17 March 2017

Travelogue: A short hiking vacation in Colorado

I never really liked Colorado very much. That is, until we went there in early March of this year. Throughout my career, I only went there a few times for business meetings (in Denver and Colorado Springs). On those trips, I didn't see anything appealing enough for me to return. My wife and I went to Denver in 2015 for a family wedding. It was a fun wedding, but still no desire to vacation there. But when the invitation came for another family wedding in Denver, my wife and I decided to take a couple of extra days and go to Boulder with her brother and his wife.

That trip completely changed my attitude. Not only could I see making a return trip (to Boulder, that is), I'm eagerly thinking about when that might be.
Day 1 hiking in Chautauqua

In early March, there's still plenty of skiing in Colorado, at least at the hire elevations. We're not skiers. We were looking for some scenic hiking. We found plenty of it in Boulder.We rented a cabin at the Colorado Chautauqua Association. We specifically picked it because it's located right on the hiking trails for Chautauqua Park, and it's only a little more than a mile to downtown Boulder and the University of Colorado campus. (More on our lodging below.)

Shortly after arriving and having lunch, we went to the ranger station at the Chautauqua Park trail head. The ranger helpfully assessed our ability . He recommended an easy introductory hike to help us get acclimated. The route took us across a meadow, relatively flat, and then into the trees and slightly higher elevation at the foot of the Flatiron rock formations that are a distinctive feature around Boulder.

The next day, we drove a short distance to South Boulder Creek and parked at the West trail head. No ranger here to advise us. But there was a good map available and the trail is pretty well marked. This time I remembered to start the Strava app on my iPhone. (Strava maps your route and tracks statistics such as elevation gain, total distance, and heart rate if you're wearing an activity monitor.) The route we took started by following the creek through a large meadow. It was pretty flat, but the trail was quite rocky. After about 2 miles, we connected to the Mesa trail that circled a large hill. We did take one wrong turn that took us about a quarter of a mile out of the way. But we doubled back and completed the circuit of the hill. Along the way, we saw a herd of mule deer grazing on the hill above us. According to Strava, our total distance was 5.6 miles with an elevation gain of 640 feet. We reached a maximum elevation of 6115 feet.

On our last morning in Boulder, my brother-in-law and I decided to take a more challenging hike. One of the popular features of Chautauqua Park is Royal Arch. On our first hike, we saw the trail sign directing hikers to the arch. We greeted another hiker who was on his way down. He advised us that the trail was very icy and slippery. "It's a challenging hike anyway, and the icy conditions make it even more difficult," he said. But we decided to try it.

He was right. As the trail gained elevation, we encountered increasing amounts of snow and ice. Some of it had been packed by other hikers. (Some of it had been polished by hikers who felt the only safe way down was to slide on their butts.) We did see some hikers with ice crampons on their boots. In the end, we didn't make it all the way to the arch. We rested at a point in the trail with great views and decided we'd had enough. Besides, we anticipated (correctly) that the descent would be treacherous as well. Our total distance on this hike was 2.9 miles with an elevation gain of 1019 feet. Our maximum elevation was 6793 feet. Good enough.
View from 6800 feet

The final hike of our trip was on Saturday morning before the wedding. We found the Bluffs Regional Park Trail a short drive from our hotel in Englewood. It was good exercise - a 3.5 mile loop (including side trails to scenic overlooks) and a total 200 feet of elevation gain. The views of the Eastern Slope of the Rocky Mountains were nice. But it really was an urban hiking experience and nothing to compare to our hikes in Boulder.

In Boulder, we rented a cabin from the Colorado Chautauqua Association. As I noted above, the main appeal was proximity to the hiking trails. We had a two bedroom cabin, two bathrooms, a porch, a living room, and a kitchen. We shared it with my wife's brother, his wife, and their adult son. It was not at all luxurious, but it was quaint and comfortable and convenient. I would definitely stay there again on a future trip to Boulder.

In Denver, we stayed at the Inverness Hotel in Englewood. Compared to Chautauqua, it was big and modern and luxurious. But it isn't really the style of hotel that I generally choose for myself. It was the designated hotel for the wedding guests, and one of the pre-wedding dinners was held there. I guess the two big deals about the Inverness are the golf course (I don't golf) and the spa (we went hiking and didn't use the spa). There was one feature, however, that I did really like. Downstairs from the lobby is a pub called the Spotted Dog. It was really fun. They have good craft beer and pub food. One evening we joined several of the other wedding guests in the pub where there were pool tables, table shuffleboards, darts, and other games. It was really fun.

