The Pepper Tree Restaurant has a dining room with a view, but the real spectacle occurs at the table.
This venerable establishment recently was named among the 100 most scenic restaurants in America for 2017 by Open Table, the online reservation service. Downtown Colorado Springs and points east vistas are impressive. But nothing beats the front row seat to tableside cooking.
Service here is a team effort. There are no sections or table designations. The team of five the evening of our visit moved seamlessly throughout the dining area in a well-choreographed dance of taking drink orders, explaining the menu, keeping water glasses filled and preparing the signature tableside dishes.
Carts laden with single-burner gas-fueled stoves and all of the necessary ingredients, depending on the order, are moved from one table to another. It's possible to have a complete meal, from salad to dessert, such as bananas Foster and cherries jubiliee, made before one's eyes.
Yet it's more than a visual experience. There's something to appeal to every sense: the sizzle of butter (an amount that would make Julia Child beam with pride) hitting the sauté pan; the heat of the flambé with the finishing touch of a liqueur; the aroma of the creamy sauces and mango chutney; the beauty of the simply plated food; and, of course, the taste when all of these elements come together at first bite.
The menu features three salads, but only the Caesar ($8.50 per person, two-person minimum) is crafted at the table. We were attentive to the process, so each ingredient was identified for us: Among the obvious, lemon juice, anchovy paste, Worcestershire sauce and egg beaters (per health department standards, raw eggs can't be used in the dining room). Servings are capped with grated parmesan cheese. Warm sourdough bread was a perfect accompaniment. As an aside, the butter was soft and didn't need to be pressed onto the bread in hopes it would stay in place. It melted. This is attention to detail.
The Pepper Steak ($39.95) is the restaurant's hallmark dish, and not just because of the name. It does have abundant cracked pepper balanced with a sweet/savory mango chutney. The menu identifies the steak as its "pride and joy." The center-cut filet is first seared in copious but delicious amounts of butter. The cracked pepper adheres to the meat like an edible shield and is topped with the chutney made with mango, spices and sugar. The finishing touch is the brandy. The meat is allowed to rest before it's served with the side dish.
Sides include loaded baked potatoes, wild rice or pasta. A potato variation is also offered, these can include potato wedges or scalloped potatoes, for example. Dinner salads are included in the price of the entrees.
Veal sweetbreads ($34.95), Chateaubriand for two ($44.95 per person) and Steak Diane (both $39.95) are the other dishes prepared tableside. We ordered the latter, which also features a center-cut filet that's seared in liberal, but delicious, amounts of butter. That's where the similarities to the pepper steak end. A rich and creamy sauce finished with sherry is pure decadence. The meat in both cases is of the melt-in-your mouth variety. Both steaks were cooked to medium rare perfection: slightly pink in the middle with a dark exterior.
The menu also offers lamb, seafood and other dishes.
Staff was professional, humorous and talented. I wanted to applaud; in fact, at one point, I did. I resisted the urge to shout "encore!" The view is nice, but I'd eat the pepper steak in a brick building.