The Land of Enchantment with its 121,356 square miles of deserts, mesas, rivers, mountains, forests, cities and villages is the fifth largest state in the country. In 2007, Albuquerque’s KOAT television station began a recurring series in which the station treated its viewers to an aerial perspective of many of the communities in its viewing area. That unique bird’s eye view perspective was captured from Sky 7, the station’s news helicopter.
In 2008, the station expanded its coverage, sending news anchor and New Mexico native Royale Dá skyward once again to show viewers the challenges faced by the communities featured on the series and how they are dealing with those challenges. Royale was joined by city leaders from throughout the viewing area who boarded Sky 7 to share what makes their communities so special.
One of the few cities visited in 2008 outside of New Mexico’s borders was Durango, Colorado, long a part of KOAT’s viewing area. During the aerial tour of the city, Durango’s Director of Planning and Community Development Greg Hoch indicated that Durango actually has more restaurants per capita than the city of San Francisco.
With a population of nearly 750,000 people, the city of San Francisco numbers just about 2,700 restaurants within its boundaries, giving it a per capita density of 279 people per restaurant. The City by the Bay is a formidable restaurant city indeed. Sheer numbers, however, do not make a city a good dining destination. San Francisco has earned its reputation as an epicenter for epicurean excellence not because of its overwhelming number of restaurants, but because many of those restaurants are of exceedingly high quality.
Durango counts some 15,000 residents within its boundaries and is not as well known as a great restaurant city as it is a town in which beer is literally woven into its cultural and social fabric. The city’s four breweries produce more than 15,000 barrels of beer annually, just over one barrel or 31 gallons per man, woman and child resident. The city of Durango truly appreciates great craft beer.
In past visits to Durango I left with the impression that the city has a number of “good” to “very good restaurants” and certainly appreciated the fact that there are so many of them from which to choose. Good to very good restaurants do not, however, make it a great restaurant town. Neither does the sheer number of restaurants.
During a visit in August, 2008, we confirmed that Durango is indeed a good to very good restaurant town, but it has one outstanding restaurant gem in its midst. It was a discovery as exciting to this humble gastronome as discovering gold and silver ore in the nearby mountains was to intrepid prospectors more than a century ago.
That restaurant is the extraordinary Hamilton Chop House, a tenant of the Glacier Club at Tamarron Resort’s Sundowner Lodge about twenty miles north of Durango. The distance separating this fabulous restaurant from dining establishments within the Durango city limits seems symbolic of the distance in quality between the Hamilton Chop House and every other restaurant in the area. At the risk of hyperbole, it is probably the best steak house in which we’ve dined over the past fifteen years–and we’ve frequented the Chicago Chop House, regarded in many circles as the best independent steak restaurant in America.
The drive to the restaurant is spectacular as is the restaurant’s setting. Nestled among towering oak, ponderosa and pine trees, the Hamilton Chop House is blessed with panoramic views of the nearby mountains. It is also adjacent to a 27-hole golf course. The ebony night skies are blanketed with a canopy of stars while the daytime’s cobalt skies seem to graduate in depth of color as your eyes climb skyward.
Descend a flight of stairs to the restaurant’s large living room and you might just be met at the bottom by the restaurant’s entrepreneurial owner Tom Hamilton, a whirling dervish of perpetual motion who pulls simultaneous duty as greeter, busser, waiter and genial host as well as occasional chef. Tom is involved in all aspects of his restaurant’s operation, having crafted all the innovative recipes that enrapt diners who frequent his fabulous restaurant.
The Hamilton Chop House is the veteran restauteur’s latest restaurant venture, an evolution over time from his Cafe Cascade, a restaurant named one of Colorado’s three best restaurants in 1990 by a Denver Post restaurant critic. Two years after closing Cafe Cascade Tom opened The Hamilton Chop House which he moved to its current site in 2005 after the Tamarron Resort made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Chop House is a bit of a misnomer in that the restaurant is so much more than an upscale steak house. Everything–from the imaginitive sauces to the flavorful stocks and decadent desserts–is made on the premises. Tom prides himself on purchasing beef and seafood of the very highest quality. The restaurant’s price point is surprisingly reasonable considering the quality. We’re talking about hand-selected prime and certified Black Angus steaks and chops properly aged to provide superior quality. Seafood is flown in twice weekly from a supplier who also provisions the very best restaurants in Vail and Aspen, the resort Meccas of the super-wealthy.
