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Eat Of The Week – Cafe Mexicali

Starting this month I will be going on food adventures with like-minded friends and readers, exploring tacos all across Fort Collins with Tuesday Taco Club.

It should be a lot of fun. It gives us a chance to see who has the best tacos in Fort Collins, and I’ll probably be able to knock out some Mexican food reviews while I’m at it.

Last week Bill was craving Cafe Mexicali for dinner, and instead of getting my usual sweet pork quesolle, I opted to order their fish tacos. They were too salty, which was a taco first for me. I don’t think I’ll order then again when we go as Tuesday Taco Club.

Tomorrow is our first Taco night out at Matador, and there’s still room to jump in. Go get your reservations in if you’d like to join us and eat tacos all over Fort Collins!

 

The Kitchen

Photo Credit: The Kitchen Facebook

Photo Credit: The Kitchen Facebook

For many months the corner of Mountain and College housing the historic Avery building remained under construction. The curious and excited chatter of Fort Collins dining enthusiasts grew.

“When is The Kitchen opening? I can’t wait! I love the Boulder location,” I’d hear people say.

“Fort Collins really needs The Kitchen. We need some Boulder influence up here,” others would remark.

After construction delays that aren’t unusual for a new restaurant opening, especially a swanky-looking restaurant in a historical building, The Kitchen Fort Collins opened their doors June 18, 2014, promising a new dining experience with a focus on rustic dishes prepared with carefully selected ingredients. They’ve wowed people with their community-focused cuisine in Boulder since 2004, then Denver in 2012, and shortly after the Fort Collins opening this year, they moved into Chicago to open another location Wednesday of this week.

I noticed people changing their tune once they had a chance to jump on reviews here in town. There are three common points when people bring up criticism of The Kitchen:

  1. The comparison to Boulder and Denver locations
  2. The quality of service
  3. The price point compared to other restaurants in Fort Collins

Bill and I went on a Monday night date night last month to start the review. We sat out on their patio while the evenings were still pleasantly warm. They have one of the best people-watching patios in Fort Collins being right smack dab in the middle of Old Town, and we took full advantage of that as we poured over the menu to start our eating adventure while waving to friends who walked by.

I started with one of their signature cocktails – the Persian Lemon.

persian Lemon

It was mixed with Kettle One Citroen Vodka, Pama, Pineapple and Lemon. I thought it was a delightful cocktail with smooth tropical flavors. But, it was a small sipping cocktail; these are not large drinks. As delightful as they are, don’t expect a bar-type cocktail here.

For our appetizers we ordered the Merguez Lamb Sausage – with lentils, harissa, cumin, yogurt, and cilantro.

Merguez

This was a strongly flavored spiced sausage dish. Between the slight game-like flavor of the lamb, and the mix of middle-eastern spices, it was a dish that I think some would either love or hate. It’s not something you’d find often in Fort Collins (if at all), and while I think it may have been an acquired taste, I did enjoy it. Bill, on the other hand, was more difficult to impress.

We also ordered the Ela Family Farm Peach Bruschetta – with Burrata, basil, and saba.

Peach Bruschetta

I loved this. I absolutely loved this. The peaches tasted farm-fresh, full of flavor and ripe with juice. The burrata was nice and creamy. I would have eaten this all day long. It was fantastic.

We both ordered the same thing for our entree – Dry Aged Koberstein Ranch Steak, pan seared, with duck fat potatoes, sautéed greens, and a side of bearnaise sauce. This also came highly recommended by Erica at Farming Fort Collins, one of my awesome bloggers in the network.

Ranch Steak

Ok, now here’s the deal. We were on a date night, and if you know me personally, or pay any attention to the occasional Friday Night tweets on Twitter, then you are well aware of our weekly Friday Night Date Nights that include pretty much this exact dish, minus the duck fat and instead of greens we have grilled asparagus. This was the gourmet version of our weekly dinner. I know I’ve been married to Bill for nearly 16 years, and I’m probably biased, but I’m really not exaggerating when I say that he grills the best steak I’ve ever had in Fort Collins. So much that every steak we eat at a restaurant is a complete disappointment, making me the most harsh steak critic in essentially all time and eternity. I cannot recommend a steak for you in Fort Collins because I think they all suck based on what I eat at home Every. Single. Week.

So, we both ordered this. We took our first bite. I looked at Bill. He looked at me. His face softened.

“It’s not bad. It’s not what we have at home, but it’s close,” he said reluctantly.

It wasn’t as good as what we have at home, but it was close, and with as close as it was, I could consider it the best steak in Fort Collins.

