VAIL, Colorado -Don't look for a bread basket at Terra Bistro in Vail, Colorado this summer. A small wood bowl full of crispy green kale chips has taken the place of the traditional carb course. The crinkly green leaves are brushed with olive oil and sprinkled with salt and pepper before being baked. Executive chef/partner Kevin Nelson stole the idea from his wife, who's been making the crispy snacks at home. "My kids even liked it," Nelson said. "It's definitely a signature thing here now."The kale chips are just one change at the longtime restaurant located in the Vail Mountain Lodge & Spa. With the help of an interior designer, Nelson re-covered the banquette in a hip diamond-patterned fabric and painted some of the columns and walls a deep chocolate brown. Typically reserved for bar areas in restaurants, there are also new tall tables in the dining room. The room feels markedly warmer and more inviting than it did just a few months ago. "The space was designed to be more social," said Jen Assor of Ink Marketing. "Kevin wanted to bring the bar atmosphere into this room and make it more fun, hip and social."The pricing is also more affordable, with five main courses under $20 and specials during the week, like Wednesday's gourmet taco night. Patrons can choose between five types of tacos, ranging from ground pork with posole verde to Caribbean barbecue beef. Three tacos are $6. "The way the economy has shifted calls for a more casual experience rather than a regimented three-course experience," Nelson said, commenting that in the summer, it's hard enough without economic woes to fill the restaurant's 150 seats.Nelson also completely revamped the menu, offering lots of smaller plates with smaller prices, and all meant to be shared. The section titled "Noshing and Sharing" offers 11 small plates and the "Salads and Starters" another nine items, all in the tapas vein. The fried avocado ($8) is dipped in buttermilk and then rolled in pepitas and flour tortilla strips before it's tempura fried. It's served with posole, tomatillo salsa, coriander crema and sprinkled with pepitas. You'd never guess the savory white cheddar cheese puffs ($7) are gluten free but the little golden puffs - the brainchild of a Brazilian chef in the kitchen, our waitress tells us - are made with tapioca flour. The sweet potato ravioli ($10) is topped with a chopped mesclun/bleu cheese/walnut salad and finished with brown butter-shallot dressing. Nearly half the menu is gluten free and forget two vegetarian options, as is standard at many restuarants, Terra offers 12 options. Atypical ingredients like hemp seeds, sprouted quinoa, kale and prunes dot the menu, divulging Nelson's food philosophy. "I believe in food as more than something to satisfy hunger," Nelson said on Monday night at the restaurant's summer showcase party. "I believe you really are what you eat. Food is fuel - the choices we make with food affects us in many ways."Nelson, a Long Island transplant, started at Terra Bistro as a cook in 1993. From the beginning, the restaurant felt like home. "The chef at the time was very creative and her approach to food was healthy," Nelson said. "It definitely resonated with me."And it's not as simple as just omitting fat, carbs or sugar from a dish.Instead, "it's about choosing nutrient-rich ingredients," he said.For Nelson, cooking healthful-yet-gourmet food isn't just a marketing tool, it's a lifestyle as well. Every morning he feeds his little girls Ezekiel sprouted-grain toast, fresh fruit and homemade yogurt."Though I'm careful about what I eat, I'm addicted to coffee," Nelson said. "So I would never say don't drink wine with diinner. That feeds your soul."And there's certainly splurge-worthy dishes on Nelson's menu as well. The bittersweet molten chocolate cake, for example."Yeah, that's soul food," Nelson said. "Though we do use organic chocolate, turbinado sugar and organic flour. It's about as healthy as it can be, but it's certainly not low-calorie."High Life Editor Caramie Schnell can be reached at 970-748-2984 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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