I've written three posts about restaurants we ate at in Boulder - Via Perla, Brasserie Ten Ten, and Cafe Aion. All three were very good.

Chautauqua has a dining hall, and we ate there 3 times - one lunch, one breakfast, and one happy hour. The food is really quite good. They don't have an extensive menu. But you can easily find something to suit almost any preference. The meals in the dining hall are a reasonable value. They're not cheap, but also not expensive.Breakfast for two people was $26. The Happy Hour - 4 beers plus a couple of appetizer plates was $22. And, if you don't want to spend that kind of money, you can always use the kitchen in your cabin.

Happy house: Elk sausage (left), Brussels sprouts, and beer

16 March 2017

Cafe Aion lures me back to Boulder

I don't know if or when I'll ever come back to Boulder. But if I do, I'm for sure going to come back to Cafe Aion. I had my favorite meal there during our fairly brief visit to Boulder in early March.

We spent two nights in a cabin at Colorado Chautauqua. On our final morning, I took an early hike with my brother-in-law. Then my wife and I packed our car, checked out, and before returning to Denver, we decided to explore University Hill (or just The Hill) at the edge of the University of Colorado campus. We anticipated that it would be a funky commercial area like Dinkytown at the University of Minnesota campus.

We made a beeline to Starbucks because we hadn't had coffee yet. While we were relaxing and checking emails, we struck up a conversation with a friendly local. He had lived previously in Minnesota and after comparing notes about Minnesota, we chatted about things to see and do in Boulder. He asked us where we planned to have lunch. Up until then, we had planned to try a burger joint on The Hill. He made a face and offered an alternative - Cafe Aion. The way he described it, we thought it sounded good. So after we finished our coffee, we strolled by to check it out. From the outside, it looked fairly nondescript. But being adventurous, we decided to give it a try.

After exploring the campus for an hour or so, we made our way back and got a table for lunch. All I can say is, "Wow." What a great lunch it was.
Lunch at Cafe Aion

The ambiance is very casual, as you probably would expect near campus. The cafe was fairly busy for early afternoon on a Friday. But we got a table quite quickly. The style of food is Spanish tapas and Moroccan small plates.

Probably influenced by our initial intent of finding a burger joint, my wife ordered the burger. It was Colorado beef with brie and pickled onions on a delicious brioche bun. It came with sweet potato fries. It was fantastic.

I had a hard time deciding on what to order off the tempting list of menu items. I finally chose a vegetable tagine. It was roasted squash, carrots, and cauliflower with garbanzo beans in a sauce flavored with ginger and saffron. It came with two lovely pieces of flat bread. I liked it so much that later in the day, I sent an email asking for guidance on how to replicate the dish in my own kitchen. I got a prompt and helpful reply. Watch this space for a future post on my effort to cook the tagine.

We both had a glass of wine with lunch. Linda had a Spanish Sauvignon blanc from Naia. She liked it so much that I'm going to try to find it retail to buy for home. I had a garnache which was very good as well (though I probably won't try to buy any for drinking at home).

So this was a truly excellent and satisfying way to end our stay in Boulder. I noted, regretfully, that Aion has live music on Thursday nights plus a 'burger and beer' special - the burger that Linda ordered plus a beer for $15. What a deal!

There was only one problem with our experience there. Service was slow and inattentive. For us as vacationers, that wasn't a big issue. But I could see that some of the other diners had schedules to keep and were frustrated by slow service. Of course, I don't know if the problem exists at dinner. But for me, it's not a deal-breaker. I would definitely come back for either a lunch or dinner.

13 March 2017

At Brasserie Ten Ten in Boulder, the food is 'tres bon'

When we planned our early March trip to Colorado, I anticipated several meals featuring either beef or lamb. Turns out, I only had lamb once in any of the restaurants where we ate. But wow! It was great.

The restaurant was Brasserie Ten Ten in Boulder. We picked it based on good reviews on Trip Adviser and when we looked at the menu online, it looked very appealing. When we arrived for our 7 p.m. reservation (on a Thursday night), the place was jam packed. But our table was open and waiting for us.

When we took our seats, we worried a little about how noisy it was. We asked about another table, and in short order, a manager appeared and escorted us to another table. Now honestly, it still was quite loud. But to me it showed how committed the restaurant is to keeping its customers happy.

We ordered a round of drinks while chatting and deciding on what to eat. The top item on the cocktail menu looked good to me. It was called the Metropolis - vodka, cynar, Cointreau, and bitters. I'd never had a drink made with cynar previously. I knew that one ingredient was artichokes. That's true. But it really doesn't taste anything like artichokes. To me, the cocktail tasted like a variation on a Negroni with the cynar being the bitter alternative to Campari. Since I like Negronis very much, I enjoyed this cocktail as well.

