The Leonid meteor shower shows itself every year in mid-November, and while the display is spectacular only every 33 years or so, even on an off night, the Leonids provide an eye-opening experience. They give us a glimmer of what's beyond our limited understanding, some insight into life's eternal glories.
A variety of factors both in the sky and on the ground can affect the Leonids' star power, including changes in the orbit of the meteor shower's origins (the Tempel-Tuttle comet) and how close the comet is to the sun, as well as the phase of the moon, the observer's location on Earth, the cloud cover and ambient lighting. And then there's the matter of how much Champagne you consume before you attempt to haul your butt out of the hotel-room bed to catch the meteor shower's peak at 3 a.m.
Still, what better place to observe such celestial happenings than Colorado's very own Mobil five-star hotel, the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs? Especially if the meteor shower serves as the chaser to an elegant meal in the hotel's five-star restaurant, The Penrose Room, considered not just by Mobil (41 years running) but also AAA and every other guidebook on the planet to be one of the most impressive restaurants in the country.
But like the Leonids this year, our Broadmoor experience fell far short of our expectations. From room problems -- let's just say that apparently only important people get king-sized beds and bathroom telephones in working order -- to food that was badly timed and prepared even worse, we were seeing stars, all right, but not the five we'd anticipated.
Built in 1891 as a casino, the Broadmoor was purchased in 1916 by a star of local society, Spencer Penrose, regarded by many as the "godfather of Colorado Springs" because he put so much of his vast fortune into public works. After Penrose died in 1939, the offspring of his partner, Charles Tutt (remembered in the Charles Court, one of ten other dining opportunities in the massive, multi-building Broadmoor complex), took over until 1988, when the Oklahoma Publishing Company bought the place and began a $75 million upgrade. Oklahoma Publishing, by the way, knows about stars: Among many other things, OPC owns the Grand Ole Opry and the Gaylord/Opryland hotels -- neither of which has attained even four-star status.
According to the Mobil Travel Guide, five stars denote a restaurant that is "one of the best in the country," and provides "a rare and unique dining experience." Twenty-six "characteristics" are listed as essential for the five-star designation, including top-quality china, an "ideal" noise level, linen towels in the restroom and no pretension or attitude from the staff. Service should be "marked by true hospitality" that is "seamless from the first phone call to the end of the meal," and the food must be "extraordinary" and delivered with "flawless execution." The guide's explanation concludes with this statement: "Suffice it to say, when you are having a meal in a Five-Star restaurant, you know it. And upon departure, the memory of the fine dining experience lingers."
Well, it does linger, but not in the way we -- or Mobil -- had hoped.
The Penrose Room's decor was undeniably impressive. An elegant foyer opened up into the main dining room, where a spectacular chandelier hung in front of a small stage, which was occupied throughout the night by a strong-voiced jazz singer doing justice to assorted standards while couples glided smoothly across the dance floor. Glittery and elegant, the rest of the big room was plush, with velvety-soft upholstery and the kind of muted colors that give a subtly glamorous feel while still fading into the background. We weren't seated in the main room, however; instead, we were taken to the long, narrow dining area behind it, where banquette-style booths lined one wall and four-top tables the other, both with twinkle-twinkle- little-star views of the night sky and the silhouette of Cheyenne Mountain. It was all so romantic, so big-sigh charming, that we settled into our luxurious chairs and obediently used the cute little flashlight offered by the waiter to peruse the opulently worded menu.
That menu is the work of chef Siegfried "Sigi" Eisenberger, who boasts thirty years in the business, many of them spent in important places like Austria, Holland and Nashville, Tennessee. Eisenberger is only the fourth chef in the Broadmoor's history, and as a member of two gold-medal-winning U.S. culinary teams, he made his mark as a savvy, innovative creator of classic foods with a contemporary touch. He lived up to his reputation with our first taste of his cooking, an amuse bouche, listed by Mobil as one of the nicer touches at a five-star establishment. A spoon cradled the half-liquid concoction, an almost Asian-style taste tempter of sweet and sour that had us rolling our eyes and moaning. Once the sauvignon blanc we'd ordered from the friendly wine steward arrived -- one of the best values on an extensive wine list backed by a 3,000-bottle cellar that alternated between obscenely expensive and reasonable -- we toasted and settled back, anticipation growing by the minute.
