Grouse Mountain Grill |

Grouse Mountain Grill

Wren Wertin
Shane Macomber/Vail DailyChef Rick Kangas decides what to put on the menu from the guest's perspective.

A typical Grouse Mountain Grill experience is, in a word, generous. Generous portions, generous space, generous ambiance.

Walking in the door from the cold, the restaurant is warm and friendly. Piano maestro Tony Gulizia fills the air with playful jazz standards while a fire crackles in the fireplace. When my husband, Paul, and I arrived, I was cranky from a long day of travel. Sitting in one of the comfy upholstered chairs, a flute of Schramsberg bubbly in my hand, it took about a minute for me to start relaxing.

Located in Beaver Creek’s Pines Lodge, the restaurant specializes in rustic American food with innovative twists. It’s a little off the beaten path, but that’s part of the charm. Technically a ski-in location from Strawberry Park, it’s an easy jaunt by car. The dining room looks across the valley.

After perusing the menu and having a spirited discussion with our server, Dani Karre, we dug into the bread basket and accompanying pickled peppers. The potato sourdough, served with whipped butter and orange marmalade, was my favorite. Paul preferred the flatbread, one glazed with a sweet jalapeno jelly, the other with a thick layer of pungent asiago. The house-made breads were a good indication of the quality to come.

“It’s understood that things are understated,” said Executive Chef Rick Kangas. “It’s mountain comfort food. We don’t have rosemary bushes sticking out of the plate. It’s not about height, or having something shoot across the table when you put your fork in it. And it’s not about artwork. You shouldn’t feel like you’re slicing up the ‘Mona Lisa.’ But it is about the love and care we give food.”

Dinner Chef Ted Schneider agrees.

“We focus on flavors and ingredients,” he said. “I love working here. The quality of the food means we don’t have to compromise on anything.”

Instead of opting for a bottle from Grouse’s extensive wine list, which includes New and Old World bottles, we put ourselves in Karre’s more than capable hands. Working from a plentiful wines-by-the-glass menu, she paired by the course for us. In addition to having a second sense when it comes to serving (she was informative and attentive without hovering), at the end of the evening Karre was four for four on her pairings.

The hit of the appetizer list was the warm lobster and marscapone stack ($11), layered between flash-fried wonton crisps and drizzled with a sun-dried tomato-basil vinaigrette. The marscapone component was light, allowing the lobster flavor to shine through.

Paired with a glass of fruity Castel viognier, it was a delicious course.

When Kangas took this lobster app off the menu and replaced it with a different one, there was a general outcry from people who didn’t just want the old dish ” they wanted both dishes. Unfazed by such vocal patrons, Kangas is glad to have his customers’ input.

“I make decisions for the menu looking from their seat,” he said. “What do they want to eat? Can we cook it right all of the time? Those are my guidelines.”

The guidelines are working, as the restaurant is the highest ranking in the Rockies according to the on-going Zagat customer survey, with a score of 28. Kangas has been invited to the James Beard House, a rare honor.

One of the standards from the appetizer list is the batter-fried portabella mushroom spears ($8), both meaty and creamy, with a sweet-hot dipping sauce. Though we didn’t try it, Chef Kangas is particularly excited about the duet of tuna and beef tartar with grilled bread ($18).

We broke with tradition and ordered spinach with an earthy charred onion dressing ($8.50), tossed with candied pineapple and crowned with a nutty pistachio crisp. Karre paired it with a Lang and Reed 2002 cabernet Franc, heartier than a pinot and well rounded.

Though Kangas can wax eloquent about the menu, the mission of Grouse has always been the same: Let the food speak for itself. But that doesn’t mean it’s plain. Unfussy, yes, but definitely creative.

The walleye is a good example of this. It’s not an exotic fish, nor could Ritz crackers ever be considered extraordinary. But crust walleye with those same Ritz crackers and serve it with a dill tartar sauce ($29), and you’ve got something special. Another signature dish is the pretzel-crusted jumbo pork chop ($29) with an orange mustard sauce. Pretzels and mustard are a natural combo, but add a pork chop and shazam, it’s gourmet fare. Chef Kangas currently gets excited about the Colorado rack of lamb ($41), roasted and served with a pear jus. Chef Schneider is a big fan of the seared scallops ($28) with black barley and white balsamic honey, mostly because they’re served with house-made spicy-sweet chorizo sausage.

I chose the roasted duck ($32), served with a sweet potato cake as well as sweet potato chips, and glazed with an intensely flavored black currant sauce made with duck stock. Though Schneider described the preparation as “pretty simple, doesn’t take too long,” it includes two days of curing, as well as reducing the stock made with the carcasses by 90 percent. No matter how they got there, the end result was fruity, savory and seductive. A glass of E. Guigal Chateaneuf-du-Pape syrah-grenache was a great complement.

Paul went for the grilled Limousin tenderloin ($35) with corn fries and a tangy rhubarb ketchup. Sporting a savory crust yet still beautifully rare inside, it was a flavorful delight. Limousin is a type of French cattle bred for lower fat content.

“We do take that into consideration,” said Schneider. “But we chose it because it has such a killer flavor.”

Kangas agrees about the flavor.

“And those corn fries turned out awesome,” added Kangas. “We used mashed potatoes and polenta. That dish represents the simplicity which signifies Grouse Mountain Grill’s food.”

One of the perks of eating at Grouse is the side dish experience. Diners get to choose their own, and they’re served family style. This encourages more of a communal feel, explained Schneider.

Even if you’re too full ” and we definitely were ” order a dessert. One of the recipes Kangas has been tinkering with for years is the apple bread pudding, served bubbling in a souffle dish, with cinnamon ice cream and a bourbon caramel sauce. It’s seen many incarnations.

“Our general rule is: We’re not going backwards,” said Schneider, laughing. “We’re not 100 percent locked in on our food. We’re always trying new things, but changing it means we found a way to make it better.”

Coupled with a glass of Quinta Noval 20-year tawny port, there’s no better way to end the evening. Chocoholics can order the dark chocolate cake with a roasted chestnut-orange sauce, and the vanilla creme brulee with shortbread cookie is a classic. Even those wanting a light ending can go for the daily sorbet with fresh berries.

At the end of the meal, no matter which path you chose, you’ll be sated … and probably looking forward to what you’ll order next time.

Vail Colorado

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