On the ball at Balata | VailDaily.com

On the ball at Balata

Wren Wertin

Photo: Melinda KruseThe rainbow of tartares, salmon, tuna and beef, is served with a trio of dipping sauces, crackers and pappadums, allowing for many different combinations depending on the diner's palate.

The restaurant space at the Singletree Golf Course has changed hands often over the past decade. Now inhabited by long-time locals (the chef graduated from Battle Mountain) and reaping the benefits of an extensive remodel – walls, patios, pools, the whole ball of wax – Balata is a keeper.

The dining room overlooks the golf course and pools, and is defined by large walls of windows. The sleek, unfussy wooden tables – made by a friend of manager Matt Jones – are surrounded by comfortable, upholstered chairs. For those wanting to go ultra-casual, the brand new bar area is accommodating and friendly. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner, and serves a pub menu all day, too.

My husband and I enjoyed a laid back meal at Balata last week. I can say with authority that the chef of Balata, Michael Joersz, is having fun with it.

We began with a tasty trio of tartares ($9), served in a rainbow of presentation like a flower arrangement. Each tartar – salmon, ahi tuna and beef – had its own space atop some greens. The salmon had a sweet sesame flavor, the beef a bright ginger one and the ahi was laced with subtle kick. Seeded crackers and pappadums, made in house, accompany the tartars, as do a trio of dipping sauces.

For those wanting to be a little naughtier right off the bat, the crispy shrimp and scallion wonton ($10) are deep-fried packages oozing creamy shrimp filling, floating on cactus dipping sauce and served with a crisp cucumber salad.

My husband can’t resist lobster bisque ($5), and was happy with Joersz’s smoky version, compliments of the tomatoes and leeks that had spent the day in the smoker. Lobster claw meat liberally garnishes the dish. I went for the soup du jour ($3.50), a woody study of cream, cream, and more cream. It was the goat cheese salad ($7.50), though, that took the cake. Made with triple-cream goat cheese and crusted with pistachios, the cheese is the crowning glory for a riot of greens and fruits lightly dressed with a vanilla bean vinaigrette. Though sweet, it’s never overpowering.

Recommended Stories For You

Formerly the executive chef of the Golden Eagle in Beaver Creek, Joersz has been refining the goat cheese salad for years. He’s pleased with this newest incarnation of one of his favorite salads.

“I like to stay current with food, of course,” he explained. “But you can’t buy into too much. You get too wrapped up trying to turn a sea urchin into a pineapple, and you lose your focus. You have to root yourself.”

To that end, he’s rooted himself in variations on American regional cuisine, with respectful nods to Asia and India. At 10 entrees, his menu isn’t overwhelming, which allows him to get downright playful with the dishes.

“There are certain things you should leave alone, like southern fried chicken,” he explained. “That’s a classic.”

Though his crispy chicken ($16) might be classic, he nudges it into the unexpected with sweet potato fried and a watercress salad. Same with the “big ol’ pork chop” ($18). Nothing fancy there, but it’s served with a fanciful grit cake, succotash and tomato-mustard seed chutney.

He’s proudest of his rotisserie farm duck ($19), with cashewed rice and Palisade peach marmalade.

“Some people are duck snobs,” said our server, Eliza. “It has to be absolutely perfect or they hate it. Well, this is one of those ducks.”

Other strong sellers are the grilled swordfish ($24), served with sweet corn, avocado butter and over-the-top lobster mashers. His hazelnut-crusted river trout ($15) is another favorite, drizzled with a pear sauce and topping a heap of apple-bacon hash.

We especially enjoyed the filet mignon ($25), sharing the plate with herbed jack cakes (a potato pancake-like concoction) and onion jam, caramelized and smooth tasting. It arrived at the table a perfect rare, heat-licked on the outside to create a savory crust, and red and tender all the way through.

“I don’t want to make a social commentary,” said the chef, “but so many places take themselves so seriously. I want to be lighthearted and whimsical, take some things and just play with them. The menu will always be a work in progress.”

With menu items like “duck, duck, soup,” (on the pub menu), he’s got the whimsical part down, without sacrificing robust comfort.

When Joersz went to college, he thought he’d become a food writer. He soon discovered he didn’t want to leave the kitchen. He feels lucky to be at Balata, he said, because he and manager Jones were given such free hands with the concept and design of the place. Though he loved being at the Golden Eagle, this was an opportunity he couldn’t pass up.

One of his current interests is canning. Homemade chutneys and jams can be found in many of his menu items.

“Cooking – it’s more than what you do,” he said. “You have to be beyond passionate.”

And a little imagination doesn’t hurt.