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All in good taste

Wren Wertin
Kristin AndersonKelly Liken picks out fresh produce at the farmers' market in Vail for Restaurant Kelly Liken.
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Beverly Hills. Las Vegas. Maui. Beaver Creek? Celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck thinks so. He chose the Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch as the newest location for his iconic restaurant, Spago. Oft touted as the restaurant that kick-started the Vegas dining scene into a global contender, Spago has immediate name recognition ” and the valley’s only master sommelier, Sean Razee.

Puck didn’t exactly wander into a desolate mountain town. Boasting 21 restaurants with Wine Spectator Awards of Excellence and a handful of establishments featured in national media like The Food Network, Bon Appetit magazine and Good Morning America, Vail’s restaurateurs are ahead of the curve.

Vail’s chefs are a passionate lot; they don’t wait to take their cues from what’s already popular. They’re more interested in keeping things lively at their respective eateries, both for themselves and their customers. Vail is a town full of hungry foodies: If they’re not fed, they can get feisty.

“The less familiar a product is, the more excited people get about it,” said Jenna Johansen, chef and owner of Dish restaurant in Edwards.

She recently brought in a case of garlic whistles ” green wands resembling un-bloomed tulip shoots with a faint garlic muskiness ” and served them tempura-style with a dipping sauce. They went quickly. But so do all the odd-sounding items at Dish: chervil ice cream, hibiscus syrup, oversized tapioca, veal scaloppini with tequila huitlacoche crema. Diners are as curious about wine as they are about food.

“People today are a lot more educated,” said Kevin Furtado, sommelier at Larkspur. “They have access to all kinds of information, and they take advantage of it. They come in armed with knowledge. They want to try things that nobody had heard of even 10 years ago.”

Johansen unknowingly echoed Furtado’s assessment.

“Even in the last couple years there’s been a change,” she said. “They’re not just more educated, but they’re more willing to try new things.”

She and her partners, Pollyanna Forster and Chris Irving, keep Dish open rear-round, having discovered they have the clientele even in the off season. And that’s the key, because Vail isn’t just a destination for bon vivants, it’s home.

Not too long ago, there were only a handful of restaurants in Vail, and nobody had been invited to cook at the prestigious James Beard House in New York City. (In the past decade, eight local chefs have been invited to host dinners there).

“Back in the ’70s, Vail was basically a Bavarian village,” said Matt Morgan, who co-owns Sweet Basil with original owner Kevin Clair. “We had Pepi’s, The Tyrolean, The Left Bank. It was continental cuisine, European in style. Even when Sweet Basil opened, it wasn’t ground-breaking in a culinary sense.”

But it ended up being so.

In the ’80s, California cuisine started to march east, and Clair was waiting with open arms. He even went off the deep end and embraced California wines. Sweet Basil became Vail’s first “destination restaurant.” The signature dish? Angel-hair pasta with lobster, shrimp and scallops in a saffron cream sauce. Not until Mr. Atkins unleashed his diet on the soon-to-be-carb-deprived world did the dish get retired. (It’s worth noting that pasta has made a comeback, both locally and nationally. Spago, La Tour and Kelly Liken aren’t Italian restaurants, but their chefs all appreciate ” and often serve ” a homemade pasta dish.)

“The raw beauty of the mountain is the first thing people came for,” said Morgan about Vail’s visitors. “But it’s come full circle. Vail’s an international resort town. Would the dining have been as good if the mountain wasn’t here? Probably not. Would people keep coming back if the food wasn’t so good? It’s a chicken-and-egg question.”

Vail’s restaurateurs, and by extension the eating public, have become very good at adopting a locavore philosophy. That is to say, eat local, local, local.

“This community really supports local and organic food,” said Johansen. “That’s a huge strength.”

And as chefs are likely to explain, just because something is imported doesn’t make it better. “The local lamb we can buy is so superior to what most people in the United States eat, it’s hilarious,” said Richard Beichner, executive chef of Chap’s Grill and Chophouse.

At Sweet Basil, executive chef Paul Anders has just returned from a win in the Great American Seafood Cook-Off in New Orleans. Selected to represent Colorado by Governor Bill Ritter, Anders had to prepare a fish raised in his state. He chose Colorado striped bass, the only fish farmed in Colorado.

“We’re putting it on the menu this week,” Morgan said. “People are sensitive to being green and environmentally responsible. They understand about sustainability and food miles. If we don’t have a Chilean Sea Bass on the menu, people understand.”

When Kelly Liken first opened her eponymous restaurant, she had to explain to people what a seasonal, local menu meant. Not anymore.

Eating local isn’t always feasible in the winter months, but in the summer, nothing’s easier. Farmers from Palisade, Granby, Platteville and Boulder stop in the valley twice a week with their wares. Chefs like Spago’s Mark Ferguson and Grouse Mountain Grill’s Joe Ritchie can be espied at the farmers’ markets alongside home cooks. Johansen has a streak of greed in her. It’s not enough that the season of plenty is here; she wants to keep it. So when she rambles through the Edwards market she buys three or four burlap sacks full of sweet corn, and she can’t resist the peaches.

