Waugghhh to Go
Finally, I feel like a true Coloradan. I've eaten at the Brown Palace. I've eaten at Casa Bonita (and lived to tell about it). And now I've eaten at The Fort. That's the goddamn trifecta, isn't it? So where do I get me one of them "Native" bumperstickers? When do I get to start complaining about all the California real-estate speculators screwing the market and those goddamn New Yorkers messing up the traffic patterns?
For those of you who may have been in a coma for forty years or maybe just arrived here from Mars and have never heard of the Fort, let me try to explain its sometimes laughable appeal and its effects -- both good and bad -- on Colorado cuisine over the past four decades.
For starters, the Fort is a theme restaurant. There's no escaping that. It's been called better things (a museum of culinary history, a gastronomic time capsule) and worse (the fabulous obsession of one of the New West's great hucksters), but it's still a straight-through theme restaurant -- part Old West reliquary, part Planet Hollywood with cowboys. The servers all wear costumes (understated ones, thank God, but costumes, nonetheless), the walls are hung with artifacts of the trapper/trader/Indian fighter culture of Olde Timey Colorado, and the menu is an intellectual exploration of the West's close-to-the-land culinary past. And the place itself is, well, a fort. A brick-by-brick, 1-to-1 scale replica of Bent's Fort -- a trading post, army garrison and freight stop along the Santa Fe Trail in the early 1800s -- rebuilt in Morrison in 1962 according to original plans and drawings discovered by none other than Sam'l P. Arnold himself.
It took 80,000 adobe bricks to build this thing, plus the help of a double-dozen laborers brought in from Taos. Advertising man Arnold originally meant to live here with his family and...what? Walk the parapets at night, keeping an eye out for Indian attacks? I don't know. But somewhere along the way, it occurred to him that perhaps it would be slightly less crazy to use the place as a restaurant. Oh, and not just any restaurant (and museum, and meeting hall, and gift shop), mind you. No, a historical restaurant, specializing in authentic "food and drink of the Early West," featuring such mountain-man delicacies as bulls' balls, bison tongues, marrow bone "prairie butter" and lots and lots of steaks.
A truly eccentric, incurable obsessive (think Allie Fox from Mosquito Coast or that friend of yours from high school who was a little too into the Renaissance Faire) never knows when to stop, never recognizes when his passion has crossed some hazy border between hobby and fanaticism. And Sam'l P., he's world-class, right up there on the top rung with the new-old spelling of his first name, the Jeremiah Johnson costume he wears, his use of a tomahawk to crack champagne bottles, and trademark mountain-man cry of "Waugghhh!" But there's also some smarts down under all that weirdness. Because 43 years after he opened the Fort, the restaurant still packs people in.
Yes, he's half snake-oil salesman and half P.T. Barnum, selling his forty-dollar steaks and vision of the Old West to anyone in earshot -- but it works for him. It works for his restaurant. And it works for American cuisine. Because long before there was an Alice Waters talking about American product and American cookery -- back in the early days of James Beard and Julia Child -- Arnold was already out there, tirelessly promoting historic native cuisine, giving it the research, the time and the care that everyone else reserved for traditional French and classical Italian. The Fort has been serving buffalo meat for forty years, since long before Ted Turner "discovered" it and dedicated his chain of Ted's Montana Grills to the greater glory of the other red meat. As a destination restaurant its entire life, the Fort is at least partly responsible for Colorado's reputation as a meat-and-potatoes state, since generations of food tourists from both coasts have returned home with tales of this strange place where people still eat buffalo and tongues and steaks left hanging on the bone.
To this day, when a food writer visits Colorado, the Fort is on his itinerary. If a cooking show comes through Denver, odds are it's got some time blocked out for Sam'l to do his thing for the cameras. Even Julia Child visited the restaurant and, rather famously, ordered a second helping of marrow bones. That's a big deal: Julia never ordered seconds of anything.
So finally, I decided it was time for me to follow in Julia's footsteps. After all, I like marrow, too. I enjoy a nice, thick, bone-in steak as much as the next guy. I'd heard about the Fort when I was still back in New York, and I wanted to treat myself to the entire experience -- the tongues, the testicles, the handmade sausage and homebrew whiskey. I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.
And after two meals and several hundred dollars, I understand at least some of the Fort's attraction. Without a doubt, it's a beautiful spot. The views (when the clouds roll out) are stunning, the dining rooms handsome and white-tablecloth rustic without feeling creaky or geriatric. After more than four decades, the space still feels remarkably young and fresh and vital -- no small trick. Standing in the courtyard at the center of the Fort -- staring off across the bonfire, up at the lumpy red rocks rising behind the walls and the snow falling silently through the warm glow of the lights -- it was easy to understand why Sam'l is so proud of his creation. It's a real achievement, singularly lovely and unique. All of the wood is polished. All of the glass is clean. The stone paths and the yard are spotless. His love for this place shows in every physical detail.
