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Mind Your Manors

At a place named The Manor House, you expect to eat something grand. Especially when the restaurant is housed in a true manor house, a 1914 American-Georgian-Southern-style mansion nestled snugly against the stately, shrub-lumpy bosom of the Ken Caryl Valley. This was once the centerpiece of a 28,000-acre estate owned by John Shaffer, a guy who at one time possessed both the Chicago Post and the Rocky Mountain News and who received letters, now displayed on the restaurant's walls, from Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. He was also a man who entertained big-time--so big that he installed a 105-foot flagpole topped by a light that signaled friends in Denver, who could see the beacon through the saddle of the Dakota Hogback, to come out and party.

Although the six-bedroom house was transformed into a restaurant by Dale and Dean Peterson in 1990, the building still boasts enough romantic elegance--and that name!--that it seemed the perfect place to spend our anniversary. We'd enjoy a plush repast evocative of a bygone era, separated from humdrum Denver not only by C-470 but by the historic richness of the setting. So what if the denizens of Ken Caryl can frequent the Manor House like it's Applebee's? Bring on the fancy-pants food!

Perhaps in honor of the home's party-loving first owner, the ma”tre d' put us in a small room with thirteen jubilant people having a rehearsal dinner. They were a fun group, but not exactly the background noise for an intimate evening. I didn't say anything, but after we'd been frowning for about twenty minutes, our superb server caught on. (We were not alone in suffering at the whim of our ma”tre d'--he also dressed down this server, within our earshot, for not refilling my husband's wine glass the second he set it down.) When we agreed that a move would be welcome, the server took us to another room with only one other table, and that one was occupied by diners speaking so softly that we could actually hear the classical music wafting through the dining rooms. Even better, we were seated next to the fireplace, which created the perfect ambience for settling into our anniversary with style.

But the menu was a little disappointing, since it listed the same roster of fancy-pants food you can find in dozens of other restaurants that occupy less noble digs. Applebee's may not offer such fare, but plenty of other places cook up crab cakes, wild-mushroom strudel, baked Brie in phyllo and Atlantic salmon with garlic mashed potatoes. We'd hoped for something more unusual, perhaps updated takes on Southern classics--like pecan-crusted fried chicken breasts or cranberry-stewed rabbit--that would be in better keeping with our surroundings. Still, given the sumptuousness of those surroundings, we were willing to settle for a filet-wrapped-in-bacon-with-shallots-and-cabernet-sauce kind of night. Particularly when the filet, like everything else we ordered, was well-executed.

The wild-mushroom strudel ($6.95) filled a flaky, buttery pastry with rich, creamy sauce and 'shrooms; the puff-pastry caps beneath the baked escargot in Pernod-spiked garlic butter ($8.50) also held slips of roasted mushrooms, which added an elegant earthiness. The soup du jour ($3.50), a powerfully beefy broth, came right to the edge of excessive saltiness and then pulled back into that pleasure/pain realm. And the Roquefort peppercorn dressing on the modest salad of mixed field greens ($3.50) lent a smart cheese tang to every third or fourth bite.

Even the garlic mashed potatoes that came with the fourteen-ounce, center-cut, pepper-crusted New York strip ($22.95) were notable, since they had neither the raw bite nor the acrid burnt flavor of garlic, the two extremes that often kill this ubiquitous side. The steak itself was a first-rate slab of certified Angus, and while it was more dusted with pepper than crusted, it still had a nice pepper punch that cut through the richness of the brandy peppercorn cream. And more rich flavors melded beautifully in the linguine with shrimp, mussels, scallops and shiitakes ($16.95). The seafood arrived swimming in a roasted-fennel-enhanced tomato-garlic broth, and the anise of the fennel, the sweet tomato and the deep muskiness of the mushrooms combined for a heavenly concoction. (Too bad the mussels seemed slightly past their prime.) This bouillabaisse-type pasta dish showed that the chef could do great things when he set his mind--and ingredients--to it.

But he won't be doing them at the Manor House. A few days after our dinner, chef Lee Cole was gone, abruptly replaced by Cuong Bui--for reasons unknown, since the Manor House staff is far too genteel to discuss personnel issues. Bui promptly rewrote the menu, leaving a few items but getting rid of the more boring ones. Over the phone, his replacements sounded like fairly fabulous combinations.

And so we returned to the Manor House. Once again, our service was excellent, and the wine list was the same solid, if brief, list of selections, with a few surprises thrown in among the classics. Many of the appetizers we'd enjoyed were still available, including the fine escargot and the mushroom strudel. Although there was nothing particularly innovative about Bui's New England-style seafood chowder ($4.25), his version did have a refined quality, with small, almost delicate potato pieces and a sophisticated flavor. More sophisticated still was the spinach salad ($4.95) with a poached pear, a hard-boiled quail egg and a shallot confit (a tangy, mildly oniony jam), all drizzled with a smoked applewood bacon dressing. And the fish variation on the Caesar with smoked salmon dressing ($3.95) brought a salad that still tasted of the sea but was less salty than the anchovy-draped standard.

Bui had completely reworked the selection of entrees. Although the dishes relied on the same foundations--salmon, beef, the lamb rack--they'd been built up in intriguing ways. For instance, the lamb ($28.95) no longer came with apricot glaze but instead donned a subtle mustard coating that didn't compete with the acidity of the ratatouille side; the meat also worked well with the strange-sounding but surprisingly appetizing peppermint couscous. A new item, the Sonoma duck breast with honey-cumin glaze ($19.95), was a superb pairing of velvety duck meat further enriched by the honey, its sweetness echoed in a mound of creamy, chestnut-fortified risotto.

The extravagant flavors Bui favors sound far-fetched, but they could be just the thing to make the food at the Manor House as opulent as its unique setting. Although Teddy Roosevelt would probably have dropped his monocle had someone set a plate of pork chops with lemongrass or artichoke polenta in front of him, he no doubt would have applauded the boldness of the notion. Bully for Bui.

The Petersons could be turning on the lamp at the top of the Manor's flagpole any day now to let Denver diners know that the party's just beginning.

The Manor House, 1 Manor House Rd., Littleton, 303-973-8064. Hours: 5:30-9 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday; 5-10 p.m. Saturday; 5-9 p.m. Sunday.


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