So like I said, the menu is great. Before dinner, as we strolled along Pearl Street, when shop keepers would ask us where we planned to eat, when we said Brasserie Ten Ten, we got lots of encouraging approval for our choice and lots of advice on what to order.

My wife and I started out by splitting a 'hache' salad. Hache, I found out, is the French word for chopped, but this wasn't really like any other chopped salad I've eaten previously. This salad had shredded Brussels sprouts and chopped frizee greens topped with black currants, toasted walnuts, shaved Parmesan and dressed with a lemon vinaigrette. It was very good.
Braised lamb shank was a highlight

For my entree, I couldn't resist ordering the braised lamb shank. The meat was braised to perfection, very moist and tender, releasing effortlessly from the bone (which was decorated with a sprig of rosemary). The shank was served on vegetables, I assume from the braising liquid. On the rim of the bowl were three dollops of mustard. Wow! The mustard was very pungent and provided an excellent complement to the lamb.

My wife ordered steak frites. The steak was lean and nicely cooked. The potatoes were thin and crisp. Delicious.

Very appropriately, Brasserie Ten Ten has a good wine list populated with lots of French wines and supplemented with some very good California and Oregon wines. I ordered a Bordeaux red to go with my lamb. It was very enjoyable.

I was very pleased by our meal here and would readily recommend it to other visitors to Boulder.

11 March 2017

Via Perla offers delicious Italian fare in downtown Boulder

When I saw cacio e pepe on the menu at Via Perla, it was almost a foregone conclusion that I would order it. It immediately called to mind the meal I had on our last night in Rome on our Italian vacation in May 2016. Still, it was not an easy decision. There are a lot of tempting items on the menu of the restaurant.

We got a reservation at Via Perla on the recommendation of a friend of a friend. It's located at the edge of the Pearl Street Mall (hence the name 'Via Perla') in downtown Boulder. When we were there (7 p.m. on a Wednesday night in early March), the restaurant was busy but not overly crowded.

The ambiance is very comfortable. The warm interior lighting complements the wood, stone, and brick decor. The service is friendly and accommodating. Our server greeted us with a hearty 'buona sera' (though she later confessed that she's Hispanic and not Italian.)
Comfortable ambiance, good Italian food at Via Perla

As I noted at the beginning, the menu has a lot to offer. My wife and I decided to split three items. We started with the finoccio salad. This was thin-sliced fennel with orange and avocado on a bed of arugula and radicchio dressed with a Dijon and basil vinaigrette, shaved pecorino cheese and hazelnuts.

Next, I got the cacio e pepe, which means cheese and pepper. It's a simple dish. (Despite being enamored by the meal I had in Rome, I still haven't tried making it at home.) The version served at Via Perla is served with ricotta whey and olive oil, topped with pecorino cheese and cracked black pepper corns. I would have to say that it was not as rich as the Roman version, nor was it as peppery.

My wife ordered pesce bianco (white fish). It was flounder gently sauteed and topped with capers, sun-dried tomatoes, basil, pine nuts and lemon. The plan was to split our two dishes. But she wasn't particularly thrilled by the cacio e pepe, and while I thought her fish was good, I was happy to let her eat most of it while I enjoyed the pasta.

So overall, we thought the food at Via Perla was very good. But it wasn't a real knockout in terms of being impressive. As I've already noted, there were other items on the menu that I would have liked to try. For example:

  • Under the Antipasti, they have a plate of roasted cauliflower that sounds excellent;
  • They also have a cauliflower soup that sounds very interesting; 
  • Other salads that sound good include zucchini crudo topped with mint and goat cheese and charred lemon vinaigrette and a Caprese salad that also sounded good.
  • As an entree, Via Perla offers chicken marinated in Lambrusco wine. I would have liked to try that dish.
  • The other entree that really appealed to me was brasato made with short ribs of beef. Traditionally, brasato is beef braised in barolo wine. That's what I had during our stay in Piedmont last May. I had two versions of brasato there, one good the other excellent. I would have liked to compare them to the brasato at Via Perla.
The wine list at Via Perla is truly impressive. They have an extensive selection of wine from every region of Italy and a wide range of prices from easily affordable to outrageously expensive. We enjoyed a bottle of Chianti classico that was very reasonable and very good. 

I felt that the prices at Via Perla are reasonable and provide good value for the meal. I'm not sure if I will be returning to Boulder any time soon. But Via Perla would definitely deserve a return visit.