On the Hudson: The building at 6115 South Santa Fe Drive that once housed the North Woods Inn (see review above) has always been part of the Hudson estate, which was owned by the late Evelyn King and Colonel Hudson. Decades ago, the Colonel raised horses while his wife ran the Country Kitchen, said to have been the model for the current chain eatery of the same name.
After King decided to get out of the restaurant business in 1961, she leased the space to North Woods owner Fred Maten and his partners; when she died in 1982, her will stipulated that the Hudson Foundation be established to provide horticultural education--which paved the way for the beautiful Hudson Gardens that opened in 1997. That's when the North Woods left the building and the Hudson Gardens Tea House took its place.
Despite its name, the teahouse isn't open to the public as an eatery. Instead, it's part of the amenities package available when Hudson Gardens is rented for private functions, catered events (you supply the caterer) and horticulturally focused fundraisers. "Evelyn King's original intention was to turn the Country Kitchen into a teahouse," says Andrew Pierce, director of education and horticulture at the Hudson Foundation. "But the smorgasbord wound up being one of the top ten in the country, I believe; it was nationally recognized as such. So she had too many other things going on, I'd imagine." But her idea lives on in the name.
Hudson Gardens may not be serving snacks, but it still has plenty going on. There are sixteen unique gardens, including one with roses and a wetlands version, open to the public (call for hours; they change with the seasons), gardening classes and special events, as well as private parties and wedding receptions. "Don't even ask me how many people are getting married on August 24," Pierce says. "I've had six calls on it already." To book your next garden party, call 303-797-8565, but remember to check with your caterer first.
Off the hoof: The North Woods may have lost the serene, woodsy setting it had on South Santa Fe, but it didn't lose business; in fact, it gained a stronger hold on nearby Highlands Ranch. "We still get our regulars from Wyoming and other far-off places," says Pat Maten. "And now they can buy a lot of what we make, like our soups and seasonings, to take with them." (If they live in Cheyenne, I hope they've got a cooler to keep that soup bacteria-free on the long drive home.)
But while the Matens sell some of the restaurant's prepared foods, they don't share its recipes. "We sell so much of what we make that it wouldn't make sense to give out the recipes," Pat explains.
So instead, I got a recipe from The Buckhorn Exchange (1000 Osage Street), another longtime meating place I recently revisited. The Buckhorn has many more heads on its walls (more than 500, compared with fifteen at North Woods) and a much higher price tag on its meals. The historic, 105-year-old spot has been through some rough times lately--beloved part-owner Steve Knowlton passed away at the age of 75 last October, and a manager for fifteen years, Cheryl Parton, died suddenly of a brain aneurysm the day after the Super Bowl--but it's still serving up game animals and big-ticket steaks.
The Buckhorn's beef is all USDA Prime, dry-aged and on the bland side. It has flavor, I guess, but it's that cleaner, less bloody taste that makes for more genteel eating. Still, that's not to say you won't find flavor at this shrine to the Old West. (Our waitress confided that she's had kids come in and just burst into tears at the sight of all the carcasses.) The kitchen, headed by former grillman Sesar Garcia--who took over last August when longtime chef George Carlberg moved on to selling frozen soups and sauces--puts out some tasty items. One appetizer featured rattlesnake ($14.50) marinated in red chile and lime and sprinkled atop a spread of chipotle-fired cream cheese (too much cream cheese, considering that the rather small portion of snake had been shredded into teensy bits).
The simple bean soup (we also could have gone with a salad) that came with our entrees had a good homey style and plenty of ham; the recipe is given on the newsprint menu, which offers the history of the place and can be taken home as a souvenir. A choice of garlic mashed potatoes, baked potato, Saratoga chips, baked beans or wild rice also came with the entrees. We picked the mashed potatoes to go with our buffalo-prime-rib-and-pheasant combo ($39) and the baked beans for the Colorado lamb ($25).
At the Buckhorn, buffalo is usually a better bet than the bland beef. But the buffalo prime rib tasted watered-down, with only the faintest hint of sweetness. The pheasant, on the other hand, was all sweetness, with boneless breasts coated in a cinnamon-orange marmalade that had cooked down into a glaze reminiscent of melted raisins. Unfortunately, the sauce left no room to discover the truth of the menu's statement that pheasant is "perhaps the most delicious" of all the game birds. The lamb chops were amazingly lackluster, with none of the succulent fattiness that makes this meat so yummy; in spite of their several inches of thickness, these were dieters' lamb chops, clean and lean. But the mildly garlicky, skin-on mashed potatoes and the green-pepper-sparked baked beans were just fine, with a wonderful, bad-for-you richness.
And there wasn't much healthy about the hot Dutch apple pie ($4.50) or the double-chocolate Rocky Road brownie ($5.25). The apple pie was a surprise, because I long ago gave up expecting anything special from restaurant versions of the classic, but this one had a sugary, strudel-type topping, and the ice cream on the side had been drizzled with a heavenly cinnamon-rum sauce. Once we took the gooey Rocky Road gunk off, we also enjoyed the dense, chocolatey brownie.
Other than the apple pie, we didn't find many surprises at the Buckhorn. That in itself isn't surprising, since this restaurant is supposed to be all about meat. (In fact, some of the game, including the elk, is farm-raised specially for the Buckhorn.) But I did make one other noteworthy find there: The Buckhorn's wonderful appetizer of smoked buffalo sausage ($6.50) came with a red chile-covered polenta and pungent wild-game mustard. The savory sausage went well with the polenta, which wasn't your average Italian-style dish but more of a mush covered with dense, spicy chile.
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Here's how to re-create it at home--without the buffalo.
The Buckhorn's Red Chile Polenta
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons chicken base
2 tablespoons cilantro, minced
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons cumin
1/2 cup canned New Mexico chiles, drained
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup lime juice
1 quart water
1 cup yellow cornmeal
Combine butter, chicken stock, cilantro, salt, cumin, chiles, garlic and lime juice in a large bowl. With an electric mixer, beat on low speed for a minute, then whip on high speed for two minutes. Set aside. Bring water to a boil, remove from heat and stir in cornmeal. Add chile mixture and stir well. Lower heat and cook for 30 more minutes, stirring constantly, until mass starts to pull away from pot. Serves 4-6, depending on whether it's an appetizer or a main dish.