Lodge at Vail: Cucina Rustica & Wildflower
As the Lodge at Vail’s new culinary mastermind, Executive Chef Paul Wade has had to create entirely independent identities for two restaurants simultaneously: Wildflower and Cucina Rustica. It’s a little frightening how well he’s succeeded. Cucina serves Spanish-alpine cuisine; Wildflower is what he calls a “bi-polar” endeavor that offers gluten and lactose-free options next to real-deal comfort food, though everything is made from heritage and antibiotic-free products. From looking at the menus, you’d never know the same man was behind both of them – suckling pig asado doesn’t have a whole lot in common with crab and lemongrass potstickers in a shrimp consomm. But Wade’s approach to both begins with dedication and passion.”I try to keep the global approach for the culinary platform overall as ‘from scratch’ as possible,” he says. “Ice cream, hams, mustards, bacon, breads, cheeses etc… we try to do as much as possible in house. It allows us to be authentic, genuine and honest in what we do.It’s the ultimate way to control quality and uniqueness of product; however, it also requires intense commitment.”
After taking a look around at the plethora of Italian restaurants in Vail, Wade quickly ditched Cucina’s Italian concept and went directly to Spain. Still Mediterranean in style, the Spanish-alpine menu is, to quote Wade, “Americanized and yummy.”The restaurant’s big tables and chairs invite friends and families to sit and linger. The menu allows for different styles of dining: lots of little plates – bocaditos (street food), salads, sides – or a combination of little plates and raciones (entrees) and items a la plancha (cooked on the flat-iron grill). Either way works.”I love the look of the room, the vibe, and I love Latin/Mediterranean foods,” Wade says about Cucina. “And yes, Spanish plays in nicely, a tongue-in-cheek nod to 350 years of Spanish influence in the region, especially Santa Fe. Plus, I love Spanish, Argentine and Chilean wines – a nice segue.”
Charred baby octopus, shrimp corn dogs, fried sweet potatoes, chicken and waffle fries – munching is the name of the game. Keep in mind that the lodge-y feel of the room extends to portion sizes, so you won’t need to throw elbows in order to get your share. But if you try one thing at Cucina – in addition to the basket of sweet, petite cornbread muffins – make it the paella. A brothy version of the classic, there’s so much flavor it coats the back of your throat. The paella positively swims with mussels, large prawns, chunks of crab, plump scallops and, of all things, Roman gnocchi. But the crown of crispy rouget, a red fish, steals the show. Delicate but not wishy-washy, it smugly soaks up the flavor while seeming demure set against such extravagance. Paired with one of the many Spanish or Argentine wines available by the glass – a Gernache-Tempranillo blend from the Spain’s Priorat region – it’s the sort of experience you leave talking about. The Baked Alaska with its meringue-torched top is a chocolaty pleasure, but there is something so satisfying about a little root-beer float with homemade ice cream.
There’s a Zen-like sensibility to Wildflower’s room: smooth, black river stones mark each place setting, while the table’s votive flickers against a square jar of wheatgrass. The kitchen and its whirl of chefs on the line is visible from the dining room, and makes for a dynamic foil against the mountain scene directly outside the restaurant’s wall of windows. For first-timers, the menu is a surprise. On the left is Cuisine in Balance: no gluten, no lactose, no hormones, no kidding. On the right, American Alpine Cuisine: heritage, local, authentic, inspired. “In recent years, more and more people are becoming hypersensitive to the nasty way we treat commercial foods,” Wade explains. “I think it is evolution kicking in and saying, ‘That’s enough! You are ruining the gene pool.’And your health. I love being a part of anti-cultural trends.”Oysters with Tabasco sorbet or a prawn and butter lettuce salad are light starters, while hand-cured bacon in a green-apple salad or caramelized onion soup with a brie crouton are more substantial options from the other side. There’s even a Superfoods heading, which packs all kinds of vitamins and minerals into savory intermezzos.”At Wildflower you can now have a fine-dining experience and be responsible to your body at the same time,” Wade says.”The fun part of the cuisine duality is that you have the choice to be good, or a little bad, or mix the two. I think that we are one of only two of three restaurants in the country that have taken this approach.”
As Wade says, there’s no shame in hopping back and forth. The Kitchen Pastrami – so called because they make it there – is loads of fun. Tender, savory, and substantial, it comes with a spicy mustard, pickled onions, pumpernickel wedges and pickles that, thanks to the kick of mustard, seem to go creamy when added into the equation. Back on the other side, the nori-crusted ahi tuna with avocado pearls is a lighter option. There’s also Hand-Shucked Lobster, an anomaly because the olive-oil-based hollandaise is so rich, yet doesn’t sit heavily. The Harris Ranch Beef Market Steak is drizzled with Shropshire blue cheese and served with “tater tots,” highly flavored smashed and seared versions. Braised lamb shank, elk loin, chicken, even Camembert mac ‘n’ cheese with country-cured ham and homemade pasta – there’s something for everyone. That extends to the desserts. Chocolate tempura with “banana glass” and beignets with peach confit and brown-sugar and pistachio gelato are good options.
Though Wade is the star, he’s quick to share credit with his team. “The executive management, the company and the culinary staff especially,” he says. “I came into a very rigid corporate way of thinking and approaching food and menu construction.Vail Resorts said, ‘Go, do this, just don’t screw it up.’ I have had the privilege of shepherding the kitchens into a new way of thinking and operating.We went from ‘corporate’ food to renaissance scratch kitchen in three months.” He describes it as a “Robin Hood” approach – effective, yes, but with a bit of pirate-ship mentality.”The point is that they did this,” Wade says. “My food and beverage team and hospitality colleagues, not me. I was just the catalyst. I am proud to tears, and a little tired, too.”Which is fine, because at this point it’s time to sit back and roll with the season. The groundwork’s been laid: Order up174 east gore creek drive, the lodge at vail / 970.754.7872 / 970.476.5011 / lodgeatvail.com
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