New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni wrote a feature for today’s paper on the mythical perfect meal in New York, in which he fantasized a mix-and-match menu from restaurants all over the city. I’m not going to give this too much thought, but off the top, my perfect Colorado meal from the past year might be something like this:
Earlier this month, I joined a group previewing three European mountain resorts in three countries in three days that are being offered by a tour operator called Baobab Expeditions. Problem was, there was hardly any snow. The skiing ranged from pathetic to non-existent, but the food was first-rate. I promised to share some of those meals, and I am finally getting around to doing so. Most hotels offer a half-board plan that includes breakfast buffet and table-service dinner in each room charge, so people tend to eat in a lot. Here are a few highlights:
When I first started traveling far from New York City to ski, I would fly east to Europe for great hotel services, fabulous food, spectacular scenery and an energizing, engaging dose of Continental elan, and west to the Rockies for wonderful snow and comforting Americana. The Alps had the better ambiance and the Rockies had better skiing. I was in Europe last week and am now in Park City, Utah, and am struck by how much more similar the resort experience has become. Not identical, but similar.
Once upon a time, American ski areas mostly had American-designed lifts (Hall, Riblet, YAN/Lift Engineering), served predictable food (burgers in the base lodge at lunch, steaks and such in sit-down dinner restaurants), and provided nearby but not slopeside lodging (made-over farm houses, ski lodges, motels, etc.). Internationalism came from imported instructors, usually from Austria, who taught skiing. In Europe, Austrian resorts were 100 percent Austrian in all those aspects, French resorts were totally French, Italian resorts were completely Italian, and Swiss resorts were very Swiss, and hotel and food service (in town and on the mountain) were exemplary. I could tell where I was by the meals set before me.
Nowhere are the growing similarities between European and American resorts more evident than in food. Most European hotels operate on a half-board basis, with breakfast and dinner included, without any compromise in quality becase the eating audience is a captive one. Fine hotel restaurants of Switzerland and Austria now regularly serve such Italian dishes as gnocchi, pasta and Parmesan cheese-graced specialties. Swiss and Italian chefs are whipping up such Austrian classics as Wienerschnitzel and Tafelspitz. Fondue has crossed borders. Quality remains high, and service remains impeccable, even in fairly modest establishments.
Cuisines from the world over are now represented in American resorts, whether it’s a breakfast burrito in the cafeteria or Asian, European or Mexican restaurants, as well as the occasional American steakhouse. in the resort towns. But most of all, both independently owned and resort-operated restaurants offer an abundance of fine, creative fare. Sometimes it’s a pure rendition of a particular cuisine, and sometimes it’s a contemporary melding of international influences, fresh European-quality ingredients and fertile minds and high skills of excellent chefs. Such creativity, I might add, is still less accepted in Europe than technical excellence and classical perfection.
Nothing here in Park City better exemplifies the transition from standard American food to true culinary sophistication than The Cabin, the signature restaurant at The Canyons’ Grand Summit Hotel. The last time I ate there, it was essentially an upscale steakhouse. Now, the new chef Joe Trevino has introduced far more rarefied and creative cuisine. Our party of eight enjoyed the chef’s choice selections, which ranged from an amuse of a New England clam and chorizo with chorizo oil perched on a nest of basil sea salt to an exceptional two-tone creme brulee in a martini glass (photo, right) that actually had the consistency of zabaglioni rather than creme brulee. Appetizers, salads, entrees and three wines filled the “gap” between the amuse and the dessert. Jeff LaBounty paired desserts with each course. I have to say that the Weinbach Gewurztraminer Grand Cru Mambourg Cuvee Laurence from Alsace was in my mind, that dinners best in show. Then again, Iam very fond of Gewurztraminer.
Last night, I went to the famous Seafood Buffet at Deer Valley. It defines opulence and choice: two soups, two salads, two kinds of oysters (Washington State and East Coast), three kinds of sushi, two kinds of steamed crab, tiger shrimp, house-smoked salmon, and scallops served one at a time in an Asian soup spoon with a touch of sauce. I ordered a sampler of the hot entrees: seared ahi tuna with basil foam, shrimp-crusted bass, glazed halibut and other dishes that I’ve forgotten and didn’t manage to write down. The cook sears the tuna to order, so you can request it any way you want it. Carnivores can go to The Carvery station for prime rib or roast duck, but with seafood so fresh, it seems a sacrilege to do that. There are desserts, of course, and a decent wine list.
