2674 Hwy 135
Reviewed by Elliot Jackson
I confess that since moving to the Gunnison Valley earlier this year, I haven’t taken as much advantage as I might like of the multiple opportunities to dine out that the area offers. Part of this is due to time crunch, as I spend a lot of time working at odd hours; part of it is financial – probably all Colorado Central readers can relate to that one. And, somewhat related to the money-and-time-crunch issues is another one, that I have only recently identified to myself, which basically boils down to this: if I’m going to spend the time and money to go out to eat, I want to feel reasonably assured that what I’m ordering is going to be a better specimen of meal – be it omelette, salad, burrito, or steak and potato dinner – than I can make myself at home.
Therefore, I tend to be exacting and critical about the eating-out experience, particularly if I’m planning to spend money on dinner. Fortunately this time, when it came to dinner in Gunnison, my dinner partner/fellow reviewer and I came to a surprisingly quick agreement: Garlic Mike’s, a couple miles north of the town limits, beautifully situated on the banks of the Gunnison River. I hadn’t eaten there in a few years, but I remembered liking both the food and the atmosphere, which reminded me of country establishments in Italy where I had had some happily-remembered meals.
Garlic Mike’s is either bigger than I remember, or they have added some architectural features since my last visit. In addition to the front and back dining rooms, there is a lovely enclosed patio. A quick stroll out back while we were waiting for our order confirmed the existence of an additional tented seating area and two lovely arbors with a view of the river and the surrounding countryside; all of which made me, a born-again bachelorette, suddenly start calculating my chances of getting married again, just to be able to contemplate the splendors of a reception catered on location (Garlic Mike’s website, www.garlicmikes.com, does note that the Gunnison People’s Choice Awards have honored it not only with Best Chef, Best Restaurant, and Best Waiter awards, but also Best Date Place and Best Wedding Reception, so I figure it’s not my fault if my thoughts strayed that way – chef and owner Mike Busse has obviously put a lot of effort into his creation).
Ah, but I get ahead of myself – first the encounter with the menu. Since neither I nor my friend was feeling ravenous enough to tackle an entree apiece – and be warned, BE HUNGRY all ye who enter here – we decided to split an appetizer, an entree, and the accompanying house salad, all of which our waiter was very friendly about arranging. Garlic Mike’s offers a large and varied dinner menu, and I am amazed that we managed in so little time to pick out our meal. Since I have a weakness for fish in all varieties, we hovered over the fish choices on the appetizer list: Scampi? Mussels Possillipo (in white wine tomato-garlic broth)? But we opted finally for the Spinaci e Funghi Aglio e Olio, which for the Italian-impared in the crowd is: “Sauteed spinach and a mushroom medley with extra virgin olive oil and garlic.”
Then it was time to choose the entree. Again, this ought to have been a far more agonizing process than it turned out to be, because in addition to pasta and “personal pizzas,” Garlic Mike’s offers a large number of meat and fish dishes. And then … The Specials.
There was no contest. Buffalo Ravioli, Salmon GiGi with its tomatoes, basil and mushrooms, Fettucine Alfredo with sliced Steak Carbonara – all bowed down and respectfully gave way to the night’s special, the name of which I found myself rolling around on my tongue with the lovely Pinot Grigio I had ordered: Coniglio alla Cacciatora. It just sings, people, say it with me: Cone-NEE-lee-o alla Catch-a-TORA. “Cacciatore” meaning “hunter,” this little item promised to be rabbit prepared Italian-hunter style: with tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, peppers, and wine sauce served over homemade polenta.
By the time we got back from our tour of the grounds, our spinach appetizer had arrived. Spinach wilted and tossed just so, little pieces of garlic speckling the mix of crimini and Portobello mushrooms, bread that was just the right cross between spongy and firm for sopping up the oils in the sauce. It went down well. Then the house salad, enlarged into two portions with anchovies (which we added because, well, we COULD). Nice mix of greens and well-dressed with oil and vinegar.
And then … the noble Coniglio. It came to our table swimming in a richly red-brown sauce and surrounded by its vegetables and mushrooms. We carved off pieces of rabbit – foreleg, hindleg, part of the back – and sopped them in our sauce, which was a revelation – peppery, spicy and with a hint of something – chocolate? Chipotle? – what was it? If our waiter knew, he wasn’t telling, so we ate and ate and tried to analyze it and finally gave up and just enjoyed it. We came perilously close to hurting ourselves to tuck the last bites in. Next time I’m fasting for at least 24 hours before dinner. So I can try dessert …
The only thing I would have changed in our experience would have been to clear the evening’s decks so we had no other plans. Friday night dinner at Garlic Mike’s should not be rushed. So come early, come hungry and come with a lot of friends, so you can try multiple dishes. Or plan to attend a special event there – Mike gives back to the community by offering his restaurant to cater all kinds of events for area businesses and nonprofit organizations, as well as those weddings.
Garlic Mike’s also has a new location in Montrose for our Western Slope readers. Mangia, y’all!