Cafe Society

Solid Old

When a fine-dining establishment is 34 years old, sits in a 128-year-old historic landmark and has an owner who refers to himself as "the third," you might imagine that a meal within its stodgy confines would prove palate-numbingly boring. Prime rib and Yorkshire pudding. Beef Wellington and duck a l'orange. Shrimp scampi as a "contemporary classic." Bordelaise sauce poured over everything, including the shrimp.

You might imagine that, but you'd be wrong. Our dinner at The Greenbriar Inn turned out to be as interesting and innovative as ahi tuna carpaccio served with daikon relish, spicy mustard cream, sweetened soy sauce and Thai chile oil -- which just happens to be one of this romantic old country inn's signature dishes.

The origins of the Greenbriar certainly didn't foreshadow ahi carpaccio. In fact, the building didn't even start out as a restaurant. Initially constructed in 1873 as a combination house/general store/post office for the town of Altona, a supply and transportation center for the miners of nearby Left Hand Canyon, Jamestown and Ward, the space was converted into a gas station in the early '20s after mining in the area was no longer lucrative. When Rudy Zwicker and Rudy Beaumel bought the place in 1967 and transformed it into a restaurant, the times dictated that they offer the fancy fare of the great, if unimaginative, hotels of Europe as interpreted by the great, if unimaginative, chefs of America. In 1982, Dale Eiden and Michael Comstedt took over (Comstedt now runs the kitchen at the Cook Street School of Fine Cooking), bringing much of the Greenbriar's cuisine into the '80s but still balancing such trendiness with plenty of dishes from the old school.

Current owner Philip A. Goddard III bought the Greenbriar in 1995. Since then, he's spent an undisclosed (but obviously large) sum renovating and updating the building and its grounds. Outside, extensive landscaping has filled in the twenty-acre property with more trees and shrubs, and a heated, French-door-lined atrium has been added that seats up to sixty people and offers breathtaking views of the surrounding property. Inside, the dark wood, low lighting and stone fireplaces are much the same as they were decades ago, but fresh coats of paint and repairs have removed some of the dinginess the dining room had begun to display.

And while you can still get beef Wellington and puff-pastry-topped escargot in that dining room, today the menu is mostly a roster of tantalizing dishes created and executed by chef Edwin K. Wiles II. Wiles got a little help from owner Goddard, who'd served as sous and later head chef at the Greenbriar under Eiden and Comstedt before moving on in the late '80s. "I wanted to buy the place in 1989, but the time just wasn't right," says Goddard, whose partner at the Greenbriar, Sean Folley, is his best friend from grade school. "But I knew I'd be back. There's something about having worked in a place, knowing its ins and outs, that makes it so satisfying to run."

While Goddard says that he still gets to "play" in the kitchen, the food coming out of it is the work of Wiles, a Johnson & Wales graduate who has degrees in hotel and restaurant management as well as culinary arts and business. A South Carolina native, Wiles had studied business at Western State before moving back to the South, where Goddard found him.

"I couldn't find anyone locally that I really hit it off with," Goddard explains. "I wound up hiring a headhunter and came up with Eddie nearly three years ago now. He and I just clicked right away, and we both understand in the same way what we're trying to do here."

One of the things Goddard has been trying to do, with the help of general manager Kevin Lane, is return the wine list to its former glory. "Back when the two Rudys had it, the wine list had won all kinds of awards," he says. "By the time I bought it, the list was down to about a hundred selections. Now it's up to around 900, and I think it's just a great list." Apparently, Wine Spectator agrees, as the magazine recently gave the Greenbriar's list its coveted Award of Excellence.

But the well-rounded wine list isn't the Greenbriar's only excellent attribute. The four-tiered service system -- training servers, banquet servers, and junior and senior servers work together as a team and pool tips -- ranks as not just efficient, but amiable. And the New American-style, internationally inspired menu is truly admirable.

