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.