Platter full of summer in the Vail Valley |

Platter full of summer in the Vail Valley

Wren Wertin
Vail, CO Colorado
HL molten burger 1 KA 07-06-10

VAIL – Summer isn’t just a season. Wide-open days, warm nights and outdoor lives infiltrate our collective consciousness – even if those days are long gone, eaten up by adulthood and responsibility. Somewhere, we’re still eight, running wild through the endless weeks of July and August.

One of the easiest touchstones of summer is food. Backyard barbecues and park picnics come to mind when menus turn to juicy burgers, ripe tomatoes and sweet watermelons. And three local chefs (and their kitchen crews) have tapped into that summertime feeling by celebrating those very ingredients on their nightly menus. ZaccaZa!’s molten burgers, Lord Gore’s compressed watermelon salad and Kelly Liken’s tomato martini take summer one step further.

“Americans can not get enough hamburgers,” said Paul Ferzacca, chef-owner of ZaccaZa! in Avon. “They love them – they crave them. They want to try different kinds, different styles. They just can’t get enough.”

ZaccaZa! is a family-style “red sauce joint,” specializing in Chicago-style pizza and pastas. But Ferzacca’s other restaurant, La Tour, has him changing the menu as often as the season’s produce dictates. So he’s used to tinkering with flavors, textures and other culinary concepts. And because he’s a sensible man of very good taste, he spends a fair bit of time thinking about cheese. And cheesy goodness. And ways to make cheese ooze directly into your mouth with a single bite – yet not so much as to overwhelm everything else. Enter the molten burger.

“They’re juicy, gooey, oozy on the inside,” Ferzacca said.

The concept is simple. Instead of cooking one 8-ounce patty, they take two 4-ounce patties and shape them around a “center.” For the basic model, that center is butter, which bastes the burger from the inside as it cooks. But for the more inventive options, it runs the gamut from pimento cheese (a cheddar-based Southern specialty) to Swiss cheese, caramelized onions and sauteed mushrooms. The list is six burgers long, and might get longer before the summer is done.

“I think the cheese gets juicier from the fat of the hamburger,” Ferzacca said. “We have a warning on the menu that says, ‘The insides are extremely hot and could burn your chin.'”

If you like a little heat, check out the Southwest molten burger with pickled jalapenos and pepper jack cheese. The barbecue option is stuffed with Sweet Baby Ray’s barbecue sauce and cheddar cheese, and is topped with crispy onions. There’s also a blue cheese and bacon burger.

Molten burgers were strictly a special on live-music nights at the restaurant, but people kept asking for them. They finally got a regular spot on the menu.

“Our generation grew up on McDonald’s, but there’s nothing like grilling a hamburger in the backyard,” Ferzacca said. “Part of it is the smell. I think people crave the experience just as much as they crave the eating of it. It’s just a great family memory.”

At Restaurant Kelly Liken in Vail, seasonal produce is the name of the game. Chef Liken has spent the past few years as a restaurant owner cultivating relationships with local farmers to the east and west of Vail. And she’ll serve no tomato (or peach or berry or beet) before its time.

Dinner at the restaurant usually starts with an amuse buche, a gift from the kitchen to those at the table.

“We got really excited about the tomatoes one summer and made a tomato consomme with them,” said Rick Colomitz, general manager, wine director and co-owner. “It was the quintessential amuse.”

And it was also a really good base. They began to explore other ways to use the tomato elixir, which tastes like summer in a glass – tomato, yes, but sunshine and a light fingering of heat, too. Mixing it with Lance Hanson’s Peak Spirits organic vodka, made from grapes from his Hotchkiss vineyard, was a natural next step.

“We call it a crystal clear, essence of tomato martini,” Colomitz said. “It goes hand in hand with our whole Colorado theme. Colorado tomatoes, organic vodka – it was the perfect expression of what we do here at the bar.”

The Kelly Liken bar is produce driven, showcasing a bar-chef sensibility, not strictly a mixologist one. But even ever-changing cocktail menus are destined to have a signature drink on the list. And the tomato martini is certainly that.

“We have a lot of people in our database who write or call in to ask specifically about that drink, and won’t make a reservation unless it’s on the list,” Colomitz said, laughing ruefully.

It can’t be on the menu year-round, because tomatoes aren’t in season year-round. The base of the drink depends on ripe, ripe Colorado tomatoes that taste like tomatoes, not cardboard.

“You can’t force something into season,” Colomitz said. “You can get tomatoes any time of the year. But we wait until we get them from the Colorado farmers who we’ve built relationships with. It’s about having the right relationships with the farmers and being patient.”

And word to the wise: One’s not enough and two’s too many.

Munching on bright pink watermelon is practically a summertime rite of passage; there’s nothing wrong with the occasional sticky chin. Chef Richard A. Bailey at Manor Vail’s Lord Gore has managed to take that spirit of summer and serve it as a salad. Part optical illusion, part taste-tripping party trick, this is like no other melon in the valley.

Splayed out on a dish in precise rectangles, it doesn’t even look like watermelon – think ahi tuna, so deep is the rosy hue. Topped with pickled onions, balsamic vinegar and a smattering of berries, it’s sweet and zesty. But it’s the watermelon itself that is such a novelty. Imagine a cantaloupe’s density with the flavor and grit of watermelon, and you get the picture.

“It’s so friggen good,” Bailey exclaimed, eating a chunk. “And simple.”

Instead of simply slicing the watermelon and plating it, he vacuum seals it in his sous vide machine – an apparatus fairly common in large kitchens that sucks all the air out of a space. That process intensifies the flavor, color and texture of the watermelon. It’s then chilled, still in the plastic bag. Cut to order, the melon arrives at the table cold and crunchy. And lovely.

Lord Gore closes during the off seasons, giving Bailey plenty of time to cavort. A glutton for punishment, he spends his off time staging in California kitchens. A great culinary tradition, staging allows chefs to work in kitchens for anywhere from a few days to a few months – for free. It allows them to learn the “secrets” of others, while providing another set of hands to the kitchen. One look at his menu and it’s obvious Bailey is refreshed and rejuvenated from his time in California.

“I think about the seasonality of my menus, and with that I put flavors together,” Bailey said.

He also garners inspiration from whatever he’s reading, in this case Thomas Keller’s conclusive tome on sous vide cooking. Coupled with the memory of a melon salad he made years ago, he was fated to create (or re-create) the compressed salad.

And sadly, summer is fated to turn to fall. But not before we’ve had our fill.

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