On-mountain lunches have been terrific as well. On our way into town from the Salt Lake City airport, we had on-the-road lunches from Wild Oats Market at Kimball Junction. At Park City Mountain Resort, we had soups, sandwiches and such at Legends Bar & Grill, a slopeside pub, and Deer Valley, we ate at the also-slopeside Royal Street Cafe, which has both self-service and table-service components. If you go, order a blue pisco to start, then graze on yellowfin tuna tartare with herb chips, the shrimp and lobster “margarita” layered with papaya salsa and guacamole, and the crawfish bisque — and perhaps another starter if there are several in your group. Consider the salad, sandwich, hot entree and/or dessert as a bonus. For my part, the unusual berry-mint-booze beverage and the apps were just fine.
Deer Valley really raised a high bar on ski resort fare when it was established a quarter of a century ago, it set a high bar that other resorts have fortunately followed. Now, the food, ambiance and service of our best are on a par with Europe. As I noted, we are growing more similar.
Patrons of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts don’t exactly have a vast choice of places to grab a bite before a show. There are full-service restaurants as far afield as the 16th Street Mall and Larimer Square, and I’ve written about a number of them on the “Dining Diary” portion of my website, but quick-bite places right there? There haven’t been too many, but now there are three.
Today, Backstage Coffee opened in street-level space on 14th Street, just beside the steps that go up to the complex’s arcade. It has good pastries, coffee drinks, ice cream, burritos, soft drinks, wines by the glass and more to come. We grabbed to-go fare on the way to a 6:30 curtain — a ham and cheese croissant for my husband and a burrito for me. It’s the first coffee-teria in the complex since funky, spacious Pablo’s closed months ago to make room for a real estate sales office.
In the arcade is the Theatre Deli — hard to find because it’s tucked in behind the parking garage elevators. We’ve only bought stuff there once and were underwhelmed by the sandwiches. A better bet is the Hot Ticket Cafe in the lobby of the Helen Bonfils multi-stage building. It offers a limited menu of quality items, operated by the owner of Jay’s Patio Cafe in the Highlands East neighborhood.
It isn’t always practical to have a full dinner before a show, but I’m grateful when rumbling stomachs don’t compete with the actors.
There is not much I like about chain eating places — most of which don’t deserve the name “restaurant.” But yesterday evening, despite my skepticism and principles, I ate at the rare Colorado-spawned and -owned, healthy, reasonably priced example of the species. A shopping area called The Village distributes a coupon book that included a two-entrees-for-the-price-of-one voucher for Tokyo Joe’s — and there is a Tokyo Joe’s just a few blocks from the theater where my husband and I were planning to see a movie.
I ordered a small salad and a noodle bowl that came piping hot and filled with chicken breast and a load of vegetables in a just-right spicy sauce atop well-cooked noodles. I didn’t know that there would be so many vegetables, which is the reason I had ordered a small salad to start. My husband asked for yakitori chicken with rice. Including a big iced tea, with the two-fer coupon dicount and Joe’s no-tipping policy, we spent less than 10 bucks on fast, tasty dinner for two. It’s no substitute for home-cooked and especially not for chef-prepared, but I had no complaints.
When we sat down a little before 6:00, only three tables were occupied. When we left, 15 were taken, and there was a fast-moving line. The service was efficient. We put in our order, paid, took a number to our table and waited just a little bit for a freshly prepared meal to be brought to us. We even got to the theater early, and that rarely happens. I won’t pretend that this positive experience has converted me to the chain way of eating, but this one brand is far superior to most — those that I’ve forced myself to try, anyway.
I did a little research about Tokyo Joe’s and found that it was started a decade ago by a man named Larry Leith. Although he launched the first one in ultra-suburban Centennial, Leith is a Boulder-type guy, who was convinced that cyclists, mountain bikers and skiers like himself would be receptive to a place serving fast, healthy food inspired by Japanese dishes. He was right.