It wasn’t as tender or juicy as I’d hoped, but I honestly enjoyed it. The rosemary garlic pan sear gave it a nice crust, and it was flavorful enough that I didn’t have to cover it in bearnaise. We both ordered it medium rare. Mine was cooked pretty close to order. However, Bill’s was overdone to medium well. If you’re as much of a steak connoisseur as we are, then you know how unfortunate this is. It happens at just about every restaurant in Fort Collins, and it’s one reason we don’t order steak out – you rarely get a steak cooked to temp. We hate sending food back to the kitchen for things like this – when things are just alright instead of absolutely perfect.

Our server stopped by to ask how things were. Bill was honest and told him that the steak was overcooked, but it was alright, he’d keep eating it instead of sending it back. Our server thanked him for being flexible and understanding. The next time he stopped by, he brought over some thank you/apology cookies from the kitchen.

cookies

We splurged for dessert because it was for the review. Bill ordered the sticky toffee pudding with pecan sauce and house vanilla gelato.

Sticky Toffee Pudding

He was in heaven. Absolute heaven. It was rich, sweet, decadent. Everything a sticky toffee pudding should be.

I ordered the Pot au Chocolat with heavy cream. It was extraordinarily rich and each scoop brought up thick spoonfuls of dark chocolate. It was almost too much to bear, but that’s the level of chocolate I love. We were both very happy with our last dish.

pot au chocolat

Overall, this experience was agreeable. Service was certainly on the slower side, but we never felt completely forgotten. It was more the you’re supposed to enjoy a meal like this with slow service kind of experience. We also walked out of there paying about $160 for the night. That was painful. I hate that people are giving them 1 and 2-star reviews because of their price point. Yes, they are expensive, but that doesn’t take away from the flavor or quality of the experience. It’s like giving a Michelin-starred restaurant a 1-star review because you can’t afford to eat there (not saying The Kitchen is to that standard, but you know what I mean). I walked away from this night feeling like they were on track for a generous 4-star review.

And then I came back for community night dinner with close to 10 of my friends for the second visit. There were a few other people who shared our table with us.

Kitchen Community Night

If you’re not familiar with their community night dinner, it’s a five-course dinner held every Monday night. You need to make reservations 24 hours in advance. 20% of the sales are donated to help support Leaning Gardens in local schools. And? Hold on to your hats here – it’s only $35 for the whole five-course dinner. Want to do a beer or wine pairing with it? Add and extra $18 for a total of a little under $60 per person. THIS IS A STEAL.

Catch 22 to the whole deal – you don’t get to choose what you eat, it’s the chef’s choice. While they do accommodate for allergies and dietary restrictions, I wouldn’t recommend going out for a meal like this if you need it. But, if you’ve been wincing at small portion sizes and the price point, then stop coming here Tuesday through Sunday. Monday is your night to enjoy what The Kitchen is supposed to be about.

After all of my friends had arrived and were introduced, our server gave us the details of how the meal would progress. As three large family-style platters were being served, we chatted and laughed, unaware that these three platters were all the first course. We happily dug in, filling up our plates until I looked at the menu.

“Oh, hell. This is just the first course and I’m almost full!” I exclaimed. “Get ready for your fat pants!”

The first course consisted of Grilled Ela Family Farm Peaches with burrata, similar to what I’d had in the previous visit. The one that I LOVED. And so did many of my friends. We also had Native Hill Farm Heirloom Tomato Panzanella, which was also a table favorite, because the tomatoes were loaded with that farm-fresh flavor that Native Hill is known for. We also had Spring Kite Farm Stuffed Eggplant filled with lamb, marcona, almond and tahini sauce.

Grilled Peaches

Tomato Panzanella

Stuffed Eggplant

Each dish was lovely. I opted to add a wine pairing with the meal. This course was served with a Zocker Gruner Vetliner. Perfect.

The second course was a Mushroom Pappardelle dish served with large, meaty slices of mushroom and celery leaves. The pasta had been hand-made 2 hours prior to the dinner event. We also had a Native Hill Fennel Salad with arugula, pear, pecorino toscano, and lemon oil.

Mushroom Pappardelle

Fennel Salad

Amazing. Simply amazing. The pasta was thick and delicious, dressed in a savory mushroom cream sauce. People piled this onto their plates, almost neglecting the salad, or feeling obligated to add greens to their plate. This was high-quality comfort food.

This dish was paired with Notary Public’s 2013 Pinot Noir.

