Some professional chefs never intended to cook professionally.
Exhibit A: Marvin Bronstein, who won Denverites' hearts as well as their stomachs with his brief stint at the coincidentally named Marvin Gardens in the mid-'90s. Fifteen years before, he'd been a nurse practitioner working in the pediatrics department at the University of Utah when he was sent to New Orleans for a medical conference. Upon his return, he gave the hospital his notice -- after twelve years in the health-care business.
"I had an epiphany," says Bronstein, who now runs the kitchen at Restaurant on the Ridge, at the Meadow Ridge Club in Fraser. "I was sitting in a restaurant there, and suddenly I realized, 'Oh, my God, there's all this incredible food out there, and I could be making it.' The food just blew me away, and I realized I wanted to be involved in putting it together."
Restaurant on the Ridge at Meadow Ridge, 1 East Meadow Mile, Fraser, 970-726-7660. Hours: 4:30-9 p.m. daily
Bronstein had always enjoyed cooking at home -- as the oldest of six kids, he often helped his working parents prepare meals -- but until that trip to New Orleans, it had never occurred to him that he could pursue cooking as a vocation. "So here I was, 33 years old, and I had found my calling," he says. "I just knew, so deep in my heart, that that's what I was meant to do."
To turn this knowledge into a career, he started working at the bottom of the food chain at restaurants around Salt Lake. Soon, though, he realized he needed to move on. "I knew I had to get to an on-the-map culinary town," he explains. "If I was going to get some real cooking experience, I had to go somewhere else to get it." Since his parents lived in Los Angeles, he moved there, over the next six years cooking in as many eateries as he could before he finally opened his own place: the State Beach Cafe in Santa Monica, right on Will Rogers State Beach.
"I thought my dream had really come true," he says. "But then I got eaten by the earthquake of '94." The restaurant went belly-up -- literally -- as the tremors demolished his section of the beach. "I didn't get discouraged, though," he adds. "My sister was living in Colorado and loving it, and I'd visited and enjoyed it a lot, too. So I came to Denver to give the restaurants there a try."
He started with Marvin Gardens, briefly located in a strip mall at South Monaco Parkway and Evans Avenue (today the space is occupied by Bruno's Italian Bistro). Bronstein next headed north to the Peaceful Valley Guest Ranch in Lyons, then moved on to the Regal Harvest House in Boulder, where he took what was the Bistro and turned it into the Fancy Moose, a styling spot that still serves some of Bronstein's game meat and rotisserie specialties. But by the time he really got things going in Boulder, Bronstein had had another epiphany: He wanted to live in the mountains. So he answered an ad for an executive-chef position at the Ranch House at Devil's Thumb, where he stayed for two years. "My sister and her husband had a small bakery and deli in Grand Lake, and every time I went up there, I just loved it," he says. "So I knew that whatever I did, I had to come up with a way to stay there."
His sister, Donna Truitt, eventually sold the deli, and she and Bronstein started talked about doing something together. "We both wanted to stay in the area," Bronstein remembers, "and so when the opportunity came up at Meadow Ridge, we said, 'Why not?'"
The building itself posed the first challenge: Built in 1977, the space had previously housed longtime Winter Park favorites Deno's and the Last Waltz, both more casual ventures than what Bronstein and Truitt envisioned. The structure's not on the main drag of anything, and the staid, blocky exterior gives no hint that an odd but eminently appealing restaurant could lie within. In the beginning, it was also tough working with a sibling, Bronstein admits. But after they both relaxed and focused on their own particular areas of expertise, things started to go smoothly. "Donna knows how to take care of people, and once we got into a routine, I felt really good about having her in the front of the house," Bronstein says. "And we love each other dearly, so that makes a huge difference."
So does the fact that they also love their jobs. From the moment we walked through the door -- a rather strange entrance, given that the racquetball courts and the fitness center's front desk stand between Meadow Ridge's entryway and the restaurant -- we were treated to the sort of excellent service that makes your dining experience pleasant in an unobtrusive and gracious way. We sank into an attractive, comfy booth, enjoyed the view outside -- scantily clad people swimming in a steamy pool -- and ordered a bottle of wine from the Proprietor's List, a well-priced and fun roster of wines that includes the use of Reidel stemware. After we did so, Truitt made a point of sharing some useful information about the glasses and the wines on the list, which recently brought the restaurant attention from Beverage Analyst magazine.
Considering the caliber of food served at the Ridge, the restaurant should be getting a lot more attention. Because the real attraction here is Bronstein's cooking: multilayered, detail-oriented fare that can come only from someone who has an innate understanding of what ingredients work together and is passionate about the final product. Bronstein offers no overly fussy preparations or uptight attempts at innovation -- just straightforward yet novel combinations that prove he's thinking about what he's doing.
The goat cheese gnocchi appetizer ($9.50), for example, consisted of six soft clouds of potato dumpling enriched with cheese and floating in a pool of herb-flecked tomato liquid too thick to be called juice but too thin to be a bona fide sauce. More like an essence, the fluid provided just the right tartness to balance out the richness of the gnocchi. The loin of elk carpaccio ($8.95), a reminder of Bronstein's game-focused days at the Fancy Moose, featured several thin slices of strong elk strewn with freshly grated Asiago cheese and sided by a pile of mixed greens lightly coated in a not-too-tart balsamic vinaigrette.
Although the regular salad ($4.25) didn't include the chive-onion sprouts touted on the menu, it did come with the promised peach hibiscus dressing, a sweet and welcome change from the usual tangy takes. The soup of the evening, a cream of asparagus ($4.25), was another refreshing offering: Teeming with teeny bits of vegetable and augmented by just a touch of cream for richness, it actually tasted of asparagus. A slice of buttery toasted bread in the middle of the bowl helped sop up some of this goodness, and after that was gone, we used Bronstein's sweet, warm rolls -- some wheat, some filled with herbs -- to polish off the rest of the soup.
The entree decision was difficult, because so many sounded so wonderful: We were almost swayed by the server's assertion that the smoked-salmon pasta with vodka cream sauce was her favorite, and the smoked pheasant topped with a Jack Daniel's-laced sauce was tempting, too. But once we learned that the veal ravioli ($19.95) with wild mushrooms had a St. Andre cheese sauce, we had to try it. St. Andre is a triple-cream cheese that's so rich and decadent-tasting, this sauce was like thickened butter, and the homemade pasta had been cooked until it was soft enough to be consumed -- rapidly, I might add -- while still holding in all of that tender veal. We were also sold on the elaborate preparation of the Rocky Mountain trout ($19.95). The fish was lined with bacon, stuffed with scallops, shrimp and crawfish meat that soaked up just enough of the grease to boost their flavor, and then wrapped with more bacon and cooked until the outside was crisp. An almost too-simple side of wild rice mixed with quinoa and some julienned vegetables rounded out the plate.
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Although both entrees were ample, we still wanted another taste of the blackberry bread pudding that had won an award at the Winter Park Chef's Cup the night before (see Mouthing Off). It was as stunning as we'd remembered: an ideally textured square -- not too smooshy, not too dry -- with a sauce that echoed the reason Bronstein had gone into this business in the first place. The New Orleans-style bananas Foster mixture was a perfect match for the pudding, much like cooking has proved the perfect profession for Bronstein.
But man does not live by bread pudding alone. The restaurant is open for dinner only, and while Bronstein does all the cooking, pastries included, he occasionally takes a break. "I try to take one night off," he admits. "Sometimes I need a little rest."
That's okay, Marvin. We're just glad you quit your day job.