Until the first course arrived, that is. While the Pacific Northwest mushroom terrine was appealing, with the texture and flavor of an upscale mushroom meatloaf, the delicate, truffle-kissed glace de viande was really more jus than syrupy reduction. And the foie gras, a slip of duck liver too thinly cut to withstand an intensive searing, was way overdone. The dry, charred organ meat imparted no moisture to the thick slice of toasted bread beneath; the peach half on the side was bitter, with none of the sweetness so crucial to offsetting the richness of foie gras (good foie gras, at least).
After those plates were removed, we waited and waited -- and waited some more -- for the soup-and-salad course. The salad proved to be a simple (for $6.50!) handful of mixed greens doused with a too-tart Champagne vinaigrette and ringed by halved pear tomatoes. It was easily forgettable -- but not forgivable, because while that salad was assembled, our lobster bisque had obviously been sitting under a heat lamp: A thick skin had formed on top of the soup, and the fat profiterole -- a savory cream puff -- on top was rock hard. Beneath all that, though, the brew was delightful, a super-smooth purée of creamy lobster essence sharpened with Armagnac and studded with teeny bits of lobster.
After those plates were removed, we waited and waited -- and waited some more -- for the caviar course. When the caviar -- Columbia River sturgeon, the least expensive but still pricey fish eggs -- finally arrived, it was beautifully presented, mother-of-pearl spoon and all, in a little jar set atop a silver plate, accompanied by chopped egg whites and yolks, red onion, parsley, sour cream and blini. But what looked good was almost inedible: The caviar had been kept at such a cold temperature that the eggs had popped into a mushy mess, and the blini were so overcooked they fell apart into dry little bits when we tried to pick them up.
Star treatment, my ass.
Yes, after those plates were removed, we waited and waited again. And while the music and the people-watching made the lengthy lags endurable, the staff, even at a one-star restaurant, should notice when diners have nothing to do for upwards of half an hour between courses. While the Penrose servers were all very accommodating and pleasant, they need to recognize that there's pacing for a romantic and relaxing meal, and then there's...oops, we have a problem here.
For the main course, we'd chosen one of the Penrose's "Traditional Tableside Entrees," along with tenderloin of veal Florentine, the preparation of which sounded intriguingly up to date; the veal had been added to the menu just two days before, according to our server. The white-truffle flan was what had sold us on the dish, but the side was so tiny it was gone in two bites; as good as the flan was, it couldn't compensate for the smooshy veal medallions, which were filled with what the menu had billed as "spinach essence" but tasted like vegetable Jell-O. The fact that the meat was undercooked didn't help; it gave the center an unsettling consistency.
But what happened to our gorgeous fillet of English Channel Dover sole was a bigger crime. I'd started salivating when I'd seen the fish, noted for its sweet flesh and tender texture, on the menu, since what passes for sole in this country is almost always some kind of substandard flounder (maybe yellowtail) or one of the other soles, such as lemon, rock or grey. The fish was still in a hot sauté pan when it was set next to our table, and there it sat, overcooking in a dull meunière sauce more reminiscent of fat-free milk than butter, while the server took his sweet time deboning the fillet. Slightly undercooked fingerling potatoes, baby carrots and two asparagus spears rounded out the disappointing plate.
Our last hope was for dessert, one raspberry and one chocolate soufflé. At least this time we knew we'd have to wait -- but we could never have guessed how long. At last our server reappeared, ready to present one soufflé -- a Grand Marnier version -- with a flourish, when he stopped and said, "Oh, you didn't order this, did you?" He whisked it to a table across the way and then disappeared for another half hour. But when our soufflés finally did make an appearance, they were the shining stars of the meal, textbook puffs of egg white, heavily flavored and served with individual pitchers of crème anglaise.
During our lengthy waits throughout the evening, we'd watched people around us celebrating -- one couple marked their 25th anniversary, another their 40th, while at a third table one young woman alternately wept and laughed as her beau proffered a big rock and the big question. In the ladies' room, the female part of the 25th anniversary couple confided to me that she and her husband had never been to the Broadmoor before, and that they had saved up all year to commemorate this special occasion.
She looked radiant and glowing -- much happier than I would be if I'd picked the place for a very special event. The Penrose Room at the Broadmoor may get glowing reviews, but I wish I may, I wish I might have had the meal I'd wished for that night.
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