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Aw shucks: Culinary Arts, Wine and Brewfest a feast for oyster lovers

Crack. Slice. Slurp.Those sounds are music to Donny Fin Andres ears.Andre, owner of Fins Grille and Raw Bar in downtown Glenwood Springs, knows a good oyster when he sees one, and makes new fans out of the oyster-shy every day.They look slimy and gross, Andre admitted. He added, however, that raw oysters are surprisingly mild and flavorful.Fins was one of several restaurants featured at the sixth annual Culinary Arts, Wine and Brewfest held Saturday at the Hotel Colorado. In keeping with this years 1930s theme, Autumn in New York, the hosts and some of the guests dressed in vintage wear. Ladies wore long dresses with fur stoles and gloves to the elbow, while men were clad in natty suits and fedoras. Marty Martinez & Friends provided swingin big band music, and the atmosphere was that of the streets of Manhattan in an era past lively, sophisticated and sociable.The food and wine extravaganza benefited the Glenwood Springs Center for the Arts and is the centers largest fundraiser of the year, said Sinda Wood, of the center.This is a great event to bring the community together, Wood said. And as for tasting all the great food, wine and beer the valley has to offer, well, Somebody has to do it, she said.Besides Fins, participating restaurants included Daily Bread, Exclamation Point, Hotel Colorado, Italian Ice, Mi Casita, Redstone Inn, Rivers, Riviera, Russos, Siamese Basil, The Stock Pot and Zheng Asian Bistro. Microbreweries included Glenwood Canyon Brewing Co., New Belgium Brewing Co. and Breckenridge Brewery. Wines from Roaring Fork Liquors, Jack Rabbit Hill Winery, Fosters Wine Estates, Small Vineyards, Synergy Wines, National Distributing Co., Two Rivers Winery, Maxwell Wines and John Salamansky also flowed at the event. All the restaurants, breweries, vintners and distributors donated the food and beverages.Its great coverage for them, Wood said.Foods ranged from ahi nachos from the Redstone Inn, to full slices of pizza from Russos, to pork loin in a ginger wasabi barbecue sauce from Riviera. Zheng brought Asian delights, such as spicy ceviche and Vietnamese spring rolls, while the soup guy, Shane Eagen, ladled large cups of corn and crab chowder.And dont forget dessert. Rivers had pumpkin mousse piped into delicate chocolate cups topped with Frangelica cream. The Daily Bread brought all sorts of baked goods, from brownies to truffles to lemon bars. The other restaurants also made good showings at the food orgy, as people jostled and crowded to get seconds and thirds of their favorite foods.To wash it all down, wine and beer flowed liberally. Ben Brennan, of National Distributing Co., explained how champagne was perfect for tastings such as the food festival.Sparkling wine and champagne is food-friendly. Its bright, crisp and lively. The acidity acts as a palate cleanser, preparing the mouth for different flavors and textures, Brennan said. There isnt such a thing as a bad French champagne.Breckenridge Brewerys Todd Thibault was quick to note that beer is just as specialized as wine.Different beers pair with different foods, he said. Wheat beers are better for light foods, like fish, while pale ales are good for spicy food, and stouts go great with heavy foods.As the afternoon wore on and people had tried almost all the foods, the supply of clean plates dwindled and empty bottles littered tables. Chefs kept refilling platters and bringing out hot food. And Donny Fin shucked oysters nonstop, to the delight of raw aficionados such as Alejandro De La Garza.De La Garza, originally from Mexico, recalled the first time he had a raw oyster.I was 19 years old, and my father made me do it, he said. I didnt want to. Its not a natural thing. Im sure that the first man who ever cracked one open and ate it was very brave.Nevertheless, with one slurp, he was hooked, and has fostered a love of oysters for years. He said he recently drove around the country, stopping in Washington, Oregon and Washington, D.C., in search of the perfect oyster. He seemed to have found a good candidate in Andres offerings.De La Garza claims he only eats them raw, but oysters can be prepared several different ways, Andre explained raw, steamed, cooked, in soups or entrees, to name a few.Theres 101 ways to do it, but the purest way is to slurp them right out of the shell, he said.To hear him speak, you would think he grew up on the East Coast, the son of a fisherman or something. But surprisingly, Andre, who calls himself a mother shucker, is from Minnesota. He came to Glenwood Springs when he was old enough to be a ski bum.But the idea of spring break for 10 weeks straight was enough to draw me to Florida, he said.Andre didnt have an oyster until 1988, when he moved to Daytona, and worked as a shucker at a raw bar. In fact, thats where his name comes from. His first night as a rock popper, he kept getting $5 bills as tips, so everyone started calling him Fin. The moniker stuck, as did the restaurant business.Fins is the first restaurant he has officially owned. He brought his culinary skills as well as fresh-from-the-coast mollusks and steaks made from Amish-raised cattle to Glenwood Springs, hoping to make a business for himself.I couldnt stay away, said Andre, 38, who estimates hes moved back to Glenwood from various places at least five times. Clean air, mountains, good people, created the ideal environment for his aspirations. He had previously worked at the Loft in Rifle (now Sammys on Park Avenue) so he wasnt new to the Roaring Forks restaurant community.Andre places a lot of weight on quality ingredients. In addition to getting all-natural beef, he flies in fresh fish and shellfish. At the culinary art fest, he served Delaware Bay oysters from New Jersey. And he always inspects them before serving.You would know if an oyster was bad as soon as you opened it, Andre said. It would be purple and dry-looking. Most of all, it would stink. The smell would be so bad, you would have to take them out of the room.All his expertise didnt come without trials, though. When asked what his most memorable culinary mishap was, Andre snorted and said, What time is it?The restaurant business is full of that, he said. We try not to dwell on it.And dont expect for him to cook for you if you drop by his house if hes actually at home instead of at the restaurant. After the fest, it was back to work at the restaurant. No wonder Andre doesnt cook much in his downtime.At home, its peanut butter toast and chicken soup, he said.Andre has discovered a secret that all the restaurants, breweries and vintners at the Culinary Art, Wine and Brewfest have learned: The Roaring Fork Valley isnt as backwoods as some may think. With a variety of cuisines, in different price ranges, the valley may be giving Aspen some competition.Not all the oysters in Colorado are Rocky Mountains, as Andre has discovered. He found his pearl in Glenwood Springs.


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