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Kelly Liken

Laura A. Ball
Daily file photoKelly Liken, right, and Rick Colomitz, dining room manager, who were married in the fall, opened the restaurant they built from scratch in May.
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Like circles left on old wood from the bottom of a wine bottle, Kelly Liken restaurant leaves a mark on even the most tenacious of palettes.

When Kelly Liken, chef and owner of the self-named eatery in the Gateway Building in Vail Village, began realizing her vision in opening a restaurant in Vail, the bottoms of bottles that peered out through the glass of the wine room into the dining area gave her an idea.

She decided they should mirror the restaurant, branding the windows, chairs, even the plates with circles. She continued the theme of wine with bordeaux and chardonnay colors for the decor, creating visual depth and warmth.

At Kelly Liken, attention to the detail can be found in every nook and cranny from the handles on the backs of the chairs allowing servers to easily pull out chairs for the guests to the gauze curtains that envelop the plush booths. And a truly wonderful fine dining experience is all in the details.

“The goal here is to create a total positive, repeatable experience,” Liken said. “It’s not just about having the best service. It’s not about having the best food. It’s about from the moment you pull in to the driveway to the moment you leave, we want to create a tailor-made experience. Your best experience is going to be different from my best experience, and we trying to tailor-make that. We are passionate about providing you a one of a kind experience.”

My mother, sister and I, looked forward to a night on the town and a chance to unwind, still on the brink of holiday chaos. After the valet took care of any parking woes and the hostess whisked away our coats, we were taken to a cozy spot looking out to the slopes.

We sank further into relaxation when our server, Peter Sampson, arrived at our table and flashed us a charming smile, promising to take care of us for the evening.

Liken came out from the kitchen to greet us, too, as she often does to familiar guests, fresh with excitement to cook for us.

She sent out mushroom puree served in tiny glasses wrapped by wire to hold and sip the light and creamy goodness. At once, our appetites begged for more.

Sampson paired the soup with 2002 Van Duzer pinot noir from Oregon, explaining that the earthy wine from the Northwest brought out the earthy taste of the mushroom.

Fresh sourdough rolls, delivered daily from the Avon Bakery, served with olive oil begged to be tasted with the puree.

Once we had a taste of what Liken had to offer, we were ready for our first course. My sister and I dug in to the refreshing roasted yellow beet and red beet salad with tarragon aioli ($11) and satisfying winter greens with pears and pecans, blue cheese and cider vinaigrette ($10), while my mom gushed over the crisp veal sweetbreads with apple celery salad and potato gaufette ($13).

Sampson recommended Burgundy’s Louis Jadot pouilly fuisse chardonnay, for a cool lighter and crisper taste to compliment the fresh fare.

“It’s going to cleanse,” Sampson said. “It’s the light with the light and high acid in the finish.”

Also among the decadent appetizers are seared truffled scallops ($15), oysters on the half shell ($14), duck confit ($11), elk carpaccio ($12), seared Hudson Valley foie gras ($19).

As the first courses, the main courses illustrated Liken’s creative and daring ability to cater to every palette.

Being a fish lover, my mom feasted upon the pan seared Red Grouper crowned with vibrant orange sweet potato crisps complimented by butternut squash gnocchi ($29) that were to die for. The perfectly moist white fish was enhanced by wild mushroom-sage ragout.

I reveled in the trout filets artfully encrusted with thin crisp circles of potato, praised by golden raisins, caramelized brussel sprouts leaves and toasted pecans ($29) ” a delicious ensemble.

My sister, a self proclaimed steak connoisseur, dined on the Colorado natural New York Strip Steak augmented by grilled chicories, balsamic onions and crispy herbed gorgonzola steak fries ($35).

After having a discussion with Sampson about the styles of domestic wine versus European wine, he had us taste the 2000 Marsannay Dme. Philippe Naddef pinot noir and 2001 Napa Valley Etude pinot noir. I favored the deep, dark Etude with the trout, while my mom and sister preferred the Naddef’s subtle boldness. Both excellent spirits.

Main courses run the gamut of tastes offering roasted Colorado rack of lamb ($38), a favored dish, pot roasted poussin with wild mushrooms ($28), Ancho Chile braised shortrib ($30), Colorado wildflower honey glazed duck breast ($32), pan roasted pork tenderloin ($30).

“We stay true to our American heritage, and we really try to reflect that on our menu,” Liken said. “I am 100 percent inspired by using the best quality produce and protein that is produced by our country, and by Colorado whenever possible.

“We’re trying to support our local farmers as much as we can and our local ranchers, we’re trying to close that loop.”

Liken admits to loving food from all cultures, but wants to prove that American cuisine does exist and is something to behold.

She caters to vegetarian guests, working with individuals to create a menu upon request. She’ll whip up a dish using any ingredients she has available. For instance, she might create cornmeal crepes stuffed with butternut squash topped with wild mushroom ragout with an herbed salad,

“I want it to be something that’s at the same caliber as the rest of the food.”

Liken will come out and talk to you if you have concerns to ensure a great dining experience even if you have dietary restrictions associated with your diet.

A sweet crescendo awaited us in the molten chocolate turtle cake with candied pecans ($11), which is worth a trip to the restaurant alone. The caramel ice cream and the sticky bun sundae with vanilla ice cream sparkling with spun sugar and a star-shaped sugar cookie ($10) was a work of art, which didn’t last long.

Along with dessert, we were treated to Dow’s 10-year tawny port, a bold, sweet fortified alcohol.

The wine list offers 150 vintage selections, 35 of which are offered by the glass. Liken and Rick Colomitz, Liken’s husband and dining room manager, choose the wine list, thoughtfully learning about and selecting each wine.

“We pick wines we like, our goal really being that we have a focused wine list with quality wines at every price point, all wines being American and French. We’re just looking for really interesting wines, wines with a story, wines with a history.

Sampson shared a little word of advice on how to choose a wine.

“If you like it, then drink it. That’s really what it comes down to,” he said. “The winemakers don’t want to talk cherry, vanilla extract, tobacco, leather, they just want to know, do you like it.

“I don’t try to sell you what I like, I try to sell you what I think you’ll like. It’s one of the most fun things about the job, the wine. It really brings people together.”

The wine bar and restaurant in the heart of Vail evoke the warm tingling left by your first glass of wine of the evening, and it doesn’t go away.

“I opened this restaurant when I was 27,” Liken said. “I was just really proud of the fact that I’m a young, female chef, even beyond just the food. Not to mention, if you put your name on something you can’t fail, you work a little harder. I wanted to put myself out there and say, ‘We’re here to stay, and I promise we’re gong to be the best.'”

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