Are you the sort of person who skips ahead and just looks at the ratings? If so, go ahead. You'll see a slew of fives there, a number I'm not prone to dispensing freely.
The Craftwood Inn has magnificent views of Manitou Springs and the mountains. The ambiance can be casually elegant on the patio during the summer, or cozy and cared for in front of the fireplace when the snow flies. The Colorado cuisine deserves your full attention, so be prepared to take the time to fully savor the experience.
You might wonder how ambiance gets a rating of five. A fine dining establishment like Craftwood is held to a different standard than, say, my favorite diner. I find Craftwood to be warm and welcoming. The hosts are gracious and polite, quickly offering to check your coat or hat so you don't have to wrangle it at your table. And while the tables are well appointed, they aren't fussy or overly dramatic.
You might think service is an element where a restaurant can easily score a five. Craftwood does make it look easy. Our waiter was fully familiar with the menu and able to discuss the various dishes and options while conveying the feeling that he cared about us enjoying our meal rather than trying to sell us something more expensive. Professional and friendly, he had an easy-going manner that never lapsed into over-familiarity. He was on top of the evening's changes to the menu, and when the wine special ran out, he brought us some samples so we could choose our next glass.
Finally, the food. I don't think I have enough adjectives to do the food justice. Delicious doesn't begin to convey the attention given to the food preparation, with every dish beginning as a feast for the eyes. The flavors are full, rich and robust.
For an appetizer, the tapas platter ($22) is enough for a table of four to share, a little taste of several items. The agave-glazed pork belly is robust and fatty (in a good way), touched with sweetness and a crunch from a sprinkle of chopped peanuts. The ostrich sate is two bites of sesame-accented meat with hot and sour mango and a deep, earthy peanut sauce. The fried manchego, a nutty sheep's milk cheese, gets a dusting of salty, tangy kalamata olive powder and a side of shaved Parma ham. The best item, though, is a huge, juicy seared scallop, accompanied by a little tomato conserve (a cross between a jam and a chutney) and sitting on a dollop of bacon jam. That bacon jam? Pure magic.
The rack of lamb ($36) brought a trio of succulent lamb chops grilled to a perfect, juicy medium. The chops are served over a homey, comforting farro pilaf with roasted carrots on the side. (Farro is an Italian grain, similar to barley, currently very hip if you care about that sort of thing. It's also easy to cook, with a delicious, nutty flavor.) The plate is served with a drizzle of rosemary and port wine reduction and a light mint syrup that beautifully accents the lamb.
If red meat isn't your thing, you could opt for the Scallop and Prawn Pappardelle ($29). Luscious, tender scallops and sweet shrimp are served in a tomato basil ragu with just enough spice and tang to accent the briny flavors of the seafood. The gremolata, a blend of Meyer lemon, garlic and parsley, adds a bright fresh note to the dish.
Craftwood is justifiably famous for its Colorado cuisine, specifically wild game. The Grilled Rocky Mountain Elk ($38) stands as a prime example. Simply prepared, the robust flavor of the elk shines against the uncomplicated sides of fondant potatoes and big, crisp asparagus.
A slightly fancier preparation is the Wild Boar Two Ways ($32). The night we visited, the boar in the Osso Buco was replaced with red deer, due to what their supplier was able to provide. As a big venison lover, I was not disappointed. The opulent venison shank was falling off the bone tender, resting on roasted apple halves and braised red cabbage, which added a piquant note to the rich dish. The boar sausage struck a perfect balance between lean meat and juicy fat, with enough seasoning to accent the bold pork flavors. The pickled mustard seeds added a playful pop between the teeth and a welcome note of acidity.
My dining experience at the Craftwood Inn was delightful in every way. Thoughtful, professional service combined with stellar food add up to a perfect evening in my book.
Restaurant character: The Craftwood Inn is justifiably a longtime favorite for Colorado cuisine and wild game. Although not inexpensive, the food, ambiance and service are stand-outs that make it worth a splurge.
Rating total: 5 out of 5 stars
Food: 5 out of 5 stars
Ambiance: 5 out of 5 stars
Service: 5 out of 5 stars
Address: 404 El Paso Blvd., Manitou Springs
Contact: 685-9000, www.craftwood.com
Hours: Nightly from 5 p.m.
Alcohol: Full bar
Credit cards: Yes
Vegetarian options: One (Sesame Seared Tofu and Soba, $23)
what’s online As of Nov. 27, 2013:
• 88 percent of 101 voters “liked it” on Urban Spoon
• 4 out of 5 stars based on 60 reviews on Yelp
• Active on Facebook; search “Craftwood Inn”
• Two violations were corrected during an August, 2013 inspection by the El Paso County Health Department.