Summit of the Ate

In the "best scenery" category of Denver-area dining, the Flagstaff House Restaurant is the undisputed view master--and has been on top for decades.

The grand place perched on Flagstaff Mountain overlooking Boulder began as a modest summer cabin, built by a Chicago teacher in 1929. From there it passed into the hands of a park ranger (the area surrounding the cabin was made into a city park in 1937), a movie-company executive and a local businessman who let the University of Chicago use it for special functions before turning it into an eatery that offered "steak, chicken and fish," according to an old sign. In the late Fifties, Hugo and Edith Beulks bought the building and pointed it in the direction of fine dining, although their place was open only in the summer.

When Don Monette bought the Flagstaff House in 1971, it was in serious need of renovation. But over the years, he and his partner sons--Mark, the restaurant's French-trained executive chef, and Scott, the general manager--have turned it into a spectacular space, adding on to the original cabin (which fronts the parking lot) and creating a dining area edged by walls of windows on two sides and filled with stylish furniture. The space is decorated in creamy colors and with billowy ceiling fabrics that impart a sensation of being cradled in a big vat of creme caramel.

Don admits to some lean times while turning the restaurant into a year-round operation that required luring people up a steep hill in the snow. But since the late Seventies, the Monettes' Flagstaff House has been a symbol of elegant dining in Colorado, one described with all the crucial adjectives: first-class, sophisticated, opulent, poised, efficient, marvelous, etc., etc., etc.

But I certainly had a rotten meal there.
And at that recent dinner, the service and food were so laughably bad that it seems there's something seriously wrong at the Flagstaff House.

The comedy of errors started the moment we sat down at a two-top next to a window in the enviable outer perimeter of the dining room. I had the breathtaking scenery and my husband didn't, but that was okay. What was not okay was the icy air swirling around our feet and threatening hypothermia. The other tables next to the window seat four or more, and we noticed that when two people were seated at one of those, they were put in the chairs farthest from the window--and the 8-degree air just beyond. Before we required medical attention, we requested a move, which was graciously granted.

The second table turned out to be better, anyway. Its location in the corner of a raised area allowed us to see over the heads of the other diners; we could gaze from one end of the windows to the other without wrenching our necks, and the twinkling lights and craggy tree outlines beyond those windows offered a comforting sight as we thawed. Why hadn't they seated us at this table in the first place? They certainly weren't full that night--and they had to know about the big chill by that other table.

We got our first clue as we settled back into the roomy, cushy chairs and prepared ourselves for some pampering. Every time we started to relax, a flock of waitstaff gathered in the walkway between our raised area and the rest of the dining room and proceeded to discuss a variety of things, including, as the evening progressed, one overbearing guy's assessment of the problems we were having with our meal. This confab went on right in front of us--maybe they thought they were fooling us by putting their hands up next to their mouths. On top of that, the waitstaff didn't have it together enough to know who had the right of way in this walkway, and so every few minutes we witnessed a Keystone Cops shuffle, with staffers sometimes banging into each other.

The incompetent wine steward should be placed under house arrest. He hadn't tasted some of the wines in which we were interested (granted, the Flagstaff's wine list is one of the grandest in the area, but doesn't that mean it should have a grand sommelier to match?), and his comments on the others were obviously memorized, because he kept stumbling over the words he was supposed to use. All told, this was one of the most bumbling staffs I've seen in any restaurant. But this wasn't just any restaurant; it was the Flagstaff.

And at the Flagstaff, people pay dearly for their meals, which is why it was appalling to find the waitstaff's incompetence echoed in kitchen production problems. Before we discovered the extent of the errors, though, we enjoyed a dish that lived up to the Flagstaff's reputation: the appetizer ragout of California red sea urchin and lump crab ($13). This starter featured a magnificent presentation of the urchin's shell, spines and all, out of which we extracted rich, creamy morsels of sweet crab and the urchin, which, unadorned--as this wisely was--has a crawfish-like flavor.

But finding any flavor in the torched cake of Maine lobster and crab with shrimp and foie gras ($16) was like finding something to eat in your kitchen after the house burns down. The bottom of the cake was black--so black that I thought maybe I had misread the menu and the appetizer was supposed to be some kind of Cajun blackened cake. The real tragedy, though, was that the little slip of foie gras on top had been cooked into a biscuit. I can honestly say that I have never had to chew foie gras. Squish it between my teeth and tongue, yes, but never chew. When the waitress came to take our plates, she noticed that I'd eaten only the top half, and I told her that I thought the dish was a tad overdone. She took it away and then returned to inform me that "the chef agrees with you that it was overdone." How nice to have it confirmed that my experience is such that I can tell burnt food when I see it.

By now I wasn't interested in the kitchen's offer to remake the appetizer, but I did request another slice of foie gras, which arrived with the next course. This time the liver was exquisite. And it was a nice accompaniment to the spinach salad with quail ($12) and the French onion soup ($7)--but then, foie gras is a nice accompaniment to anything. The salad was a wonderful harmony of gold potatoes, sweet honey-mustard dressing and slightly wilted spinach, adorned with two quail legs wrapped in pancetta and then crunchy potato curls. The arrangement made it difficult to bite into the hard outer layer without accidentally biting into the quail bones, but it looked good. The soup, however, was easy to eat all the way to the bottom of the bowl, as it was a particularly flavorful blend of gorgonzola and Gruyere cheeses.

From the choices on the entree list, it's apparent that Mark Monette is trying to infuse some fusion into the Flagstaff. We'd decided to try the venison filet ($32), which came with a ragout of French green lentils, pancetta and spicy Japanese-style venison dumplings. Or so the menu said. Our waitress heard "sea bass" instead of "venison," so that's what arrived. After the fish was whisked away, my husband nibbled at my eggplant flan with crisp goat-cheese potato ($24)--an interesting combination, to say the least. The tasty flan was more like a dense, sturdy pudding, and the goat-cheese potato was heavenly, heavy with the musty, rich cheese. But the two parts didn't form a whole. Since the potato wasn't the crisp consistency promised, there was no contrasting texture to balance out all the smooshy stuff.

The venison filet arrived twenty minutes later, just as we finished the eggplant dish. The meat was excellent, sliced into medallions and cooked to a perfect medium-rare. But the accompanying ragout of French green lentils had been so doused with cumin that it seemed like a curry, which didn't quite match up with the Japanese dumplings. (Those were fine on their own, although they were far from spicy.) To the Flagstaff's credit, it charged us for the sea bass rather than the venison, which cost four dollars more.

By the time we'd finished our entrees, we'd been at the Flagstaff for three hours, and the babysitter's meter was running. We asked to take dessert home, and while the kitchen packaged it up, Scott Monette came over to apologize for the sea-bass mixup. As a consolation prize, he said, the chef was throwing in a special dessert along with the two we had ordered.

When we got home, however, we found no special dessert, just our order of a rich but light cheesecake ($8) and a bag made of chocolate and filled with berries and mousse ($8).

When I called the Flagstaff to check a few facts, Don Monette was rather upset by my description of our dinner there. He vowed to find out what had happened. But as he says, "We're only as good as your last meal with us." And who knows how many bad ones have slipped by while the restaurant skated on its reputation? The problems I found--a staff that simply wasn't up to par, burned food--couldn't be explained away by the kitchen having a bad night. If the Flagstaff doesn't fix them, it could be in for a very bad new year.

After all, if I wanted to pay $250 for just a view, I'd catch a plane to the Grand Canyon.

Flagstaff House Restaurant, 1138 Flagstaff Drive, Boulder, 442-4640. 6-10 p.m. Sunday-Friday, 5-10 p.m. Saturday.


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