Sonnenalp’s epicurean experiences include themed, gourmet buffets | VailDaily.com

Sonnenalp’s epicurean experiences include themed, gourmet buffets

Melanie Wong
Special to the Daily

the term "gourmet buffet" may sound like an oxymoron, but it's a concept that Vail's Sonnenalp Hotel is reclaiming this winter with panache and style.

The Sonnenalp already hosts a legendary breakfast buffet — or as general manager Stefan Schmidt prefers to call it, "breakfast extravaganza" — known for its mind-boggling variety, beautifully presented portions and a gourmet touch. Executive chef Florian Schwartz and food and beverage director Daniel Spingler saw a chance to extend the same concept to the hotel's dinner service and create themed, sumptuous buffet dinners on a regular basis. Sonnenalp's Epic Culinary Journeys were born.

Unique Themes

Here's how it works: Nightly through March, Schwartz and company will prepare a gourmet, all-you-can-eat, aesthetically gorgeous spread with a unique theme in the newly renovated Ludwig's restaurant. Depending on the night of the week, the theme may be vintage French, seafood or gluten-free. For an additional cost, diners can add wine pairings for two.

With great pride, Schwartz will tell you that no elegance, taste or technique has been compromised in order to create the buffet. In fact, he thinks the buffet format makes for a more exciting experience. At other restaurants, diners must commit to a single entree, or at best, can choose from a few dishes at a multicourse, set menu meal. At Ludwig's, they can try a bit of everything and go back for more of their favorite dishes.

"It's all excellent," Schwartz said with matter-of-fact confidence as the first guests filed in one evening. "I want people to try it all."

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Around-the-world gourmet

In some ways, the dinners reflect Schwartz's own international cooking education and culinary philosophy. He believes that variety is key, and he likes to incorporate the myriad of European influences that have shaped his own training.

"I hate the word signature dish," he admitted. "There's not one food or dish I like more than another, I just like trying different things. I grew up in Germany and worked in Spain, Portugal, Austria and Colorado. I like to use the styles I've learned to take classic dishes and turn them into something new and modern that you might not even recognize as the original."

The various themes also allow the Sonnenalp kitchen to get creative and incorporate a range of authentic ingredients, from imported French cheeses to holiday foods the chef grew up eating. For example, the alpine-themed menu features European favorites from Switzerland, Austria and Germany, such as roasted goose, red cabbage and dessert dumplings. At the Colorado dinner, diners enjoy locally sourced produce, meats and products including lamb, cheeses, herbs and mushrooms.

The gluten-free dinners have been a surprise hit with guests. With appeal for everyone from the gluten-intolerant to the allergy-free, you won't even notice that this menu is modified. Choose from smoked salmon with honey mustard sauce, mushroom-stuffed Guinea fowl and creamy butternut squash soup. Gluten-sensitive guests will be especially thrilled to find homemade, gluten-free pastas, breads and a generous spread of cakes and pastries.

"The idea is that if you didn't know about the theme, you wouldn't realize it was all gluten-free," Schwartz said. "Someone who isn't gluten sensitive can still come enjoy a meal together with someone who is. I've had someone cry during the meal because they'd never enjoyed a meal out where they could eat everything without worries."

The 'wow effect'

While tears aren't exactly the reaction the staff at the Sonnenalp is aiming for, they do hope that diners are thoroughly awed by the experience. What strikes many guests as they walk through the doors of Ludwig's is that everything about the meal — the decor, the Bavarian painted plates, the copper serving trays, the soft lighting and the food itself — is a feast for the eyes as well as the taste buds.

The restaurant's recent renovation gave the dining room an open layout, slick granite countertops and beautiful light wood flooring. True to the hotel's German roots, paintings of severe-looking Bavarian aristocrats stare jealously down as you fill your plate.

"It's all about creating that special experience. The guest comes in and there's that 'wow' effect," Spingler said.

He adds that guests can stop in for apres or pre-dinner drinks at the hotel's King's Lounge, which will host live entertainment and champagne sabers every day through the ski season. The bar recently rolled out its winter cocktail menu, with expertly executed concoctions such as the tart-and-sweet Berry Merry Martini and flavored bourbon old fashioned.

The King's Lounge is open for apres beginning at 3 p.m. and stays open late into the night with drinks and live music. Dinners at Ludwig's begin at 5:30 p.m. nightly. Reservations are recommended by calling the concierge at 970-476-5656. Find out more at sonnenalp.com under the dining tab.