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Pacific palette: Chefs master the art of culinary blends

— After 16 years on the high plains and red rock canyons of the American Southwest, Michael Fragola has relocated to the volcanic archipelagos of the South Pacific Ocean at least in the culinary sense.

Cottonwood Grill has a beautiful curved bar where couples and singles are welcome to order full entrees from the dining room menu.

But be forewarned those strange looking peanuts in the bowls on the bar pack a wallop. Actually, they aren't peanuts at all, but wasabi covered green peas.

"Wasabi" may be the most repeated and misunderstood word in America today, thanks to Budweiser. Suffice to say the potent horseradish flavor of a small handful of these little bar munchies will clear your sinuses. Munch responsibly.

For reservations at Cottonwood Grill call 879-2229. The bar opens at 4:30 p.m. and the dining room opens at 5 p.m.

Fragola is still at home in Steamboat. But after a long tenure at one of Steamboat's leading restaurants, La MontaFragola, with partner Peter Lautner, has opened a new restaurant, Cottonwood Grill.

You might say Fragola is speaking a new culinary language, having shifted from the Southwestern lexicon of tortillas and tomatillos, to coconut curry and cracked coriander.

Lautner and Fragola are both chef/owners of the restaurant at 701 Yampa Ave. that specializes in Pacific Rim cuisine. In a phrase, the Pacific Rim dishes at Cottonwood Grill marry the sweet/hot spices of several styles of Asian cooking with some distinctly North American ingredients.

For example, an entree called "Crispy Range Chicken" at Cottonwood grill is roasted with a coriander, garlic, kaffir lime and chili crust. The accompanying side dish of mashed roasted yams has American roots, with the exception that it is seasoned with ginger.

Lautner, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, worked for Fragola at La Montauring the early 1990s. Most recently, he was the executive chef at Reebok world headquarters in Boston.

Fragola searched for an opportunity to go into business for himself for several years.

"I'd been looking under every rock to see if the opportunity was there," Fragola said. When the space formerly leased by Le Peep (originally Cafe Blue Bayou) opened up, Fragola knew he had found the right spot to bring a new restaurant concept to Steamboat.

Cottonwood Grill has a spectacular location on the banks of the Yampa River in Old Town Steamboat that even offers a lush green lawn for summer weddings and reunions. Inside, the understated warmth of cherry wood dominates the bright room. Guests waiting for a table are ushered into lounge area and are seated in a buttery leather couch and overstuffed chairs to sip a drink in the midst of the action, rather than on a bench in the foyer.

Fragola knew that if he combined outstanding food with the riverside location, he could be successful. He had been keeping an eye on the popularity of Pacific Rim cuisine in West Coast cities like Vancouver and San Francisco. He knew that Harwig's Grill had been successful with a traditional Thai cuisine night, but his plan was to aim for the fusion of Asian and American ingredients that got its start in the cultural melting pot of Hawaii.

"It's a whole new challenge for me, and I think we have some real signa-

ture dishes," Fragola said. "People are already beginning to come back for them."

Fragola called his old colleague, Lautner, and enticed him to fly to Steamboat, look at the building, and talk about menus.

Lautner was immediately intrigued and began to study the cuisine. "I inundated myself with books and magazines," he said. "Anything I could read, I read."

What he discovered was that many of the classic techniques he had acquired through his formal training could be transferred to Pacific Rim cuisine. For example, when he prepares Cottonwood Grill's "Cherry Pepper Duck," he essentially cooks the duck the same way he might in a classic French recipe. The critical difference is the careful blending of sun-dried cherry and Sichuan peppercorn. The entree is completed with cracked coriander bok choy, a Korean vegetable, and curry fried noodles finished with a cherry Merlot sauce.

The same applies to the "Mirin Grilled Salmon." Lautner or Fragola, whichever one of the two partners is taking primary responsibility in the kitchen that night, grills the salmon as they normally would. However, the fish has been marinated in Mirin, a sweet sake, rice wine vinegar, garlic and ginger. A scallion potato pancake and fresh pineapple basil chow-chow complete the presentation. Chow chow is the Asian equivalent of salsa, Fragola said.

The two chefs are having so much fun with the new ingredients in their professional life, that they are making weekly trips to the Asian grocery district on Denver's Federal Boulevard to obtain some of the items that are difficult to come by through their usual food purveyors.

Fine cuisine is just part of the recipe for success at Cottonwood Grill, however,

Fragola knew from conversations with an employee he shared with Le Peep that the pickup window for food servers was not big enough to support the number of tables in the restaurant. He solved that problem by remodeling to expand the pick-up window into the reception area at the front of the restaurant. The "open kitchen" concept allows the staff to greet guests upon their arrival. It also changes the way the chefs and line cooks work.

"It definitely brings a height of professionalism to the kitchen," Lautner said. "We have to be professional in our appearance and our mannerisms."

The open kitchen also has made the kitchen "brigade" as Lautner, calls it, less anonymous.

Dessert chef Jennifer Holbrook, who makes all of the pastries and confections in house, is even mentioned by name on the menu.

"I can't tell you how lucky we are with our staff," Lautner said. "They come to work in a great mood and they come with their game face on."

Leading the dining room staff is floor manager James Kiefer, who comes to Cottonwood Grill from the Chart House chain.

Lautner and Fragola take great pride in the redesigned interior of Cottonwood Grill. They did everything from selecting the fabric the dining room chairs are upholstered in, to refinishing the impressive cherry wood bar themselves. Together, dining room and bar seat about 125.

The owners look forward to serving lunches both inside and on the patio this summer.

The cost of doing business

Peter Lautner and Michael Fragola at Cottonwood Grill say they are committed to purchasing the finest ingredients they can obtain for their entrees and appetizers even if that means spending almost $20 a pound for tangy Kaffir lime leaves that give their "Crispy Range Chicken" its standout flavor.

"The expense of ingredients is the cost of doing business," Fragola says matter-of-factly. At current rates, the restaurateurs are spending between $12 and $13 a pound for their Chilean sea bass. And the trimmed tenderloin of beef that becomes their "Five Spice Mustard Crusted Filet" costs $17 a pound (but saves a lot of kitchen labor). Fat Mexican shrimp cost $14 a pound at wholesale, Fragola said.

Labor costs in Steamboat Springs also are higher than they would be in Denver, Fragola pointed out. He expects to pay line cooks $10.50 to $11 an hour to start, plus a season ski pass. Wages in the restaurant industry here are 30 percent higher than they were just two or three years ago, because of the competitive hiring situation, Fragola said.

Tom Ross

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