Editor's note: This is the second half of a two-part series. Visit www.vaildaily.com to read the first installment. In January 1963, fine dining for Vail's roughly 100 inhabitants was steak and a baked potato at the Diamond J restaurant 25 miles west of Vail. Two years earlier, Skiing Magazine reported that all Colorado ski resorts logged 500,000 annual skier visits. Fifty years of culinary and ski industry history later, Vail's 5,270 residents and 750,000 annual visitors can enjoy fine dining from Vail to Beaver Creek in some of the nation's best restaurants. Thanks to Mother Nature's bounty in 2010-2011, Vail logged a record 1.7 million skier days. It's also been 50 years since Denver car rental agencies asked, "Where is Vail?" Vail's culinary quantum leap during its lifetime and its current gastronomic prowess were on display at a recent five-course progressive dinner at four Chaine des Rotisseurs member restaurants in Vail Village. As the head of the local chapter of the international gastronomic society, it fell upon me to organize and lead the first Vail Chaine progressive dinner. And just my luck, it was one of the coldest nights in years. The dinner at Flame at the Four Seasons, Leonora at The Sebastian, Ludwig's at the Sonnenalp and the Left Bank challenged the chefs' creativity, both with the food design and logistics of serving 30 people only one course. There aren't many resorts for such an event - certainly not one where so many world-class fine dining restaurants are close enough that sub-zero temperatures won't deter diners - except perhaps Aspen. That night, the chefs proved Vail is ideal for restaurant-hopping.
Cocktail time began promptly at 6 p.m. at the Four Seasons Resort. Fire was a prominent image, it being the restaurant's name - Flame. The fireplace in the private dining room, Out of Bounds, warmed diners while Flame manager and sommelier Steven Teaver stoked diners' internal fires with his crafted seasonal cocktails. Even one of Teaver's creations had an element of fire: barrel-aged smoked Manhattan with Breckenridge Bourbon. Along with his seasonal rum punch, Teaver provided ample libations to warm everyone for the cold night ahead.Teaver paired his cocktails with executive chef Jason Harrison's signature appetizers: Rocky Mountain elk corn dogs and Kalbe beef tacos with 8-hour short ribs. Since the Four Seasons' opening in December 2010, Harrison has captained the expansive kitchen where he oversees the hotel's culinary operations. Now, Harrison makes dry-aged meat and elk sausage on site in a dry-age cooler. Harrison's recent trip to Asia sparked his experimentation with spices such as Kalbe, a Korean barbecue spice he added to his beef tacos for an exotic "je ne sais quoi" taste. The perfect start! My fears that chaos would ensue, akin to herding cats, when I tore happy diners away from one venue to go to another were unfounded. Within the budgeted time of 15 minutes, diners donned their coats, braved the cold and settled in across the street at Leonora for chef Sergio Howland's Maine lobster ceviche.
To make great ceviche, as Howland has been doing all season, one must begin with the freshest seafood possible. In 1963, just getting provisions up from Denver on circuitous U.S. Highway 6 was a huge challenge. Obtaining ocean fresh seafood for ceviche was unthinkable. But now, daily 24-hour "ocean to table" seafood deliveries make it possible for Howland and chefs such as Steve Topple to provide fresh, imaginative seafood dishes to diners 1,200 miles away from the nearest ocean. Howland's Maine lobster ceviche became an instant hit in December, after he used extra lobster he had available to create the dish. Manager and sommelier John Dooley's choice of bubbles was Gramona Gran Reserva Cava. The flavorful leche de tigre used to "cook" the lobster and the light heat from the Serrano chilies topping the ceviche blended perfectly with the Cava. By now, diners knew the signal and when I gave it, they were ready to move to the Sonnenalp, where executive chef Steven Topple and his team awaited us on Ludwig's terrace. The diners were clearly into the rhythm of the event. None of the chefs' arms required twisting to participate in the event, particularly Topple. Since hosting his first Chaine dinner at Ludwig's last summer, he's prodded me to do this dining format. Now he was ready to show off his choice for our fish course: his signature seared scallops on a white bean ragout with bacon leek vinaigrette. Topples' two young cooks - Justin Kuehn and Amelie Markolf - prepared the dish before us, "a la minute," while Topple and his lead cook, Dan D'Onofrio, plated and served the piping hot scallops. It transcended the usual elegant dinner service at Ludwig's. Three Georges Banks scallops seared to perfection topped the white bean ragout. The combination of scallops, beans, bacon and vinaigrette paired beautifully with sommelier Jarrett Quint's choice of Domane Wachau Federspiel "Terrassen" Gruner Veltliner 2011.
The night's longest trek was ahead of us. Clearly, there were no objections, since the pot of gold at the end of the cold walk was an icon of Vail fine dining, the Left Bank. Chef Jean-Michel Chelain was assigned the meat course, but had been recruited at the last minute to also provide the dessert. Pepi's initially was our final destination, but the frigid temperatures prompted us to shorten the trek. Chaine will definitely dine at that member restaurant this summer! Chelain's multifaceted meat course included a trio of medallion of beef with red wine reduction, crab with Hollandaise and carpaccio of Black Angus on a bed of arugula. For the first time that night, we had our glasses filled with red wine. The Domaine Chapoutier Croze-Hermitage "La Peruche" 2009 paired well with both the meat and the crab, setting diners up for the last drink of the night, 2007 Dow's Port.In France and New Orleans, king cakes - galettes des rois - are traditional desserts served from 12th night of Christmas - Jan. 6 - through Mardi Gras. Shunning the Big Easy's "giant cinnamon roll" version, Chelain created beautiful traditional galettes des rois of puff pastry filled with almond paste for each table. Creme anglaise was the crowning sin. That's why Lent is needed after king cake season! The lucky diner who found the almond in his or her piece of cake was crowned king or queen, along with his or her choice of consort. It was a festive ending to a night of delicious food and wine, laughter and camaraderie amongst the diners and the chefs. It's no coincidence that I chose to write about this event this week. Not only am I celebrating one year of sharing my behind the scenes experiences with you, but the Food & Wine Magazine culinary weekend in Beaver Creek is in full swing. No better time to tout our own celebrity chefs. Their culinary skills, honed by years of passionate training, provide us an opportunity to turn any night into our own culinary festival, even a frigid one in January. And you don't need me to organize a progressive dinner for you. Just grab a map of Vail Village, a restaurant guide and begin your trek from restaurant to restaurant, course to course. Your very own culinary festival!Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney and chambellan provincial of the Southwest Region and bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. She is a passionate gastronome. For more background information on her "Behind the Scenes" series, go to www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.