It’s not often you walk out of a national park lodge restaurant feeling wowed. But that was my experience during a recent stay at the Far View Lodge at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado.
I dined twice at the Mesa Verde Metate Room during my visit to the park at the end of July. Here, breathtaking views could easily take your mind off a forgettable meal. Yet each dinner I enjoyed proved to be both interesting and surprisingly good.
Before you can set eyes on the menu, though, your eyes are drawn to the park landscape that spreads out below the restaurant and is visible through a wall of windows. Look carefully and you just might see some of mule deer that browse the vegetation below the restaurant.
As for the menu, perhaps I shouldn’t have been that surprised by the meals that reach your table. After all, Chef Brian Puett is the recipient of the prestigious Award of Culinary Excellence from the American Culinary Federation Colorado Chefs Association. The restaurant was one of five honored in 2010, and the only restaurant within a national park to receive the award. Still, it’s nice when a kitchen lives up to its hype.
Chef Puett has set the culinary bar high here, comprising an interesting menu of well-seasoned dishes that incorporate Southwestern flair using regional foods such as elk, bison, chipotle and New Mexican Hatch chilies (how can you go wrong?), corn, rainbow trout, and pine nuts. The website says these menu ingredients give a nod to the ancestral Puebloan culture. If only they’d had it this good.
Entrees are divided into fish, wild game, ranch, and garden offerings (read vegetarian). The choices are limited, which means the kitchen can concentrate on making a few dishes well, as opposed to many dishes so-so.
My favorite was their Poblano Rellano, a roasted poblano pepper flavorfully stuffed with black beans, red chile polenta, Mexican cheeses, caramelized onion tomato ragout, and a cilantro lime cream. I’ve had this dish elsewhere and it can be a gooey mess. Not so here. The chile was meaty and, thanks to thoughtful seasoning, the individual ingredients complimented each other. The result is a dish that’s hearty, not heavy.
Another hands-down favorite was the delicious White Chicken Chile appetizer. Although its description sounds plain — chicken, white beans, Hatch green chilies — don’t be fooled. The rich, mellow flavor of this chile, served on bed of verde rice and seasoned with a hint of cilantro, had me wishing I could add this recipe to my own repertoire.
Of course, not everything was spot-on. My 17-year-old son’s Metate Caesar Salad appetizer baffled him briefly. Instead of the usual bits of torn lettuce in a bowl, these romaine hearts were served in single stalks, fanned out in a circle around the plate, and sprinkled with croutons and shaved Parmesan cheese.
“I feel like a rabbit,” he said with a smirk, balancing several croutons on a stalk and nibbling briefly before reaching for knife and fork.
We were also not that enamored with the Blue Corn and Pine Nut Dusted Trout, which was a bit dry and more subdued in flavor. However, my son’s Cinnamon Chili Pork Tenderloin, quickly brought him back around. The pork was tender, enhanced with marinated grilled portabella mushrooms, and a hint of cinnamon seasoning that was simply elegant.
Finally, do save room for dessert, as they have an interesting, if fussy, array. We enjoyed the prickly pear crème bruelle, a nice counterpoint to my spicy meal, and a Mexican chocolate torte, a dense, flourless cake that is sweet without being overwhelming. After watching the sunset fade on the expansive mesa, these proved a fitting finale to a dining experience we won’t soon forget.
Memphis editor Jane Schneider is a certified foodie who remembers her travels based on the dishes she’s enjoyed.