On Saturday afternoon, Dec. 1, as I climbed into my car and headed to Vail, I hummed Gene Autry's legendary ditty. But I wasn't going back in the saddle again. It was back to the kitchen. After a three-month hiatus from restaurant kitchens, I appropriately kicked off the winter season of experiential research on the night Leonora was born.
Who, you might ask, is Leonora? And where does she live? Leonora is the hip metamorphosis of the Block 16 restaurant at the chic boutique hotel The Sebastian in Vail. Named for the British-born Mexican surrealist painter and novelist Leonora Carrington, who died in early 2011 and whose works adorn the restaurant's walls, the rebranding to a bistro, tapas and wine bar is the brainchild of The Sebastian's new director of food and beverage, chef Paul Wade.
It's hard to get the gifted, award-winning Wade to talk about himself. And there's a lot to discuss, given his amazing culinary arts pedigree that spans 25 years and includes executive chef positions at Little Nell in Aspen, Eldorado Hotel and Nidah Spa in Santa Fe and Park Hyatt in Beaver Creek, to name but a few. A master in the kitchen, it's when Wade's creating food styles and designing concepts that he's most in his element. But Wade's all about "the stars" who give life to his vision, whether directly with guests in the dining room or behind the scenes in the kitchen. Trying to get him to talk about his role in the rebranding was a challenge, to say the least.
Given the snow drought, it was destined to be a quiet first night. So mostly I observed and sampled a large portion of the menu, helping out here and there, but came back on Day 3 to help with the team's first major event. We'll talk more about that next week.
I'm always anxious when I go into uncharted back-of-the-house territory, whether a simple bistro kitchen where a cat could get walloped if swung in a circle or massive, state-of-the-art hotel kitchens such as Four Seasons in Vail. Walking into Leonora's nerve center was no different. My anxiety eased when I met Executive Chef Sergio Howland, who warmly welcomed me as though I were a guest chef, not a mere "sous cook." Like everywhere else in the valley, the kitchen was a melange of nationalities that stretched from Nepal to New Zealand, Argentina, Mexico and the U.S. Accents of all kinds but one language - food.
How do I describe Howland, the culinary maestro? Kind, patient, warm but stern when the heat is on, a perfectionist but not rigid and immensely creative sums him up in my eyes. He runs a tight ship, but his management style engenders respect, not demands it. I'm always amazed how chefs such as Howland can pull together teams whose members only met a few days before opening but who fall in line and work well together, whether joking around during prep or in the heat of battle during service. That's not to say it's all sweetness and kind, but it's a crucial talent needed to run a successful restaurant in Vail Valley. Although Leonora is a new restaurant, every restaurant here faces a new beginning each season when rookie staff members often outnumber veterans. Howland has the perfect temperament for integrating new kitchen staff into the existing team. Even on opening night, the camaraderie was apparent.
After two nights of dress rehearsals in front of the toughest - and most honest - audience (The Sebastian management and staff), it was showtime for Wade, Howland and their teams in the front and back of the house. With 95 percent of the service staff new to The Sebastian, I could sense opening night jitters. But once the first guests were seated, restaurant manager John Dooley's team settled into their new routine.
The showpiece of Leonora's dining room is the "Mediterranean sushi bar," Wade's moniker for the polished agate tapas bar where pesce crudo - Italian for raw fish - and charcuterie are served. Simply put, it's a raw bar with a twist. But there is nothing simple about the flavors and textures of Howland's "sushi" - tiraditos, crudi and ceviche.
Howland enjoys working with raw seafood and coaxing intriguing flavors and textures out of the synergy of the ocean proteins and acids of lemons and limes. While Howland patiently instructed his "crudomeisters" - Jonathan "Junior" Sharon and Robert Havelaar - on how he wanted the three crudi (plural of crudo) to be plated, he gave me a primer on "Leche de Tigre" (tiger's milk). Howland refers to it as the "mother sauce," since it gives rise to the marinade for each of his piscine creations.
For his basic leche de tigre, Howland starts with white fish trimmings that are cured in lime juice for about 24 hours. The cured - denatured - fish is macerated for about four hours with fish fumet, basically a stock made from white, lean fish and mussel and clam broths, lime and lemon juice, onion, garlic, ginger, celery, cilantro leaves, salt and pepper. The resulting mixture is blended and pureed to a creamy milk consistency that gives rise to its distinctive name. The strained puree is used to marinate Howland's ceviches. Many believe the aptly named tiger's milk is great for providing energy, alleviating hangovers and increasing male amorous performance (although I have yet to hear it marketed in commercials during football games). Whatever its physiological effects, the flavor pleases the palate.
On opening night, Howland served four distinctly different marinated raw seafood creations - Skuna Bay salmon with coconut milk, green curry and green apple leche de tigre; ruby red shrimp and uni, (sea urchin gonads!) with avocado puree and spicy miso made from leche de tigre, red miso and red chili paste; Maine scallops with yuzu kosho broth with leche de tigre (are you seeing a pattern yet?), osetra caviar and red chili aioli; and Hawaiian yellowfin tuna ceviche with Thai tamarind leche de tigre. Whatever your drink of choice you want to pair with your plate of ceviche, sommelier Daan Smeets will have something to please you in his glass-enclosed wine tower.
Not feeling as though I'd experienced life in the trenches with Howland and his team, I asked to return for their first big event. One hundred guests were scheduled to attend a reception in the hotel's ballroom two flights below. Appetizers for 100 were to be followed by diner for 35. Certainly a busy night! Just what I like, since anyone can observe, but the real story is in the doing! And I'll have fun entertaining tips for your holiday parties to share with you next week. In the meantime, I'm sure you'll want to pop into Leonora for breakfast, lunch or dinner, or a drink and tapas at Frost, the hot bar with a chilly name on the hotel's ground floor. Whichever you choose, Leonora is a great place to start and end a tiring day pounding the powder that's certainly coming before we meet again.
Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney, wine importer and the Chambellan Provincial of the Southwest Region and Bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. For more background information on her "Behind the Scenes" series, go to www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets.