Kitchen kingpin in Vail

HL Bol 1 DT 8-3-10

Is this Miami?

Walk into bol, the restaurant/bowing alley at the new Solaris in Vail, and you could be in any urban environment. Start eating, and it’s obviously the work of Eric Wuppermann. Smitten by seafood, playful with flavors – Wuppermann’s menu seeks to make you forget you’re eating in a bowling alley… save the fact that most everything can be eaten one-handed.

“We’re a restaurant first and a bowling alley second,” said Barry Davis, bol’s managing operator and partner with Solaris developer Peter Knobel.

The large space unfurls in an undulating wave from the front door. Swirls of rectangular glass hang from the ceiling, while booths line one wall and the bar the other. Mod cocktail table and seating configurations are set amongst traditional tables. In the back, and not visible from everywhere in the room, are the bowling alley’s 10 lanes.

Sure, bowling’s a draw, but the food is something else entirely.

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“What’s bowling food?” Wuppermann asked. “Something you can eat while you’re bowling. It might be a little messy but it’s fun and delicious and hopefully at least a little bit healthy.”

Davis has self-described “blue collar tastes,” and he wanted wings and burgers on the menu. Wuppermann is a little loftier in his preferences. The two have had to meet in the middle of most decisions, and the dynamic gives a depth to the menu – and the overall feel of bol -that allows kids and food snobs to sit at the same table. Happily.

So yes, there are chicken wings on the menu, but they’re brined, confit-ed (cooked in their own fat), roasted to crisp the skin and served atop mashed potatoes with a sherry gravy. Manager (and cat herder) Oliver Tito describes them as “the crispy bits of Sunday roast.” There’s not a whole menu of burgers, but there are some finger sandwiches and one substantial beef burger served with sugar-cured bacon, white cheddar and traditional accoutrements. And there’s a whole host of other items that fall into a variety of categories, including shared plates, personal pizzas, salads, mains and desserts. Those categories could easily be divided into regional tastes instead, with Mediterranean, Caribbean, Southern, Asian and perhaps a World Flavors catch-all.

“I try to make things fun to eat,” Wuppermann said. “I like things a little spicy – it livens up your life. I think the most important utensil should be the elbow.” He throws his out to his sides as he pantomimes keeping others out of his way while reaching for goodies on the table. “A meal is such an important part of a memory.”

Chef Wuppermann (though he doesn’t like the title) wasn’t always landlocked in the Rockies. Born in the Caribbean in Trinidad, he eventually made his way to an island in Maine where he worked on lobster boats with a cooperative.

“I love seafood. I love to cook it. I love how it tastes like the sea,” he said. “I love knowing where it comes from. I’ve been offshore in those cold waters. I’ve felt that wind.”

He made some connections in those lobster years that have served him well, enabling him to go to the front of the line and receive shipments of, well, whatever his seafood lust demands.

Two menu items in particular prove the point: crab salad burgers and lobster pizza. The crab salad burgers (“finger sandwiches” on the menu – don’t call them sliders) are piled with fresh, cold crab salad on a soft bun. Slightly sauced with remoulade, the sweet treats are delicate and go down easily.

The lobster pizza is one of several made with a chewy, rectangular crust that’s presented splayed on a wooden board. Layered with fontina cheese, buttered leeks and fresh lobster, tarragon leaves bring a pungent punch to the party. There’s a brown-butter essence, likely from the leeks, that gives it a husky note. And sidled up next to the pizza is a wee dipping dish of what Wuppermann simply calls lobster reduction but might be better described as lobster crack. Imagine lobster shells roasted to the point of caramelization, and then used as the starting point for a bisque-like brew. Once tried on the pizza there’s no going back.

It’s easy to mix and match an entire meal out of the shared plates section, with a salad or pizza thrown in for good measure. Garlicky potato or kale chips are nice ride-alongs for pan-roasted baby artichokes with a creamy vinaigrette, or the mussels steamed in a shallot, garlic and white wine broth. The spicy tuna tartare keeps it simple with fresh fish, avocado, cucumber and a sesame finish. The arugula salad is sweetened by “oven-blistered grapes,” roasted on the stem so all the juice stays inside the little morsels until they’re popped in the mouth. And the sauteed exotic mushrooms are downright naughty with their crispy potatoes and fried egg. Break the yolk and allow it to smooth the savory nooks and crannies of the earthy morsels.

The dessert list is largely the result of Davis, who brought in his family recipe for cherry-plum fried pie as a starting point. Peanut brittle sundae, chocolate or mint julep milk shakes, s’mores pie – it’s a fun list. And as a nod to the cult classic bowling epic, “The Big Lebowski,” there’s a white Russian milk shake. “The crash of pins is for everyone,” and all that.

Davis is also largely responsible for the drinks menu, which includes an extensive beer collection. Colorado classics like Fat Tire, Ska Brewing and Dale’s Pale Ale share the bill with Japanese ales and Belgian beers. He’s got Brewdog on the menu.

“A couple of guys in Scotland were tired of ‘regular beer,’ so they started doing their own thing,” he said.

He’s also got Duchesse de Bourgogne Red Ale.

“You don’t try to sell someone on Duchesse,” he said. “They either want it or they don’t. It’s a beer nerd’s beer. Drinking it is like the first time you have sex. You’re not sure you’re doing it right, but by the time it’s over you know you want more.”

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