And his obsession with the Old West runs all through the menu, even if it takes a few odd turns. Did Kit Carson really dine on peanut-butter-stuffed jalapeño poppers and teriyaki-glazed quail at Bent's Fort? Did fur traders who passed through what would become Colorado sit down to a nice meal of roasted salmon with maple-walnut reduction, or chicken spiced with cumin and coriander? Probably not. Still, Arnold has resurrected many of the ingredients native to this land, and he clearly knows more about Old West dining than I ever will.
I do know food preparation, though, and that's where the Fort sometimes falls flat.
Oddly, it does best by some of its oddities. The Rocky Mountain oysters (served as crunchy, harmless, deep-fried little bits of ball that tasted more than anything like the chewy, fatty bits on the end of a poorly trimmed steak) and bison tongue (which was nasty, dank and squishy, with an earthy murk like burnt rosemary and boiled turkey dark meat) are almost a gimmick -- items you put on the menu because, yes, they were eaten in the old days and they're still eaten today. Not often, though. Now they're an adventure, like eating beef-lung pie at a French restaurant or trotters at some highbrow offal house in London. They're a thrill, like foie gras or brain or sweetbreads the first time you try them, but not something you generally come back to unless you develop a taste.
Personally, I love sweetbreads and foie gras, and I like tongue -- just not the version the Fort's serving these days. Brain I can take or leave. Lung pie is just plain awful. Trotters, in my bourgeois opinion, are better used for stock than as an entree. And frankly, at this point in my life, I've put more balls in my mouth for money than I would feel comfortable admitting to someone who didn't know what I do for a living, but what the hell. None of this weirdness has killed me yet, and if it weren't for my willingness to try anything once (and most things twice), I probably would never have eaten marrow bones.
Marrow is wonderful stuff -- smooth and fatty and silky, with an odd, clinging quality that coats the whole mouth -- and more common than you'd think. If you've ever had a really good bordelaise sauce -- one thick and rich and almost impossibly glossy, like liquid velvet -- marrow was probably what was used to mount and thicken it. Black coq au vin? Same thing, although that was probably spiked with fresh blood, too. A proper demiglace is made from gelatinized veal bones and marrow, which you can taste if it's done right.
At the Fort, marrow is presented in its truest, most unadulterated form. Bison bones are split, oven-roasted, sprinkled with a bit of coarse salt, and laid whole across a bed of toasted sourdough crostini. You just dig in with a knife, scoop the sticky marrow out of the trench in the bone, and spread it like butter. I didn't order seconds, like Julia, but I certainly understand why she did. The bone marrow was excellent. So were the Fort's "Bison Eggs," pickled quail eggs set in Sam'l's own "buffaler" sausage with a side of fruity-sweet jalapeño jelly. And the homebrew Trade Whiskey off the potables menu -- made from some historic firewater recipe for bathtub pop-skull that requires the liquor be steeped with tobacco leaves and spiced with gunpowder -- was a treat. Served neat, it's definitely a sipping whiskey with a good burn, a surprisingly mellow flavor and a high-enough proof that, in a pinch, I could probably use it to gas up my lawnmower.
But not everything coming out of the Fort's kitchen was so charming.
When I got it with the quail eggs, the buffalo sausage was mild and tasty. On another occasion, though, it was wretchedly dank, loosely packed inside a skin with the chemical aftertaste of Liquid Smoke, and so overly herbed that I wondered what the kitchen was trying to hide. Sam's Famous Guacamole was infamously bad -- a greasy, bland and strangely sour mess that wasn't improved by the out-of-the-bag tortilla chips that came with it. The smoked duck breast tasted exactly like a hot dog, and not even the overly complicated braised baby spinach, maple sweet potato and huckleberry-balsamic compote/glaze could distract me from the fact that duck should never taste like a hot dog. Ever.
And for a place so proud of its buffalo, I thought the Fort would serve something much finer than the eight-ounce tenderloin, which (when ordered medium and served mid-well) tasted like flank and had the texture of stew beef. One bite of the braised and smoked and bourbon-BBQ-mopped buffalo ribs, and I was amazed that a kitchen could go to so much effort to produce a rack so utterly and completely flavorless. The meat tasted like damp cardboard dipped in KC Masterpiece, and the forty-buck price tag only compounded the offense.
The bone-in sirloin was good, though. Even better was a Saturday-night special of farm-raised Tibetan deer prepared perfectly rare. I'd expected the frenched elk chop (served with a sweet, syrupy huckleberry gravy) to be terrible, but it was one of those rare fruit-and-meat combos that works, with the sauce balanced just right to cut the gaminess of the elk.
But the exhausted red-potato-and-corn ragout that was the fallback mount for fully half the entrees was a throwaway. The kitchen plates these by the dozen when things start rocking, stacking them up at the rail like an assembly line, saucing them to mark their progression through the backlog of orders, then bam -- in comes the fire order, on goes the meat, and out go the plates. This is how the West was lost.
So now I've had all there is, taken all there is to take. I've eaten the balls, I've sucked the marrow, I've swallowed the gunpowder, and I can say happily -- and with a great sense of relief -- that I've been to the Fort and I never have to go back again. Unless, of course, Sam'l figures a way to bring Julia back from the grave.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.