The aforementioned ahi tuna carpaccio featured paper-thin slices of the fish, well-matched by the assorted sauces, each of which was strongly flavored but balanced out the others in that sweet-sour-salty-spicy Asian way. Wiles has an appealing ability to bounce flavors off each other, as further evidenced by the coconut-sweetened smoked-salmon cream sauce and alfalfa-honey vinaigrette that came with two pan-seared crab and lobster cakes. And a judicious hint of mint in the timbale of smoked salmon and lump crab was just enough to prevent the starter from seeming too rich, with the heady flavors brought even further down to earth by a coulis of English peas.

Mint was a major misstep with the artichoke and chèvre ravioli, however. The ravioli themselves were heavenly bundles of soft, pliant dough filled with Haystack Mountain goat cheese and buttery artichoke pieces; unfortunately, the pasta floated in a vegetable-based broth that was so heavy on the mint that the liquid became cloying.

But the Greenbriar redeemed itself with the next course, which included one of the best soups ever made, Wiles's roasted acorn squash soup. A simple purée of the sweet squash made even sweeter with toasted pecans, maple crème fraîche and huckleberry-sorghum syrup, the soup was so sweet and comforting that we wanted to order it again for dessert. (Sweet sorghum, also known as sorghum molasses, is a syrup made from the juice of sorghum cane and has a deeper, stronger sweetness than maple syrup.) A bowl of asparagus soup suffered only by comparison: Its strong vegetable flavor was exactly what is needed in an asparagus purée, with dry sherry giving depth and a drizzling of slightly sour watercress-infused olive oil adding a flavor bonus.

Even the salads had extra oomph. The mixed-greens version had been tossed with slices of English cucumber and sun-dried strawberries; although the black-pepper/pine-nut vinaigrette didn't seem a perfect match, it was tasty on its own. (We might have been better off with the creamy roasted-garlic dressing or the roasted-shallot/port/fig vinaigrette.) The blue-cheese dressing on the arugula and lolla rossa salad, on the other hand, made perfect sense, even though the salad turned out to be just arugula (the restaurant was out of the curly, red-leafed Italian green) tossed with steamed and chilled purple fingerling potatoes and red grapes.

Although the entrees were wonderful, their accompaniments provided the real allure of the main course. For example, while a seared piece of beef tenderloin had been paired with an equally impeccable grilled Diver scallop, they both seemed rather plain compared to the sides: truffle-whipped potatoes and a shiitake mushroom stuffed with hazelnut-sweetened foie gras mousse and adorned with Rossini sauce (a demi-glace made with foie gras, named after the nineteenth-century Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini, who was kind of a pig when it came to rich food). The shrimp brochettes were tasty little buggers, too, crusty on the outside and filled with shrimp goodness; still, the true star of that plate was the fancy ball of whipped potatoes kissed with lobster essence; extra credit went to a pair of truffle-crusted scallops and wilted baby spinach that had been soaked in a cognac-spiked lobster cream enriched by hearts of palm.

The Greenbriar offered bordelaise sauce -- with Bordeaux wine as its base -- on exactly one item, the filet mignon. An excellent cut of meat, the filet arrived on a pool of that sauce, which had been modernized with roasted shallots whose caramely-onion flavors gave the meat a sweet edge. The best sauce of the meal, though, was undoubtedly the saffron-tinged vanilla-cream elixir that came on the rabbit tenderloin, the most tender part of the bunny and a rarity on Colorado menus. And that scarcity is a shame, because rabbit meat has a great gamey quality (even though the animals are farm-raised) that, yes, tastes kind of like chicken but is so much more pungent. Here it had been wrapped in spinach and Brie and then baked in puff pastry until the cheese and greens melded into the meat.

As proof that some of the old standards still have merit, the Greenbriar serves up bananas Foster, tableside for two. Our junior server was up to the task, adding just the right amount of rum and plenty of butter, and cooking the bananas to the proper underdone state, so that they were slightly this side of mushy -- and more than addictive. Our other desserts were delightful, too: a down-home apple-blackberry crisp bursting with hot, fresh fruit, and a decadent flourless chocolate cake awash in caramel and ganache.

Instead of acting its age, the Greenbriar has managed to transcend it. This charming restaurant is an oldie but goodie.