December 16, 2003
“Would you believe I’m always good?” asks Executive Chef Mark Curran.
We’re in the Larkspur dining room, talking about what he does to get out of the doghouse with his wife. He’s being playful, almost flirtatious, just like his cuisine. Finally he relents. “The best way to get in good with her is cheese, wine and a baby sitter.”
Larkspur doesn’t provide baby sitters, but with a children’s menu like theirs they don’t need to. Since its inception, Larkspur has established itself as a place where everything is made in-house from scratch. The bread is naturally leavened in a multi-day process, the sausage is made and aged on the premises, even the mayonnaise for their “Lark Burger” is homemade. Kids don’t care that they’re eating organic, free-range grilled chicken tenders instead of pre-fab nuggets ” they just know they like them. And while adults will certainly appreciate the concept of such a place, the reason they’ll keep returning isn’t so different than their children’s: The food is both approachable and sophisticated, the service elegant and fluid, the ambience sleek and inviting. And that combination is hard to beat.
“Larkspur is a fine-dining cosmopolitan restaurant,” Chef-proprietor Thomas Salamunovich explains. “There’s definitely a subtle sophistication. We’ve got a very proficient service staff. We want it to come off as seamless more than anything.”
And it does. A night spent in Larkspur’s many competent hands is an event unto itself. The dining room is one of the more artful around. Bordered on the back wall by the open kitchen line, wee wooden Brazilian birds fly out of one wall, while shape-shifting organic collages bring the focus elsewhere. Etched glass chandeliers offer soft lighting, and the clink of glasses is a festive complement to the up-tempo music.
Though Beverage Director Kevin Furtado’s wine list is a joy to navigate ” especially if he’s helping ” I recommend arriving a tad early and enjoying a cocktail at the metropolitan-style bar. White and red sangria are great summertime refreshers, but I’ll always be true to the infused vodkas. From there, feel free to trust Chef Curran completely.
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My date and I began our evening with several appetizers. Our server, Jen Wanner, is that rare breed of person who can keep an eye on several tables and attend to everything, from filling water glasses to making recommendations. She seemed genuinely excited about the cuisine, and we understood why when it started arriving. The tomato and mozzarella tower ($13.50) is made with vine-ripened fruit, grilled bread, fresh cheese and large basil leaves. Drizzled with aged balsamic, it’s one of those summer classics that just can’t be improved upon. Curran is a big fan of the roasted asparagus with mesclun ($12.50), which has a Mediterranean flair due to the creamy Spanish almonds and manchego cheese. Furtado opted to serve a Spanish Rioja with it, a 2002 Muga rose, of all things. He never lets stereotypes get in the way, and it’s a good thing, as this rose is exceptional, both earthy and tantalizing.
“We are truly a seasonal restaurant,” explains Curran. “Our inspiration for food comes from the produce. We’d never say, ‘O.k., we need a steak.’ It’s always about what produce we can get in season.”
Chef Curran never falls in the trap of substituting salt for flavor. He seasons enough to enhance the dish, then makes the food do the rest. Both he and Salamunovich share a passion for simple flavors, but don’t confuse that with simplistic. They never throw something in for the heck of it; there’s always a purpose.
For those who want a salad, the Larkspur Caesar ($11.50) has quite a reputation, due in part to the crispy potato croutons that crown it. The Boston Bibb salad ($11.50) is great too, with a plethora of avocado chunks, sunflower seeds and Point Reyes blue cheese.
Though I could have happily eaten my way through the entire appetizer menu “caviar, sweet corn soup, beef short rib salad ” we moved on to entrees from there. Before I walked through the door, I was fairly certain I’d had salmon ($25.50) prepared every conceivable way. But Curran’s version is both innovative and delicious. Cool roasted, the fish is served with English peas and a decadent rhubarb buerre fondue. Glazed spring onions lend a creaminess to the dish, while the rhubarb and peas offer a classic tart-sweet flavor in a decidedly non-traditional way.
“We interpret the classics,” says Salamunovich.
“It’s always going to be French-inspired because that’s how we all learned to cook,” says Curran. “We try to be authentic about our cuisine. But we definitely do our own thing. Our salmon isn’t just elegant, but it combines two flavors you’d never expect to see together. It sounds terrible, and it’s very, very good.”
He’s right. The fish is plump and soft, and the sauce both zings and seduces. The riot of pea shoots that share the plate give a little green zest and add texture. It’s a terrific dish. Another stand-out is the seared Liberty duck breast ($28.50). Small corn fritters and Bing cherry salsa complement the succulent bird, but it’s the roasted Palisade peaches that will take your breath away. They burst with sweetness and flavor.
For those who want meat, Larkspur offers all sorts of goodies, such as beef tenderloin, lamb noisettes or veal scaloppini. The Branzino, a European sea bass, is nice and light. And if you’re in the mood to simply go with the chefs’, and the season’s, whim, try the four-course prix fixe menu which changes weekly.
No trip to Larkspur would be complete without a foray into Pastry Chef Allana Smith’s territory. She’s not only responsible for the daily bread basket selections, but the artisan cheese and lovely desserts are her territory, too. With help from Salamunovich, she seeks out some rather wonderful cheese. We had Fiscalini bandage-wrapped aged cheddar from Central California, which sounds suspect but is quite delicious. Paired with a smattering of her horde of Palisade cherries and savory crackers, the exuberant cheese took on a life of its own. (Truth be told, I ended up ignoring the crackers, not wanting to dilute the flavor in any way.) I would have been happy to call it a night, but Smith had other ideas for us. Her apricot Napoleon is worthy of rave reviews, from the crisp pastry layers to the ripe fruit to the creme anglaise. Furtado’s port choice was an excellent complement to the fruity affair. Followed by a frothy cappuccino ” some of the best coffee in Vail ” my night felt completely successful.
Food is celebration at Larkspur, and a great one at that.