About sixty percent of any given night’s orders come from the nightly specials sheet which features fresh seafood and some of the creative appetizers and entrees from which the restaurant established its reputation. Tom Hamilton takes food seriously! His executive chef of six years is New Orleans native Chris Martin who shares Tom’s passion for providing a memorable dining experience with outstanding cuisine.
While not effusively oppulent, the Hamilton Chop House has a decidedly comfortable western and slightly masculine feel to it. A chandelier crafted from antlers lights up the front dining room which also houses the restaurant’s bar (the restaurant has a reputation for one of the best and most sophisticated wine lists in Colorado.) Large framed Ansel Adams photographs festoon a stucco wall prefacing the pristinely polished stucco half-wall dividing the front dining room from the main dining room. An imposing rock fireplace stands ready for those cold Colorado winter nights.
Framed watercolor paintings by the late Lenore Hamilton, Tom’s mother, adorn the main dining room. The paintings are a mix of beautiful, florid landscapes and vegetables such as mushrooms and red and green vegetables, some of which have unintentionally erotic qualities similar to Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings of flowers. Of course, men would find erotic qualities in Rorschach’s ink blots. My Kim didn’t see anything erotic in the restaurant (save for the steak on her plate).
In addition to prime beef and fresh seafood, the menu boasts an intriguing array of wild game including elk loin, kangaroo medallions, ostrich fillet and a mixed game grill. Seafood entrees include lobster with drawn butter, fresh scallops and a pound of Alaskan King Crab, all at ridiculously inexpensive rates that will have you doing a double-take. The restaurant aims to please and will craft a surf-and-turf combination to your liking.
Steaks are prepared to your exacting specifications, using well-practiced techniques of char-broiling or seasoning and pan-searing, your choice. Steaks, chops and seafood dinners include the Chop House’s homemade, freshly baked bread and your choice of garlic mashed potatoes, French fries, baked potato, rice pilaf or vegetable of the day.
An impressive array of sauces is also available for your dining pleasure, not that the steaks and chops need any amelioration whatsoever. The four sauces offered are a Bordelaise, Creamy Au Poivre, Mushroom Bordelaise and Four-Peppercorn. Each ostensibly offers unique flavor combinations that imbue beef with adventures in flavor.
Although the standard menu offers a strikingly inviting assortment of appetizers, be sure to closely study the appetizers on the specials sheet. This is where Tom Hamilton’s creativity is best on display. He has a gift for inventiveness, transforming appetizers the type of which we thought we had previously experienced into uniquely flavorful preprandial delights. These appetizers will whet your appetite and appease all ten-thousand of your taste buds with deep and lively flavors.
If the appetizers from the specials (appropriately) sheet had been the extent of our inaugural meal at the Hamilton Chop House, it would still have been a fabulous meal. Fortunately, those appetizers were just the start of an adventure in delightful tastes.
Make your first appetizer (you’ll want several) the Five Spice Quail, six unbelievable tender and meaty quail marinated in sherry with garlic, salt, pepper and five spice. The Chinese believe five spice embodies each of the five tastes in Chinese cooking–sweet, bitter, sour, salty and savory–but only when used correctly and in proper proportion, a balancing of yin and yang in food. Tom Hamilton knows his five spice, applying it in just the right proportions to bring out the tastes I would not have imagined from quail. Most quail tends to be on the desiccated and tough with a gamey blandness that’s hard to explain.
There is nothing foul about the Chop House’s fowl. Lightly battered and deep fried to a golden consistency, each meaty morsel (and there were s a lot of them for such a relatively small bird) was tender and absolutely delicious in its own right…so good you wouldn’t want to add anything to it. That is until you taste the absolutely phenomenal sauce provided with this appetizer. The basis for the sauce is a variety of flavor-rich ingredients such as fresh ginger, fish sauce, rice wine vinegar and chile. Somehow the sauce seems to appeal to all five senses, too. The only fair way to determine whether the quail are better by themselves or with the sauce is to request two orders, one sans sauce.
The second in our triumvirate of taste bud tantalizing appetizers was the Chipotle Shrimp, four oxymoronic jumbo shrimp engorged with cream cheese, green onion and chipotle chiles in a sauce of garlic-lime Beurre Blanc, an ultra-rich, buttery sauce. There is a lot going on in this appetizer and all of it good. It’s a coalescence of flavors that brings out the best of each component. The shrimp seem sweeter, the cheese sharper, the chipotles smokier. Wow! This is one for the ages.
