Finding True West: Colorado’s Best American West Dining Experiences

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A long stint with Marriott has earned Chef Paul Nagan top accolades in the culinary arts. “The group that turned the old Colorado National Bank building into the new Renaissance Denver Downtown hotel approached me,” Nagan says. “They wondered if I had a concept. A ‘modern whiskey saloon’ was the idea they had for the bar, so a modern upscale take on Colorado—‘New American West cuisine’—seemed natural.”

Nagan took the romantic notion of the Wild West’s cooking techniques—the open fl ames, the smoking—and staked his claim. A signature woodfired oven in a lovely open kitchen provides him with a lot of options; the super-high heat gives some dishes crust and caramelization, starting with simple flatbread baking. The Smoked Bacon Jam flatbread works off of a classic Southern recipe—the salty bacon is cooked, the reduction of sweet maple and a wee bit of bourbon is augmented by hot sauce and some onions and topped with mozzarella, cherry peppers and arugula. The House Italian Sausage flatbread is equally sublime.

But an oven is an oven, and the heat source can bake anything—the Wood Fired Veggie Salad, served at lunch, mixes the roasted vegetables with arugula, fregola (bead-shaped pasta), olives, pine nuts and herb pesto.

Nagan sources locally as much as possible, citing the repertoire of artisan producers that Colorado has built up in the last half-dozen years, from dairies and greenhouses to breweries and distilleries. I kicked off a recent visit with the D’Agave Old Fashioned, a refreshing libation of D’Agave (an agave-based spirit) with thinly sliced lemon and lime, muddled with a jalapeño pepper and honeycomb, served on the rocks and topped with ginger beer.

Then it was on to the Butcher’s Board. When Range opened its doors, the charcuterie was classic in nature with sliced meats; now Nagan has gotten contemporary and playful. The thick, crisp Candied Habanero Bacon, which started as a snack on the bar menu, has become a cult favorite. His Chorizo & Goat Cheese Pops combine the salumi from Creminelli Fine Meats (a Salt Lake City purveyor) with cheese from Haystack Mountain in Longmont. And the Duck & Rhubarb Parfait is the perfect flavor pairing— the acidity and fruitiness of the rhubarb cut the fatty nature of the pâté.

Nagan also has a smoker in the back, for slow, lower-temperature techniques. At breakfast, he does his own gravlax, putting some smoke in the box with the piece of salmon, cured in sugar, salt and herbs. The sublime Berkshire Pork Tenderloin, a dinner entrée, gets cold smoke on it for wood flavor, then is grilled to order and served with Brussels sprouts, roasted grapes, bacon whiskey caramel and grits.

Nagan had Rack of Elk on his last menu (it changes seasonally) and, before that, Elk in a Blanket—elk sausage wrapped in dough and sliced. The Colorado Lamb Sirloin, served with carrot confit, garbanzos, peppers, olives, feta, and green garlic yogurt, would get anyone’s respect.

And the sweets! Allow yourself the 20 minutes needed for the Wood Oven Caramelized Pineapple Tart, with house-made coconut rum gelato. I was similarly seduced by the Nutella Crack Pie, which combined the flavors of hazelnut and a Schedule II drug…no, it’s named for the “crack” that forms when it’s baked, like a brownie.

“There’s the prevalent stereotype that hotel food doesn’t quite hit the mark that private restaurants do,” Nagan said. “But I don’t have to follow that business perception. I’ve worked at large city centers and resorts and was given the freedom to create my own menus. I’ve always competed with the best private restaurants in town.” In Range’s case, competed and won.

17th & Champa, Denver ; 720-726-4800;

If you’re looking for a place to impress out of- town guests, The Fort is a unique only-in- Colorado environment, a celebration of the American West’s spirit and culture. The walls teem with artifacts (including a pair of the longest longhorns you’ll ever see), original Western art (a portrait of proprietor Holly Arnold Kinney, whose late father, Sam Arnold, opened the restaurant in 1963, hangs behind the host station) and photos of famous people and former presidents who have dined in the adobe building. Based on Bent’s Fort, a fur-trade center from the 1830s, the complex boasts a fireplace in the courtyard, costumed characters and musicians, and a stirring view of Denver. It’s a great way to finish a day or start a concert evening at Red Rocks.

Like her father, Arnold-Kinney passionately believes in preserving Western culture through food. All manner of pioneer cuisine—from Roasted Bison Marrow (known as “prairie butter”) to chile-stuffed (“Gonzalez style”) steaks to a hot fudge sundae dusted with chocolate adobe chile powder—appear on the menu. The most popular dish, and rightfully so, is the Game Plate—a bonein elk chop, grilled teriyaki-marinated quail and a buffalo sirloin steak medallion. Buffalo is the specialty, and the Fort serves more of it than any other restaurant on the planet. The famous cut is William Bent’s Buffalo Tenderloin Filet Mignon, perfectly cooked and seasoned, while the Smoke House Buffalo Ribs are a bigger rack than…wait, was Kate Upton’s picture on the wall?

Some of the food explores new frontiers of gastronomy—the Jalapeños Escabeche Stuffed with Peanut Butter is a fiery appetizer—but you may as well go balls out and order the Rocky Mountain Oysters. Be suspect of any small ones. The bull doesn’t always lose the bullfight.

19192 CO-8, Morrison; 303-697-4771;

Among the many reasons why Boulder is a remarkable place to visit is that it’s always been a place where fine food and wine is celebrated. For oenophiles, the new contender is Frasca, cocreated by Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey, with a comprehensive wine list boasting over 200 varieties. But the crown jewel remains the Flagstaff House restaurant, built into the mountainside and overlooking the city of Boulder at an elevation of 6,000 feet—and a wine list that recently earned Wine Spectator’s Grand Award for the 32nd consecutive year.

A few years ago, the printed wine list was replaced with Apple iPad tablets to display all 2,500 wines. I miss the massive tome—“I’ll wait for the movie” was my standard bit of repartee—but it’s still an impressive exercise to choose among so many great wines from around the world. Want that $7,000 magnum of ‘69 Krug? A $2,500 Chardonnay (proof positive that whites can price like reds)? Premium Austrian and Czech wines that are virtually impossible to find?

On a recent afternoon, my party started by considering sparkling wines—oh, you Bruts!—and contemplated the whites and rosés before turning to James, who was assisting the sommelier.

He recommended an Aubry Rosé Brut, from a small family-run estate in Jouy les Reims, a premier cru vineyard giving expression to Champagne’s indigenous varieties. They call it “farmer’s fizz,” a blended rosé from chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier (which is rarely sold as a single varietal but still accounts for over a third of the vineyards in Champagne). It was delightful—I could taste the pure layers of fruit. And I learned that a cork retriever is not a dog from Ireland…

1138 Flagstaff Road, Boulder; 303-442-4640;

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