150 San Juan Ave. Telluride, 970/728-6232
Finding the right restaurant to take your date can be tricky, especially in a foodie town like Telluride. Some restaurants offer fantastic food, but have noisy, fast-paced atmospheres - not the conditions if you’re looking for a comfortable atmosphere to enjoy dishes with your dinner guest. If you're looking for the best of both worlds - a calm atmosphere and a menu prepared by a professional chef - the choice is simple: La Marmotte.
This culinary oasis, tucked deep in the San Juan highlands, allows patrons to escape this ski town and venture to a rustic bistro on the French countryside. This restaurant offers just the right date environment - retro bulbs hanging from the ceiling quietly hum and emanate a soft glow, warming the granular brick walls. Accordion riffs and Django Reinhardt gypsy swing ooze out of the speakers, relaxing the senses and allowing the mind to wander across the soothing scene.
On a frigid moonless November night, my date and I were presented with the restaurant’s off-season special - a $39 three-course prixfixe menu featuring such tempting dishes as the sherry vinegar-marinated local tomatoes with crumbled Saint Andrews cheese, pistachio crusted duck breast or the lemon-black garlic vinaigrette roasted chicken breast. Unable to decide, she and I admitted that we’d prefer our dishes to be a surprise.
Our attendant Patrick Languens was happy to assume the responsibility, adding that he trained as a chef in Naples and is a 20-year sommelier.
He started us off with a Les Hospices, a sauvignon blanc from Sancerre.
The first impressions were good. A swirl of the glass exposed the wine’s legs snaking from top of the glass. The smell revealed this lively sauvignon blanc had citrus notes of a peachy aroma. Crisp and clean, the first sip validated Languen’s experience and served as a great opening act to what was to come - the first appetizer.
Emerging from the kitchen, Languens served a plate of three bright salmon tacos, a favorite of many locals, he said.
Tucked between homemade, warm corn tortilla shells were generous portions of diced sushi-grade salmon mixed with scallions, green onions, capers and a dash of salt and pepper, all topped with strings of locally-grown carrot. The three tacos were plated evenly, forming a pie graph; they almost resembled a Mexican-Alaskan take on the Mercedes logo, with a dollop of homemade, tangy guacamole holding the tacos in place.
The deep oranges, pinks and dark yellows of the appetizer were beautiful enough to simple gaze at, but Languens eventually asked us to. Even though I’m a native of the Maine coast, these crispy salmon tacos threw me a curveball: the salmon flavor did not overwhelm the other sweet and tangy ingredients. Rather, the salmon’s flavor sat in the background and did not overshadowing the collective tang of the capers and guacamole.
“This next one is bacon’s best friend,” said Languens while serving the next glass - a 2011 Domaine François Raquillet pinot noir. Produced in Mercury by a family with roots in the wine business from the 1600s, this juicy, fragrant rouge had a silky feel on the palate, much more modest than its opening act, the sauvignon blanc.
This pinot a nutty texture mid-palate and a spicy, colorful character with cherry and red fruit accents. Sipping this pinot felt like a warm embrace with an old friend - picking up right where you left off years ago, both of you having not changed a day, and surprised at how fast the time passed as the waiter served the next dish.
La Marmotte again provided us with a dish that satisfied our eyes as much as it did our taste buds - the white onion and goat cheese tart, topped with crispy bacon and served with carrot and ginger puree made my date and I feel truly spoiled and special.
On first bite, earthy goat cheese calmed the palate from the last sip of fruity wine, but the salty crunch of the bacon gave each bite a punchy hit of comfortable familiarity. A fork’s dollop of carrot ginger puree spread liberally over the next bite coated the tart with a calmed the bacon and lightened the taste. We ate this dish slowly - both of us trying to enjoy each bite until we found ourselves scraping the plate for the remaining traces of tart.
“This is old-school, real-deal French cooking,” Languens said as he served the third course.
The appearance was striking at first - grilled and sliced New York strip steak formed the base that supported cuts of 24-hour braised short ribs. Buttery in texture, this cut fell apart with even the gentlest of fork motions. Upon first bite, silence fell over our table - we struck by the short rib’s tenderness and buttery flavor. Languens would later tell us that La Marmotte sometimes offers the braised short rib a la carte.
Next was the strip steak. If you’ve got a hankering for steak, chances are this is what you have in mind because this was gently grilled and left perfectly pink in the middle. The steak provided a firmer bite than the short rib, but each slice was juicer than the last. Crusted with pepper and salt, each bite oozed mind-numbingly savory flavor across the palate. The parmesan mashed potatoes and grilled green zucchinis and squash slices were each enhanced when dipped in the savory and tantalizing brown sauce that lined the bottom of the plate, accenting each bite with a glowing flavor.
“Enjoy that?” Languens asked humorously as he circled around to us, pulling away the empty, bone-dry plate.
Stuffed, and pondering how best to inconspicuously adjust my belt, Languens served us dessert. Err, desserts.
Crème brûlée, chocolate pudding and cheesecake adorned a dining room table, each sitting on the plate with different personalities.
On first bite, the crème brûlée chilled the mouth, with a few bits of stubborn caramel topping sticking to the premolars. The cheesecake, light and fluffy as it should be, provided the richness and heavy texture. The recipe tasted reminiscent of my favorite New York cheesecakes - the dense, smooth and creamy consistency was perfectly accented with a dash of vanilla extract.
But the chocolate pudding took the cake, sort to speak. Served in a coffee mug, and with house made whipped cream and a trio of blueberries, this gentle dessert was the La Marmotte’s encore. The texture was genuine - silky but dense, and with the gentle chocolatey lull of every bite tasted as if it was reserved for the British crown.
With our bellies full and our minds elated, my date and I left La Marmotte feeling like kings. We savored wines from across the world, and toured a menu featuring all the staples of modern French cooking - all while enjoying each other’s company and treasuring every last bite.
The vibe: French bistro through and through. This restaurant has a calm atmosphere that welcomes any sort of dinner guest so long as they bring their appetite. If you’re looking to celebrate your promotion, give your parents a tour of the town or impress your date, La Marmotte offers an intimate setting with calm lighting from retro bulbs, brick walls and sweet cherry-picked playlist of vintage and modern French music.
The price: Contrary to its fine dining atmosphere, you can find a good deal by ordering off the $39 three-course prixfixe menu - wine not included.
The staff: If you easily become lost looking through an extensive wine menu (like me), you’ll benefit from asking one of the many friendly wait staff for honest, educated pairing suggestions. Languens was never more than a few steps away to ask questions or offer suggestions and provided us the perfect distance for us to enjoy our meal and each other’s company.