Deconstructing what makes The Famous famous Appetite

By Matthew Schniper, C.S. Independent

This isn't so much a review as a semi-guided query: Why did Indy readers vote The Famous as our best fine dining and best overall restaurant this year?

It's a question underlying many others I initially posed to general manager Johnathan Shankland last month, while trying to flush out the subtle qualities that distinguish this leather-booth-and-steak-knife setup from every other in this inconsistent world, where price never really guarantees a superior meal.

And the answer isn't as simple as talking about a chef, or front-house philosophy, or ingredient sourcing, menu execution, alcohol adeptness or ambiance. It's presumably a cocktail of all those elements that compelled voters — and maybe a little something, too, about generally big portions, which gift a larger-than-life tint to tastings.

In the Famous' 12 years, Shankland says, its success has been built upon adherence to core principles, one of them being giving customers what they want. Yes, because we live in big houses and drive big cars, we tend to like our meat cuts Texas-worthy. And damn if we don't love deals, like a Friday lunch special where a burger or Red Bird chicken salad and bottle of Colorado craft beer or half glass of wine is only $12. (I was erroneously charged $13, but could hardly complain, having enjoyed live Colorado Springs Conservatory music as part of the bundle.)

Even the pickle that tops a bowl of oregano-forward coleslaw is massive. And excellent, outwardly floral house rosemary onion sourdough makes the bun an equal highlight to the protein, which is 40 percent ground chuck from Hotchkiss' 7X Beef and 60 percent trim from pricey primal cuts. Ample fat delivers flavor and juiciness under a gooey blue cheese cap, even when the burger ordered medium-rare arrives bereft of pinkness on a notably cold bun.

Sundays deliver additional deals, with three courses for $34.95 a head, or a surf-and-turf deal that includes a prime filet and lobster tail (each 7 ounces) for $49.95. Get a standout Caesar salad as course the first, and a fine, dense, flourless chocolate torte as the finisher.

We passed over the 16-ounce ribeye, an organic salmon cut or the filet solo (the three-course options) to delight in the crustacean with a glistening drawn-butter sweat. The filet, meanwhile, cut like an Ahi tuna chop, brilliantly pink throughout and seasoned lightly with a proprietary house blend.

Shankland later toured me through the kitchen to see the two-broiler oven unit that makes the magic, noting that chef Brian Sack and crew will constantly rotate steaks from the prep drawers to allow them to come up to room temp before firing, enabling an even cook-through before too heavy an exterior char.

And because Shankland and I trace a professional friendship back to his Broadmoor days, he insists on comping us two cocktails while treating us to a cursory sampling of several Amaros (Italian herbal digestifs or aperitifs) and other elusively infused bitters with which the bartenders have been playing. Cardamaro, an oak-aged, wine-based spirit steeped with artichoke and blessed thistle, and bearing baking spice and sweet sherry notes, informs my Café Racer ($8) along with Carpano Antica Vermouth and orange peel. A Spring44 honey vodka-strong Ginger Me Timbers ($12) doesn't deliver a lot of ginger bite, considering it's made with Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur and ginger shrub (the root reduced with cider vinegar and sugar), plus lemon peel and a faint Earl Grey simple syrup.

Another way to stay on budget, if not splurging for a $46 New York Strip or $48 rack of Colorado lamb, is to go à la carte with small plates. The French onion soup ($6) sports an incomparably deep beef base, so much so that upon first sip with a string of Gruyere cheese in tow, I feel like I've just nibbled from meatball lasagna.

Pacific Northwest oysters ($13) are still amply fresh two days after last delivery, and worrying types can bury them in potent horseradish, lemon juice or cocktail sauce. Most bully is the charred applewood Wisconsin pork belly ($13), a prolific slab plated with a tower of onion rings and a peppery Cabernet reduction. Less like gelatinous-centered renditions, this turns the divine substance into something more like barbecued holiday ham, with tougher strata peeling apart under a flaky bark. It pretty much tastes like being hugged by a loved one.

Ultimately, all is reduced to a feeling. That's what motivates memories of The Famous come ballot time. That nearly flawless meal, in a setting not so upper-crust-stiff as dim-lit swank, more foundational than experimental but still fun with a little help from some hooch. Simply put, The Famous is Mad Men-set-ready classic. Cheers to our best.

The Famous Steak House

31 N Tejon Street,

Colorado Springs, CO 80903

Phone. 719.227.7333