VAIL — A glass of sparkling cava and passed appetizers ranging from bacon-wrapped dates to tiny cups of two varieties of cold soup started off Thursday’s Gather in the Garden dinner at the Sonnenalp Hotel in Vail.
With rain in the forecast, the dinner was moved into the hotel’s sunlit-filled terrace, which while not quite as lovely as the hotel’s streamside garden, is a close second. Executive Chef Florian Schwarz sent out shooters of cold tomato gazpacho and tiny tea cups filled with salmorejo cordobes — also a cold, tomato-based soup — for attendees to sip on to start. Originating in southern Spain, the salmorejo cordobes has a pinkish-orange color and a thicker, more creamy texture thanks to the addition of bread. Topped with slivers of almonds, diced hardboiled egg whites and cilantro, the salmorejo cordobes was a bright, flavorful way to start the evening.
Spain was the theme for the evening’s dinner, served family-style at five long tables with candles and fresh flowers picked from the garden decorating the center of each. Schwarz worked in Spain for 10 years, he said, giving him plenty of inspiration for the meal.
“Spain is my second home. My wife is from Spain and now I have recipes from my mother-in-law,” he said, a wide grin on his face.
Schwarz talked about the food to come, of which there was no shortage, highlighting the tumbet vegetables — “a lasagna without the pasta that is baked,” he explained — and seafood paella: “The typical Spain everyone knows. It’s really nice to put together,” he said.
Two courses, 10 dishes
After pouring a crisp Spanish white wine blend of chardonnay and macabeo, servers delivered the four dishes that made up the “first course.” First up, a plate filled with slices of Manchego cheese, piles of serrano ham and Spanish olives. Next, a seasonal green salad with a tangy vinaigrette made with sherry vinegar, or, in Spanish, vinagre de Jerez, arrived. As an aside, to be called vinagre de Jerez, the vinegar must be produced in the Spanish province of Cadiz, aged in American oak for a minimum of six months and must have specific acidity. The Ensaladilla Russa, a Spanish potato salad with tuna and eggs, was rich and creamy. My favorite was the trampo salad, a cold salad made from green bell peppers, onion and tomatoes marinated in olive oil and white wine vinegar. While I’m not usually a fan of green peppers, the vinegar and olive oil bath mellowed the flavors, and the salad was fresh and crisp.
The next wave of platters, the “second course,” managed to outshine the first. The whole-roasted leg of lamb with thyme sauce was perfectly prepared, and the Emilio Moro Tempranillo served alongside was a nice pairing. The tumbet vegetables — layers of eggplant, bell peppers, zucchini and garlic baked in tomato sauce, of which Schwarz mentioned early on in the night — was as tasty as any lasagna I’ve had, but much healthier without layers of pasta and cheese to add to the calorie count. The paella, rife with mussels, clams, shrimp, hunks of a mild white fish, peas, artichokes and still-crisp green beans, merited a second helping.
You’d think there’d be no room for dessert, but the four of us seated at the end of one table tapped into the second, “dessert stomach” and raved about the Spanish fruit tarts and Crema Catalan, a lovely caramelized vanilla cream custard nearly identical to creme brulee. Our tablemates, Norm Vogel and Harriet Drews, shared stories about their respective visits to Malorca, Barcelona and other parts of Spain as we sipped Fine Ruby Porto to end what was a lovely evening in the terrace.
Sonnenalp hosted two Gather in the Garden dinners this summer, both held in the terrace due to rain, and there’s rumor of a possible third, though nothing has been finalized yet. During the winter, the hotel hosts a series of wine dinners, which usually begin in December. Watch for the schedule this fall.