Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Cafe 36 review-- see post and comments below


By Nathaniel Glen

It’s fitting that the Fine Arts Center’s new restaurant, Café 36, is named after the building it’s in, not the food it serves.

The museum, built in 1936(hence the cafe’s name) has always been one of the most brilliant in Colorado Springs. Even the most enticingly elegant dishes would be upstaged by this classic space, and the tired salads and trying-to-keep-up lunch and brunch entrees at Café 36 have more the feel of a gaudy teal pants suit.

The building, designed by Santa Fe architect John Gaw Meem, blends the cutting-edge electric sleekness of Art Deco with old as earth Southwestern pueblo designs. The dining room, just off the museum’s theater, really is stunning. It will never go out of style. You feel rich just walking in. Geometric cloud chandeliers that look like riffs on Hopi rain symbols hang from the ceiling. Tall, gracefully-lined aluminum doors swing open to a long, breezy balcony that overlooks the junipers of Monument Valley Park and the purple silhouette of Pikes Peak.

All the best parts of Colorado Springs are right there: the timeless mountains, the foresight of park-building city founders, the populist cultural gifts left by wealthy benefactors. All it needs is a fitting culinary tribute.

And Café 36 ain’t it.

The menu is vapidly fashionable. It has all the things it’s supposed to have for the ladies who tend to lunch here: a Caesar salad, a wedge of iceberg lettuce with blue cheese, a chicken sandwich, a portobello mushroom sandwich, a chicken breast, a salmon fillet.

It even has annoyingly coy names for perfectly ordinary plates. The menu calls appetizers “preludes.” The daily pasta special is called the “pasta of the moment” as if ordering 30 seconds later might mean a totally different dish.

The stuffy lack of originality would be fine if the food could stand up to it — if, for example, the pasta was packed with fresh, seasonal, local goodies. After all, many art museums have restaurants, and few of them earn rave reviews. No such luck. Even though prices are pretty steep, the food cuts corners. The rolls taste pre-made and frozen. The fruit salad is dominated by cheap, sallow honeydew.

Twice I dined with different women on the balcony. Both ordered the “pasta of the moment.”

The first received cheese ravioli ($12 need to check) in an ordinary marinara with a ridiculously long cheese cracker hanging off the plate like a diving board. I suspect it was there to distract diners from the fact that there were only four ravioli.

My companion took a bite.

“It’s OK,” she said. “But it’s pretty much the Olive Garden.”

The second, a few days later, had a fantastic-sounding champagne and herb beurre blanc over penne($13).

“It’s OK,” she said. “but it tastes like those instant pasta packages.”

“Or like the Olive Garden?” I said.

“Now that you mention it, yeah!” she said.

Every meal tends to leave the same impression. Is the seared tilapia sandwich ($9) with Edam cheese and a fines herbes citrus mayo that bad? No, but a friend described it as “Holiday Inn-esque.” Is the Chicken Forestiere ($12), a breast sautéed in mushrooms, shallots, garlic, herbs and white wine so terrible? No, but it felt like the main dish at a low-end retirement dinner for someone. We expected more since Chef Bruce Calder has been doing high-end catering and country club kitchens (most recently Cheyenne Mountain Conference Resort) for most of his career.

Is the desert, excuse me, the “encore,” of raspberry Grand Marnier white chocolate bread pudding ($6) so bad? Yes. It looks gorgeous piled in a tall martini glass, but the red drizzle tastes like fake fruit flavor and the whipped cream is canned — the ultimate sin.

The dish tells you everything you need to know about Café 36. It’s all description and presentation and no love for real ingredients.

The service is also clunky. Everytime I’ve gone, the servers have forgotten to bring part of the meal, and they have a distracting habit, when clearing tables, of chucking left-over water over the balcony.

Making a go of the dining room at the Fine Arts Museum isn’t easy. No one in recent memory has done it well enough to last, or even be widely mourned in passing.

But sooner or later, let’s hope the right chef will see the potential. The inspiration for truly great food is screaming from the lintels: Art Deco and Anasazi, sophisticated new metropolitan style, fused in seamless, timeless brilliance with traditional, from-the-earth southwestern cuisine.

When the comes, there will finally be a menu fitting of the museum.

Cafe 36



30 W. Dale St.

Phone: 477-4377

Hours: 11 a.m. – 2 p.m. Tuesday – Sunday

Entrees: $5 -- $12

Vegetarian: salads and sandwiches

Alcohol: full bar


Anonymous Bruce S. Calder said...