“My friend calls them elbow peaches, because the juice runs all the way down your arm to your elbow,” she said.

Last weekend, she called her mother up from the Front Range and they got to work canning and preserving her haul.

“Because if you want to have some of these things later, you have to do something,” she said. “And this is a bit of a dying art. But it’s a great way to preserve the integrity of these products at their peak.”

Sunday’s agenda was tomato jam, peaches, eggplant caviar and cocktail sauce.

Come on, cocktail sauce?

“We sell it downstairs at Cut,” she said, referring to the gourmet butcher shop and fish market that’s part of Dish’s immediate family, along with cheese shop Eat! and wine shop Drink!. Cut is stocked with meats from as nearby as Homestead. “In my perfect world, people use the cocktail sauce and then they bring the jar back so I can fill it again with something else.”

Paul Ferzacca has a special Colorado-grown menu on Sundays at La Tour, culled from what he’s discovered at the Vail farmers’ market. He also has Mushroom Monday ” three courses of mushroom-inspired items in deference to the Rocky Mountain’s plethora of edible fungus. Liken scraps her entire regular menu on Sundays and exclusively offers a three-course dinner made from her farmers’ market finds. Diners have a choice of soup or salad, and one of three entrees. Everybody gets the same dessert. Liken had selfish motivations for her Harvest Dinners ” she just wanted to be in the kitchen, challenging herself and her staff to cook and play.

“Now it’s the busiest night of the week,” she said. “The farmers like knowing they’re featured on the menu. And people will ask them, ‘Has Kelly Liken been by yet? What did she buy?’ But the best part is Tony G.”

Tony G. is Tony Gulizia, all-around cool cat and a force on the local jazz scene. He and his trio play an array of jazz standards on Sunday evenings. By the time he rolls into the restaurant, Liken and her kitchen team ” usually sous chef Zack Thompson and pastry chef Erin Fernandez ” have been at it for a full day.

They show up at the restaurant at about noon, and peek into the walk-in fridge. They decide what proteins they’re going to serve: usually a meat or poultry and a fish. They also create a vegetarian option. By now, they’ve dialed in the rhythms of the market and pretty much know what to expect out there. Peaches are hot, hot, hot. And nothing but Carol Morales’ arugula will do. After a brief discussion, Liken grabs her hand-truck and heads out to the market. Thompson is sent to one end for greens and whatnot. She starts at the other end.

It’s a bit like guilt-free window-shopping. She’s allowed to pick up whatever catches her eye. Eggplants, calabacita squash, pattypan squash all go on her cart. She grills Jay Miller of Miller Farms. “You grew these?” She has to be certain.

“Yep,” he answers good-naturedly. He lets her sit down and sort through the pickling cucumbers. She’s a stickler for a certain size. These are a personal indulgence. Every year she makes 12 Mason jars of her grandpa’s pickles. Her husband and business partner Rick Colomitz keeps them in his wine cellar. Every month he brings one up to her, and she can tear through it or try and savor it.

“They’re my favorite food in the world,” she said. “I’d eat them all the time if I could, so I have to have rules.”

Once everybody is back in the kitchen, they look at what they have. Liken bounces ideas off her team. If they like something, it gets written down. If they don’t ” Thompson wasn’t wild about an acorn squash salad ” they keep trying. (They finally hit upon acorn squash raviolis, and Fernandez got right to work mixing up pasta dough.)

Sometimes they have to dash back to the market. As Liken rubbed her arms, still chilly from her walk through the rain, she mused that creme-fraiche smashed potatoes seemed the perfect complement to short ribs and baby carrots. “Yeah,” Thompson agreed.

She divvies up the chores, with broad instructions like, “Some sort of roasted-tomato saucy thing for the fish.” They all settle into work.

“Vail’s really jumped on the local bandwagon,” Liken said. “It’s really the popular culture of eating, and I’m so glad. I’d love to grow my own stuff.”

Those looking for a curry house or kebab shop find there are still some culinary niches that desperately need filling. “For those of us who live here year-round, we really need some more ethnic food,” Johansen said. “I think that’s why people get so excited when we have curries on the menu. Well, that and (sous chef) Ryan Foote makes an awesome Thai green curry.”

“Why don’t we have an Indian restaurant?” asks the Vail Daily’s Dominique Taylor every other week.

“Thai food: I really miss the Siamese Orchid,” said Eagle-Vail resident Kari Corbin, of the popular Asian restaurant in Vail that closed a few years ago.

But some just want to keep it simple. Self-described working jerk and Eagle resident Chris Weathers wants access to Kentucky Fried Chicken. Gorsuch employee and Eagle-Vail resident Mike DeMino does most of the cooking at home, though he takes intense pleasure in a meal well-cooked. From Splendido to Campo de Fiori, he’s at home in any dining room. What would he add to the local scene?

“Coney Island hotdogs,” he said. “You can’t get them anywhere.”

Touche.


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