soup of the day (it, or a salad, comes with the entrees); the red bean with sour cream was thick and hearty. The house salad was also a winner: The ingredients were fresh, and both dressings we tried--a raspberry vinaigrette and a red wine with blue cheese--were sound.
Which is more than I can say for our entrees. The prime rib cost way too much ($24.50) for the small (my guess is ten ounces), fatty, chewy slab I was given; the accompanying Yorkshire pudding, a favorite of mine since a trip to England five years ago, turned into soggy cardboard after a few minutes on the plate. Better was the impeccably cooked pistachio-crusted sea bass ($18.95), even if it wasn't really "crusted" but simply sprinkled with chopped nuts. The rice on the side, however, was dull and dry.
Not as dry, though, as the pepper-grilled chicken ($17.75). The tough breast bore none of the promised garlic and was covered with strips of red, yellow and green bell peppers, a prominent feature not mentioned on the menu (it's a good thing my companion likes peppers). And while the swordfish ($22) came dressed in a suave sun-dried-tomato beurre blanc, the fish must have occupied a bad place on the grill, because one side was tender and juicy and the other crusty and dry.
More water please, waiter.
By the time we reached dessert, we'd become quite enamored with our waiter, who had enough energy to take on the whole dining room's worth of tables and still keep our water glasses full. When he found we were having a tough time deciding among the Wellshire's many sweets, he confessed that he would let us have the whole platter if there hadn't been another table still eating that also might want to order some dessert. We settled on just four: the chocolate torte, the tiramisu, an apple cake and a Bailey's chocolate mousse (each $3.50). The torte was light and creamy, and the apple cake--a huge slice--was moist and sweet. But there were so many ladyfingers in the tiramisu that there wasn't enough cream and rum to moisten them, and the chocolate mousse, while quite chocolatey, apparently had yet to make Bailey's acquaintance.
Still, the Wellshire's atmosphere is so winning and its popularity so obvious (the place had been packed on a weeknight) that we decided to try again at brunch, that other great holiday mainstay. Sadly, the restaurant was consistent in its inconsistency.
This time the Wellshire was filled with people carrying bags of gifts and wearing spent ribbons and bows on their heads; we could hear the sounds of several birthday celebrations. We also noted quite a few regulars. Actually, they were hard to miss: They were being mollycoddled by the staff, who jumped every time a regular sneezed. Through it all strode Leo Goto, the businessman who has run the Wellshire since 1976, when he became a concessionaire with the City of Denver, the property's owner.
As Goto came through the arched-ceiling dining room, a man twice his age called out, "Uncle Leo!" But Goto was busy making the rounds, attentively checking on everyone. Until he came to our table, that is, when he realized we were nobody and asked, "How is everything?" as he simultaneously walked away.
Given the chance, I would have told him that the spinach salad ($4.50), while filled with fresh, well-cleaned greens and that rarity, a plentiful amount of crushed bacon, was lathered with a raspberry dressing that made my mouth pucker every time I took a bite. The bacon in the eggs Benedict ($7.75), on the other hand, was the Canadian variety--which was fitting, since the two slices had been cooked into thin little hockey pucks; the hollandaise sauce was more like mayo. And we'd been so tickled by the mention of "tomato concasse"--a mighty highfalutin way to say "chopped tomatoes"--in the description of the eggs in puff pastry ($8) that we couldn't resist ordering it. But even fancy words couldn't save the poached eggs with crumbly, cooked yolks and too-tart artichoke hearts, which made the runny, vinegary bearnaise sauce even worse.
Although brunch is scheduled until 2 p.m., our waiter began rushing us out at 1:30 because most of the customers in his station had gone. Fortunately, I didn't much feel like lingering over this meal.
At a last stop at the ladies' room, I struck up a conversation with a woman whose employer had rented one of the banquet rooms for a party. When I asked her what she thought of the restaurant, she replied, "Oh, we don't come here for the food, you know. It's not known for that, am I right? We love the atmosphere; it's so pretty at Christmas. My boss says it's the only thing everyone agrees on, that we have to come here."
Well, it does beat another coffee mug.
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