Aji’s special menu offered a choice of three appetizers, three entrees and two desserts, while Mateo gave no choice at all. Black Cat Bistro owner/chef Eric Skokan provided the most attractive deal of all that I tried. Diners were able to order from the regular menu, with a choice of any one of the six small-plate first courses ($4-$7), any of the seven entrees ($17-$22) and any one of the five desserts (I don’t know their individual cost because prices weren’t printed on the dessert menu). To read what my party and I ordered and what we thought, please go to my website and click on ‘Dining Diary.’ But I’ll tell you here that everything was beautifully presented, well prepared and served with care and elan. The photo above of Black Cat’s molten chocolate cake, for instance, shows a signature presentation of several desserts: warm sauce poured from a small pitcher at the table.
First Bite Boulder is winding down. Many/most top Boulder restaurants have participated — and it seems to have been an outstanding success. Mild November weather certainly encouraged people to leave the house and eat out, but I believe that the fine values were the main incentive for people to try different Boulder restaurants this past week.
Another terrific value this week has been the fifth anniversary promotion at Solera Restaurant & Wine Bar at 5410 East Colfax Avenue in Denver. Solera’s owner/chef Goose Sorensen is offering a three-course dinner for two for $54.10 and “select” wines for $5.41 per glass and $54.10 per bottle. I wish I’d been able to alert you to it before it was almost over.
Sterling-Rice’s client roster includes a number of food and beverage corporations (Nestle, Horizon Organic Dairy, Frito-Lay, Kraft, Kellogg’s Tropicana, Starbucks, Heinz, Quaker Oats, Fantastic Foods, Hellmans, Coors and Celestial Seasonings) and one of their top executives is culinary director Cathryn Olchowy (Johnson & Wales culinary grad and MBA holder), which makes it all the more remarkable that they took on a one-week, local restaurant festival.
Rosenberg made Sweet Potato Bisque (served in tall tall shot glasses), Sweet Potato Hash, Sweet Potato Corn Muffins, Sweet Potato Chipotle Gratin and Sweet Potato Souffle. The photo above shows him cutting the peeled sweet potatoes for his gratin (recipe below), which would be ideal for a Southwestern-themed Thanksgiving dinner for a crowd, but could easily be reduced for fewer people:
Sweet Potato Chipotle Gratin
1 large yellow onion
3 tbsp. butter
salt and pepper
5 pounds of sweet potatoes
1/2 can chipotles in adobo
1 pint heavy cream
1 cup Gruyere or other Swiss cheese, grated
1 cup fresh Parmesan cheese, grated
Peel and slice onion. In a saucepan over medium heat, melt butter and cook onions with a little salt and pepper until soft. Turn up heat and cook until onions begin to caramelize, being careful not to let them burn. Set aside. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Peel sweet potatoes. Using a mandolin or slicer (or sharp knife), cut potatoes into thin strips. Oil or grease the bottom of a two-inch-deep baking pan and place an even layer of potatoes on the bottom. The “pattern” resembles shingles. Sprinkle with a small amount of the cheeses, onions, salt and pepper, distributed evenly over the sweet potatoes. Repeat process, ending with a layer of potatoes. Press down with a spatula to even the layers. Pour cream over the potatoes and top with remaining cheese. Cover with foil, being careful not to permit the foil to touch the cheese. Bake for 45 minutes. Remove foil and bake for an additional 15 minutes or until the cheese is brown and bubbly. Remove from oven and pierce with a knife to make sure the potatoes are thoroughly cooked. Allow to rest before slicing; slice as you would a lasagna.
After we feasted on sweet potatoes, a group of us continued to celebrate. Sterling-Rice clients include Applebee’s and some other chain, but fortunately, we headed for Mateo, where we enjoyed the First Bite Boulder menu. See the Dining Diary on my website for a review.
An eyeball evaluation of First Bite Boulder gives it high marks. En route to Sterling-Rice’s offices and then to Mateo, I walked past a number of participating restaurants. While I didn’t see any out-the-door lines, most tables appeared occupied. And that was the whole idea.