Cafe Society

After forty years, the Flagstaff House is still a cause for celebration

"Eh." Over the two years I've lived in Boulder, that's been my standard response whenever anyone suggested driving up winding Flagstaff Road to the Flagstaff House Restaurant for dinner or drinks. The iconic, fine-dining restaurant has been owned by the same family for forty years and helmed by the same chef for 25. As a result, I suspected that winding drive would lead to stuffy service, outdated decor, boring food and astronomical prices — even if the views were good. There were just too many fresh, exciting things happening at other restaurants in the area to waste a meal, and a lot of money, on what I assumed would be a relic of the past.

Charged with choosing a restaurant for an early Valentine's Day celebration, though, I finally succumbed. If I was ever going to try the Flagstaff House, it might as well be on a Hallmark holiday that cries out for a lavish, multi-coursed affair. So up that winding road we went, sliding into the driveway and handing our car keys to the gracious valet.

My preconceived notions lasted exactly the number of seconds it took for the host to lead us through the golden foyer, past the richly appointed bar and into the glowing dining room to our table, which faced floor-to-ceiling windows looking down on the glittering lights of Boulder. At that moment, every assumption I'd had about the Flagstaff House was turned completely around.

The building was originally built as a cabin in the 1920s, then turned into a restaurant a decade later. When Don Monette purchased the place in 1971, he refined it into a world-class, high-end dinner destination, the stuff of legend. In 1985, his son, Mark Monette, fresh off stints at top spots in New York and France, returned to Boulder to become a partner and take over the Flagstaff kitchen, intent on creating a contemporary menu that reflected his culinary experience but also kept evolving. "It was all steak and lobster in those days," remembered Mark, when I called him a few days after my first meal there. "People didn't know what foie gras was. There were times when I would sit on $400 of white truffles that I couldn't sell."

About ten years after Mark returned, his brother, Scott, bought into the business. Together they've worked to keep the Flagstaff House relevant and forward-thinking, constantly finessing the 20,000-bottle-deep wine cellar and updating menus while preserving the homey charm of the old structure. And save for some outdated upholstery and waiter uniforms that feature '90s-era shiny gold vests, they've succeeded.

"Whoa, the future," my boyfriend said, impressed, as we took the wine list from our server that night. The waiter laughed.

"We just upgraded our list to the iPad and rolled it out," he explained. "Pretty fun for everyone." He left us to browse the electronic cellar, pulling up tasting notes and background information on various selections. Ultimately, though, we left it to our server to pair wine with the courses, an assignment he handled flawlessly. (On busier nights, the restaurant also employs a sommelier with an even deeper knowledge of the list.)

Even if you don't opt for one of the chef's tasting menus, which run five or nine courses, dinner at the Flagstaff House is a marathon eating event, complete with an amuse bouche, intermezzo, pre-dessert and whatever else the chef decides to send to your table. Splitting multiple appetizers is a good way to prolong the event (the kitchen will course them out for you) without resorting to gut-busting gluttony. And that's the route we took, nibbling on thick crackers adorned with light, velvety, smoked-tuna rillettes as we chose a few starters.

There was no way I was skipping the seared foie gras, especially because it came with crispy sweetbreads, making it a one-dish expression of why I could never be a vegetarian. The execution was flawless: a slice of griddled brioche layered with a decadent cut of sweetbread encased in a caramel-colored crust, then topped with a generous portion of soft, quivering, mineral-rich foie, lightly salted and melting with delicate fat. The taste spread cleanly across my palate and lingered there. We'd opted to pair this starter with the Monbazillac, a sweet, ambrosial white wine reminiscent of Sauternes (it employs the same grapes, though in different proportions), which further emphasized the flavors — and made me want to skip the rest of the courses, eating a whole fattened liver for dinner, even if it meant I'd immediately die of heart disease.

Luckily, I controlled myself, because our next choice was just as delicious. A bed of creamy polenta, infused subtly with a hint of white truffle, had been topped with rich, earthy morel mushrooms, thick stalks of tender asparagus that still offered a satisfying snap, and a lightly breaded and fried poached egg, which spilled a cascade of orange yolk when it was cut. I liked this combination so much that I ordered the polenta again on a return visit, along with a consommé of duck. Although slightly under-seasoned, the broth was aromatic and silky, swimming with al dente housemade ravioli filled with duck confit and sweet pumpkin purée.

Post-polenta, we received our intermezzo, a palate-freshening scoop of tart apple sorbet in a paper-thin cup made of brittle pastry. And as we spooned it up, we got an equally refreshing glimpse of excellent service. "I heard you say you have a gluten allergy," we overheard our server say to a guest in the middle of her meal. "I just wanted to let you know that your entrée has gluten in it. It's an easy fix, though, and if it's okay with you, we'd like to substitute potato purée for the gnocchi." While some of Flagstaff's younger servers might still need a little smoothing around the edges, that degree of anticipation and attention is exceptional — and more evidence that the Flagstaff House is not resting on its reputation.

For an entree, I'd opted for the ruby red trout, a fat, succulent fillet matched with a supple, seared diver scallop and salty orange salmon caviar, which gave way under the tooth and exploded across the tongue. A bed of pancetta-flecked fingerling potatoes and softly caramelized cipollini onions gave the dish some weight; a tiny, over-easy quail egg was the crowning element — unnecessary, but certainly welcome. On a return visit, I ordered the whole loup de mer, a Mediterranean sea bass served with head and tail still attached, a warm salad of woody hearts of palm, earthy black trumpet mushrooms and soft artichokes piled neatly in the hollowed-out body. After presenting the fish, a team went to work on it, plating it tableside with a small scoop of basmati rice. For that seafood entree, the sommelier had suggested a soft, round, orange-imbued viognier white wine, another triumphant pairing.

For all its conscious evolution, the Flagstaff House still serves plenty of lobster and steak, including an expertly seared ribeye cap — tender, juicy and crimson-centered. Medallions of the beef come on top of a fantastic, buttery chestnut risotto studded with nuts, which lent a pleasant resistance to the otherwise gummable side. Pungent Brussels sprouts added the illusion of vegetable-based balance, though the smoked lardons of bacon made even those decadent.

By the time we got to dessert, I was seriously concerned that I would bust a seam of clothing as soon as I stood. Still, I couldn't resist the homespun cinnamon ice cream — cold, sweetly spiced and a refreshing reprieve. I probably would have been equally satisfied ordering a French press of fruity Ethiopian coffee, because it came with a massive tray of sugars and mints.

We ended our evening silently looking over the Front Range, lulled into a food coma by the entire intimate evening. And when we did finally muster the energy to leave the table, the whole staff was there to send us off, giving us some blueberry-poppyseed bread for the drive back and "taking the liberty" of pulling our car around before we had a chance to ask for it.

Four decades after it opened, the Flagstaff House is indeed the superb restaurant Don Monette worked so hard to build and his sons have continued working hard to maintain. And although the price tag for our pre-Valentine's Day date was sizable, I'll willingly pay astronomical prices if I'm really being flown to the moon.