This "review" is a tremendous example of the despicable nature of the FAC upper level staff, the FAC advertising clout, the power of the FAC marketing machine working with a couple of small town food critics and editors... putting their heads together and doing some damage control on behalf of the FAC.
What went into the Friday paper was somewhat inaccurate, ignorant and mean-spirited and ended up looking like a huge free help wanted ad. Pathetic..., but highly effective.
Rejection is painful, and I simply gave fair notice that I was leaving for other opportunities after the Gala when I felt my days were numbered based on recent FAC decisions of which you have no knowledge.
The employee turnover at the FAC has been huge and with good reason. I decided to distance myself from their "used car salesman" /smoke and mirrors /get the money mentality that I saw demonstrated daily as they solicited and cajoled donations from citizens for what has become a wonderful and beautiful building and space for showing world class art.
I was acting in good faith by not bailing on them prior to the big event that I worked on for months. They/you have chosen to bash me and what we all built in the cafe. I constantly reevaluated what we were doing and can say I don't feel I have done anything wrong in getting that restaurant open and ready for the next level.
The powers that be obviously needed to protect their interest at the FAC... so I was stunned to see that you/they chose to attack me for the countless hours of work and preparation I put into the Gala event and the opening of Cafe 36 and all the catering. You should be ashamed and embarrassed.
My food was and is attractive, fresh and tasted good. Guests loved the quality of the food, the rolls, the sauces, the desserts and the whimsical writing of the menu (i.e. pasta of the moment, quiche of the moment, pancake of the moment). All things were tested and approved during opening dry runs and tastings that FAC staff and friends attended.
I was always told by FAC high level staff that Cafe 36 was merely an amenity for the art patrons. I worked to make that as good and fun as possible while dealing with the restrictions that the equipment presented and the small kitchen space allowed. I am always open to fair criticism and I know any cook is only as good as their last meal... The hatchet job you did on the Cafe is insulting. Your attempt at humor is lost.
I have fed thousands of people there since December 2006 at catered events, First Thursday wine tastings, special donor dinners and the Cafe 36 after Mothers Day opening. I can only think that if it was as bad as you say it was ...don't you know that someone would tell me (especially in this market) and things would have changed. My customers and the FAC staff that ate there and brought clients in for lunch liked what we did and told me so. Any complaints were very rare and were critically evaluated. Business was growing daily as opening approached....just as planned.
That menu was written, and approved at high levels by all, as an OPENING menu with the understanding that it would change after the galleries reopened. It was designed to appeal to the target market that I knew would have lunch in that great space. It was designed to TEST the (inadequate) major kitchen equipment to see how the flow would go during service while business was growing. It was designed to allow me to TRAIN the small team I was finally authorized to hire and get some sort of rhythm before business went through the roof. A rewrite for a better more inventive menu was in full swing when the recent events occured that allowed me to see past this position.
It was not designed to fulfill some creative ideas of the Colorado Springs Gazette food critic and editor. If they want to get in the kitchen and cook and work hard to create and put their vision into play....there is an opening for them is an unforgiving yet rewarding industry.
By the way, how was the food last night?

10:08 AM  
Blogger Warren Epstein said...

Mr. Calder,
Thanks so much for responding to the story and review. I'm always glad when readers get to see another side of the story.
First, let me say that the food at the gala Friday was mostly good. The veggie lasagna and the tenderloin were excellent. The mahi mahi was a bad idea. Keeping fish at the right cooking level for that many stations and for that many people was an impossible task.
I'm sorry you're upset about the review and story. I'll let Nate respond to some of the specifics. But I would like to find out what you meant when you refer to inaccuracies. If it's that you assert the food was good. Our critic (and that of the alternative weekly) disagreed. But that's a matter of opinion. If there are any facts you feel we got wrong, I'd like to confirm that assertion and run a correction.
I'm a bit confused by your first paragraph. The decision to pull the review when we heard you were leaving (which our photog heard from you!) was entirely our decision. It's really laughable to suggest that it had anything to do the FAC's advertising clout.
Advertising is an entirely different section, so I have no idea how much they spend on advertising. But my sense is that The Gazette financially supports the FAC more than they support us. I could be wrong. As I say, that's not my department, and my very ignorance about our financial relationship should suggest to you that I'm not at all beholden to them.
Still, I'm sorry you felt the review was mean-spirited and unfair. It sounds like you had a challenging job in a very difficult kitchen. Maybe the FAC should expand and update its kitchen if it's going to produce the kind of food worthy of the space.
Again, thanks for posting and giving readers more to think about.

12:14 PM  
Blogger Nathaniel Glen said...

Mr. Calder,
I assure you our review of Cafe 36 is in no way a conspiracy between the Gazette and the FAC. I'm not that well connected. I don't think they are, either.
As a critic, I bring a quiver on subjective and objective tools to help try to evaluate a restaurant. Do we always get it right? No. Did we in this case? I think so.
First, I always bring a number of different people to dine and keep my mouth shut during the meal to let them decide what they think. No one really disliked Cafe 36, but no one really liked it either.
Second, I constantly have friends and readers telling me about restaurants. If their opinions are vastly different from mine, I try to figure out why. I didn't hear any rave reveiws about Cafe 36. I didn't hear any complaints either, but when a place is really good, people will call and tell me, "you have to go there!"
Finally, since I eat out more that practically anyone else in the city, I have a fairly accurate sense of comparison and value. Cafe 36 struck me as a little steep for what you get. It offered little compared to its peers.

In the end, I judge every restaurant by one critical factor that everyone can understand: Would I want to go back on my own dime? At Cafe 36, the answer was no.

If there were problems with the staff, with the kitchen, with the management, etc., it still goes into that final equation.

Good luck with your next endeavor.


1:52 PM  
Blogger Bob said...

Where is Brent Beavers? email me at

8:29 PM  
Blogger scott davidson said...

Some pretty designs alright. Doing the painting yourselves is more fun but a good place for ideas for more design is this site of, that I use to help with my wall decorations.
You can browse for a painting like this The tree, by 20th century Czech artist, Frantisek Kupka, for example, , that can be ordered on line and delivered to you.

11:50 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home