The fourth course was Koberstein Ranch Flank Steak Au Poivre with Native Hill Farm Carrot Puree, and Winter Greens Gratin. I thought for sure we’d have a chicken dish for a community meal, but no – they pulled out all the stops with steak. It was so well prepared with each steak center being an attractive pink-red. The whole night did not disappoint in any way. We were so full at this point that we had quite a bit left over. Our server happily made to-go boxes for everyone so we had leftovers for the next day.

Flank Steak

This course was paired with Long Meadow Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon and Col Dei Venti Barbera. Two wines you say? Yes, two wines – because one of my friends had difficulty choosing one, and our server offered to bring both for him. And the next thing we know, we all get two glasses.

The last and final dish was the Ela Family Farm Pear-Almond Tart for dessert. The one bite that I took was the ultimate way to complete the evening. Firm buttery crust, earthy sweet pears. I could only take one bite because there was so much food, I was certain I was going to burst at this point. I placed it in the to-go box to give to Bill later.

Pear Tart

We all walked away from this dinner satisfied and elated. It was one of those magical dining moments that we all hope for, with great friends, delicious food, and an evening of connection. I’m sure most reading this are skeptical, thinking that this dinner happened the way it did because somehow they knew they’d be reviewed. I’ve waited almost a month to publish this review and have had friends attend their community night dinners to report back with similar experiences, often met with “this was the best dining experience of my life.” I don’t think community dinners are a fluke, and thus this is exactly what bumps them up to a five-star review.

The three common points when people bring up criticism of The Kitchen:

  • The comparison to Boulder and Denver locations – they really aren’t the same as Boulder or Denver, or even Chicago for that matter. We need to think of what they are in Fort Collins. While I don’t think they make the #1 best restaurant of Fort Collins, they certainly aren’t deserving of one or two-star ratings, either.
  • The quality of service – service wasn’t a song and dance like most people might expect. We’ve had that at Rioja in Denver. It made me a little squirmy because it was too much. Honestly, I don’t know what most people expect with service. While I respect that each person has their own experiences, and I undoubtedly have lower expectations than the majority of the readership, I wasn’t so turned off that I would never return. It was slow at some points, but not neglectful.
  • The price point compared to other restaurants in Fort Collins – you’re going to pay more here. We can’t ask for Boulder influence with Fort Collins price tags. I can’t dine here regularly like we did for date night. I’d be able to come back for community nights and happy hours. I don’t hold this against them, and I don’t think it’s fair to reduce a rating because of it, but lack of funds is a reality in Fort Collins. It goes right into the conversations I’ve had with readers about all of our restaurant closures. Our economy here in town is more strained than we actually talk about, and restaurants at this price point will be difficult to sustain. Unless you go to community night dinner.

 

The curious and excited chatter of Fort Collins dining enthusiasts might have grown skeptical since the opening of The Kitchen. I do think their regular menu fell to overly high expectations – it’s not the best, it is expensive. But I really do appreciate their quality. Their philosophy is creating community through food. I can buy into that. I already do, and have for the last 5 years.

 

The Kitchen    
100 North College
(970) 568-8869
thekitchen.com

Kid Friendly? Not particularly. It’s not that you can’t bring your kids here, but it’s more geared toward an adult palate.

Parking: Limited Old Town street parking, there are garages nearby.

Healthy Options? There are smaller plates to choose from, but there’s no menu labeling for GF.

Budget Friendly? Not even close. Happy Hours and Community Nights are your best bet with that.

Recent Health Inspection: Marginal

Five Stars

Local Libations – Moot House

Punch

I’m always on the lookout for unusual or extraordinary cocktails in Fort Collins. This Local Libations fits into the more unusual category.

Not too long ago I was at a group lunch meeting at The Moot House. It was a Friday lunch, which meant people were going to have cocktails with their meal and call it a half-day, myself included. It’s kind of the Fort Collins way. I browsed the menu and one particular drink stood out to me – Publick House Punch – Dancing Pines Rum, house sour mix, and peach brandy served in a pewter mug.

The drink itself was just alright. It wasn’t bad, and it wasn’t amazing. It was cloying, mostly from the sour mix, and not noticeably strong. It was just an average cocktail. But I can tell you, there’s no other place in town that makes you feel like you’re drinking a cocktail from the Medieval Times menu.  The pewter mug certainly keeps that cocktail crisp and cold no matter how long it takes to sip. From how sweet it is, it does indeed take a while to sip.

I wouldn’t order this again because it’s what’s in the cup that matters most, and it goes to show that you can use all local ingredients and things can still taste off. But I thought it was quirky. Sometimes it’s just as fun to find the odd along with the best.