French experience at La Tour
December 16, 2003
VAIL ” Long a place for the special occasions of my life, this summer La Tour has become the place I go any old time. Whether it’s a parade of appetizers at the bar or a full dinner in the dining room, I always leave feeling I’ve had a friendly night. And the food is some of the best Vail has to offer.
I recently had a rather extravagant dinner experience in the cozily chic restaurant, beginning with one of La Tour’s signature Cosmopolitan cocktails and a basket of sliced baguette and rosemary bread. Sitting in one of the restaurant’s three dining rooms (they also have a heated patio), it’s easy to let the tensions of the day drift away. Laughter is as much a part of the restaurant’s sound as popping corks and quirky jazz.
After a serious conversation with our server and sommelier, Vanessa Cinti, my date and I started with kuomoto oysters on the half shell. Barely glazed with sauce mignonette, they were refreshing sips of the sea. And that was just the beginning.
The grilled asparagus salad has renewed my affection for that vegetable. Served cold with chunks of firm morels, slivers of radishes and curls of Parmigianno-Reggiano, the whisper of a vinaigrette is a perfect counterpoint to the smokiness of the asparagus.
Chef-proprietor Paul Ferzacca and the rest of his kitchen staff are careful about offering approachable food ” they don’t want to scare anyone off by being “too French” (in other words, too fussy). But there’s nothing more French than escargot, and it’s one of the great gems on the menu. Though I’ve had mixed feelings about escargot in the past, La Tour’s rendition has made me a zealous convert. I tasted the creamy sauce first, which sang of garlic and herbs. In some sort of fascinating culinary conversion, as soon as I popped a bite-sized escargot into my mouth, the dense morsel soaked up all the flavor, leaving a clean finish that begged another bite, and another. Paired with a 2002 white Burgundy which walked the line between butter and citrus, it was a fantastic moment in time.
Of course, why stop with the escargot when there’s foie gras to be had? Quickly pan seared to allow for a crisp outside and a jam-smooth inside, Chef Paul’s newest interpretation of the standard includes lavender honey.
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“With this sauterne, it’s going to be paradise,” promised Cinti, her eyes winking as she set a glass of Chateau Grillon in front of me.
Though officially La Tour is described as a French American restaurant, the ingredient list comes from all over the world. Paul is a big fan of taking a classic and putting a twist on it. For instance, the lamb with chipotle pineapple sauce ($36) has its roots in Southern Mexico’s tacos al pastor, a spit-roasted pork and pineapple snack.
For those wanting something a little lighter, dive into the broiled halibut served in a coconut-curry broth with sake-braised Manila clams. The nuance of flavors is exhilarating, from the creaminess of the broth to the intensity of the clams ($29). The white fish soaks it all up. If you prefer your fish pan seared, go for the crawfish-stuffed trout with a crisp cornmeal crust ($28), or the classic Dover sole with a lemony sweet brown butter sauce.
Vegetarians and carnivores alike will appreciate the big flavors of the gnocchi ($22), which is packed with caramelized roasted garlic, oven-roasted tomatoes, parmesan cheese, fresh basil and a generous drizzle of aged balsamic. (It’s the sort of sleeper dish that invites envy the table round.)
The dessert menu is always tempting and changing, but the creme brulee is a standard. If you don’t want to exercise your sweet tooth, do yourself a favor and try the artisan cheese plate with a glass of port ” especially if your server is willing to pick one out for you.
Cinci and her coworkers seem to take a very real pride in their jobs. From the savory treats of the kitchen to the eternally flickering candles, they attend to every detail. In a town unfortunately known for its attitude, La Tour doesn’t have a snooty server in the bunch. Co-owner Lourdes Ferzacca credits the savvy hiring instincts of General Manager Ward Mack with the warmth of the waitstaff.
“You can’t teach someone to like people or to be friendly,” said Mack. “What good does expertise do if you have the wrong attitude?”
He’d rather teach someone the details, as long as they’re warm to others. Despite this preference, La Tour’s staff embodies a high level of professional expertise ” six of the employees have earned an official sommelier designation by passing an internationally recognized test which demands intimate knowledge of not only wine and pairings but all beverages and service to boot.
Paul has been in the food industry for 24 years. When he and Lourdes bought La Tour, they wanted to make it the best French restaurant in Vail. What they’ve ended up doing is making it one of the best restaurants in Vail, period. Though there are many classic ingredients on the La Tour menu ” lamb, Dover sole, foie gras ” it always seems, and tastes, fresh. That’s due in part to Paul’s training and talent (“God, he’s passionate about food,” exclaimed Lourdes about Paul).
But another reason La Tour’s menu crackles with innovation and spot-on execution is the attitude of learning the chef fosters in his kitchen. He has a handful of apprentices, culinary students who are dedicated to learning everything they can from Paul in a three-year stint.
“This is by far the most passionate kitchen staff I’ve ever worked with,” said Chef de Cuisine Nicole Pederson. “Everybody wants to learn, and we have big discussions every night in the kitchen.”
That attitude of learning extends to the front of the house. La Tour will be opening some of its wine tasting seminars ” designed to help educate the staff about various varietals and pairings ” to the public. And though the average diner may not be part and party to the discussions and debates that happen behind the scenes, they’ll certainly enjoy the outcome: excellent food and service that just doesn’t seem to have an off night.
La Tour is open nightly for dinner. Reservations are highly recommended.