And then, there’s this factor: it’s a small space, on the west end of Pacific Avenue, so it doesn’t take all that many people to fill it … and give it a buzz. Siam benefits from that today.
Las Montañas’ owner, Fletcher McCusker, who owns a home in the region, took a logical next step with his hit restaurant. He moved it to a bigger space in a prime location on Main Street, the space that the proprietors of Eagle’s never managed to conquer.
It’s no secret, and one acknowledged by Las Montañas management itself, that the buzz vanished. Could it be space karma?
Well, yes, it’s more challenging in a small seasonal resort to keep a place full, so there’s an argument to be made that in Telluride smaller restaurants fare better. Then, too, McCusker merged Las Montañas with Sophio’s, which had been one of Telluride’s oldest restaurants on Main Street. The dual menu stretched the kitchen too far, but more to the point, it diluted the concept. For the last couple of years, Las Montañas lost it.
I am here to report that it’s way back. McCusker and his new general manager Michael Psarras decided to go big in reviving their fortunes, so they recruited to Telluride “the best chef they could find,” in Psarras’s words. He is Alejandro Barreda, who comes to the San Juans from Mexico City, where he owned a restaurant, and was also the executive chef for the country’s Supreme Court, and for a major television network. He brings international technique – he trained in Europe – and a sensibility that is distinct from what we Americans typically think of as Mexican food. The dinner specials at Las Montañas taste exactly like what you’d eat at a high-end restaurant in Mexico, as opposed to Santa Fe or Tucson. While the specials change weekly, what we sampled recently included chicken crêpes in a chipotle cream sauce ($28) – fusing classical French technique with classic Mexican ingredients – catfish fillet, served in an utterly classic Mexican style, a la Veracruzana ($28); and Ribeye in an “antique” mustard sauce ($32), a classic French preparation with a demi-glace base.
Note that Pescado a la Veracruzana is traditionally not prepared not with catfish, but rather with snapper, making even this most traditional Mexican item a little untraditional. And that’s what Barreda is all about, improvisation within the lines of Mexican tradition, classical technique and the available ingredients.
But was it good to eat? Oh, yes. And there’s the kind of variety and piquancy that gave a charge to the old Las Montañas. Barreda has kept much of the old menu of grazing items, available at the bar at the front of the space at happy hour or as appetizers at dinner, but he’s swapped out ingredients in many in favor of more authentic ones, like imported Mexican Queso Blanco. I stopped in once a couple of weeks ago for lunch at the bar, ordered a new Tortilla Soup, a rich beef broth garnished with crunch tortilla strips, diced avocado and sour cream ($5 or $8), and was back for more a few days later. It’s a big menu, ranging from tacos and enchiladas to sopes and fajitas, and from breakfast to lunch to happy hour/après ski to dinner, so I can’t pretend to have tasted even a fraction of it. The range makes Las Montañas something new for Telluride, a full-service, all meals, all-the-time restaurant – with entertainment, to boot.
To conquer the large space, Psarras has divided it, especially at night, allowing the back of the big room to function as a fine dining establishment, while at the same time the bar works as a cantina. Smart move. There are plans for a chef’s table experience to be offered in the back dining room.
Barreda seems like an unlikely chef for Telluride. You wonder why he isn’t playing on a bigger stage. A couple of examples of his creativity that we particularly enjoyed: to begin our meal, he brought us a small pizza with a sundried tomato sauce, tequila shrimps and Roquefort cheese ($12), an unlikely combination of ingredients that worked incredibly well. We sampled a couple of desserts, a decidedly untraditional Key Lime pie, the filling consisting of just three ingredients: key lime juice, milk and sugar – it was more like a key lime sorbet in a graham cracker crust than something you’d get in Florida, where the basis of Key Lime pie is condensed milk – and the most traditional of Mexican desserts made with strict adherence to tradition, a silky flan.
So why not a bigger stage? Because, Barreda explained, the stage is just the right size for him now, at this stage in his career, a new baby on the way. The concept of the new Las Montañas, Psarras affirmed, is to be a chef-driven restaurant. Barreda touches everything.
Not least the espresso. He brought his machine from Mexico, having imported it from Italy. It sits in the back of the dining room polished, fine-tuned, cleaned weekly by the executive chef himself. Great espresso requires the four Ms, Barreda told us. La mescla, la machina, la mano and la molienda: the coffee itself, the machine, the hand of the barrista and the grind. Barreda prides himself on being on top of all four. His stated mission: nothing less than to serve espresso as good as any you may get anywhere, in Italy, Mexico, Seattle, New York, or Telluride.
He made Marta and me each an espresso breve: shot of espresso with a drop of half and half. Have I ever truly tasted espresso before? Very possibly, not.