A trioka of fantastic appetizers wouldn’t be complete without the Chop House’s Oysters Rockefeller, a dish renown for its richness. Most Oysters Rockefeller I’ve had are reminiscent of Stovetop stuffing on a half-shell in comparison, even those I consumed by the boatload in New Orleans. Perhaps that’s because the Chop House lets the oysters shine instead of blending them in a mishmash of ingredients (especially Hollandaise sauce) that obfuscates their flavor. Oysters Rockefeller that taste like oysters, imagine that. Imagine six oysters on the half shell nestled on a bed of sea salt with two lemon wedges destined for your table. What you can’t imagine is just how good they are.
A lighter appetizer, one invented by Tom and which has caught on like wildfire in Durango, is spinach the way you’ve probably never envisioned it. It’s deep-fried spinach with a light, crinkly texture on top of which is sprinkled Regianno parmesan. The deep-frying eliminates none of the spinach’s acerbic taste, but it somehow seems more palatable, even quite good.
Another aspect of our dining experience we appreciated was the wait staff which is personable and professional, especially adept at pacing your meal for optimum enjoyment. The serving pace they set allows you to fully enjoy an appetizer before the next course (or second appetizer) is brought to your table. There’s no competition among flavor contrasts here. Ask for Sean, as knowledgeable and attentive a waiter as you could ask for.
In my inadequate for the task verbiage, I’ve hopefully conveyed that the Hamilton Chop House is nonpariel when it comes to appetizers. It also measures up quite well when it comes to spectacular entrees.
Even if your appetizer melange includes shrimp, you might still want to try the grilled shrimp and scallops entree that features three of each oversized shrimp and scallops grilled to perfection. Both are imbued with a faint smokiness and lay on a rich sauce of Saffron Beurre Blanc. In taste and texture, both the shrimp and scallops are absolutely flawless.
While it seems that shrimp have become strictly a vehicle for cocktail sauce, these are shrimp you’ll want to linger, make that luxuriate in tasting. It’s shrimp the way it’s supposed to taste, shrimp that snap when you bite into them the way they’re supposed to when fresh. The scallops are similarly wonderful with a slight firmness instead of the usual pillowy texture that seems to turn off some people. In terms of taste, think ethereal–very light and slightly sweet, but with enough flavor to let you know they come from the sea.
Carnivorous cravings will easily be sated with any one of the steak offerings, but for maximizing flavor discernment, go for the New York strip with a Bordelaise sauce (made with red wine, shallots and veal stock) with gorgonzola gently folded into it. This is an entree I’ve seen several restaurants attempt to execute correctly, but when all is said and done, it is the chef who should be executed–usually for not being able to meld seemingly disparate tastes into edibility. Although Bordelaise and especially gorgonzola can overpower a cut of beef, Tom Hamilton has perfected yet another culinary challenge.
Not only are the flavors complementary, but they don’t detract from the “sweetness” of the beef in the least. It might help that the cut of beef is absolutely flawless–nary a sign of sinew or fat anywhere. This New York strip is so tender you could cut it with a butter knife. It is also grilled to perfection, again simply by char-broiling at the right temperature for the right amount of time. You’d think that little secret would have gotten around by now.
It will probably come as no surprise to you that the Hamilton Chop House has also mastered desserts and in true fashion, they are superb. They are artistically crafted by Sherrie Martin and are a feast for your eyes as well as for your mouth. If you somehow manage to save room for it, the desserts are homemade daily and are just beckoning for you to try them. One such example is the bread pudding which is light, moist and decadent, the three essential elements of outstanding bread pudding. This is one of the best!
The Hamilton Chop House and its affable and accomplished owner Tom Hamilton managed to make a huge fan out of me after only one visit, but it’s a visit we hope to repeat soon and often. As a result of that one visit, I “downgraded” other steak restaurants I had thought to be very good–which brings me back to a point I made earlier about restaurant towns, a point that applies to restaurants as well. That is, there are good to very good steak restaurants, but only a very select few outstanding ones. The Hamilton Chop House is one of these.
THE HAMILTON CHOP HOUSE
40290 Highway 550
LATEST VISIT: 21 August 2008
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Chipotle Shrimp, Oysters Rockefeller, Five Spice Quail, Grilled Shrimp and Scallops, New York Strip with Bordelaise and Gorgonzola, Bread Pudding