Thursday, June 10, 2010

Brush with Greatness!!!

Well, it was a very remote brush.

Episode Two of Dining in Durango opens with your hero and heroine sitting on the open air patio at the Palace Restaurant. This is a Durango landmark and tradition, having functioned as a restaurant under its current name for at least forty years. The day was beautiful – temperatures in the mid-70’s, no humidity, and a slight breeze.

The patio looks onto the historic depot for the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Steam Train. Fortunately, no trains were scheduled to depart during the lunch hour lest the steam engine disgorge smoke, soot, and cinders over our intrepid diners.

“Chef/Owner Paul Gelose purchased the Palace in 1997 and has turned what was a 30-year-old, but struggling, restaurant into one of the most favored dining establishments in Durango.... Paul was exposed to the richness of Italian and Sicilian cuisine at an early age.... Paul moved out West to Steamboat Springs, Colorado in 1981…From 1990 to 1997 he owned and operated three Telluride favorites…From 1996 to 1997, Paul took a break from the mountains and moved to Chicago to be Oprah Winfrey's personal chef. It was the opportunity to purchase the Palace Restaurant that brought him back to Colorado.” (From The Palace’s web site.

Through my “Googling” of Durango restaurants, I’ve learned that most restaurant appetizer menus include fried calamari, seared ahi tuna, and pot stickers. The Palace was no exception, and the ahi, served rare with a cilantro vinaigrette, sweet soy, spicy chili sauce, and curried peanuts, looked especially interesting. Also on the menu were popcorn shrimp with a chili-lime aioli and garlic shrimp sautéed in olive oil with crushed red pepper.

I never hesitate to look around the room and spy on my fellow diners’ choices. At the table next to us, one diner was eating the Curry Chicken Salad Sandwich with apples, walnuts, golden raisins, and spinach on whole grain bread. This was a very large sandwich—at least an inch thick—and came with an equally large serving of shoestring fries. Another diner at the same table was eating the Southwest Chicken Wrap—sliced, grilled chicken breast, pepper jack cheese, roasted green chilies, tomatoes, romaine lettuce, and chipotle aioli rolled in a flour tortilla. This was the largest wrap I have ever seen—at least as big around as my wrist and would have fed both Chuck and I with leftovers.

But both of us opted for the day’s specials. For Chuck, it was $7.00 special—Penne Pasta with fresh garlic, basil, and roma tomatoes sautéed in olive oil tossed with fresh mozzarella cheese. This was pasta as he likes it, with a light sauce of chunky fresh tomatoes with a modest amount of garlic and a generous amount of fresh basil.

I chose the other special—the Buffalo Chicken Sandwich with pommes frites (shoestring fries). This was a monster plate of food, which I should have guessed would be the case after spying on our neighbors’ plates. The chicken breast had been slightly flattened and then breaded with panko crumbs. After frying, the chicken was tossed in a relatively spicy wing sauce and served on a crispy bun with blue cheese and baby greens.

I usually don’t order chicken breast sandwiches. Too often the meat comes from the kitchen over cooked, dry, and stringy. But this chicken breast was ultra juicy and the contrast between the crisp coating and moist meat was perfect. And the shoestring fries were excellent.

But I took one look at the size of the sandwich and knew that there was no way I would finish it. It was at that point that we decided to do the “half and half” and share both of our meals. I enjoyed Chuck’s pasta and he enjoyed my sandwich.

Time for dessert and our server brought the tray. Our choices were crème brulee, key lime pie, Bailey’s Cream chocolate pie, chocolate pot au crème, and—our pick—the warm Jumble Berry Crumb—rhubarb, blueberries, strawberries, and peaches covered with a walnut crumb topping and served with vanilla ice cream. Wow. The rhubarb (another one of the foods that I wouldn’t touch as a child) gave just enough tartness to counteract the sweetness of the other berries and the pears.

My only complaint about The Palace Restaurant is with the tables which were so short as to make for uncomfor-table dining.

Call me picky if you must, but this flaw results in a 4.5 Addie rating.