Rocks Modern Grill in Beaver Creek has new menu
Vail CO, Colorado
Editor’s note: High Life publishes restaurant features, not straight reviews. We can’t guarantee you’ll have the same experience we did.
BEAVER CREEK ” Until recently, Rocks Modern Grill suffered from a split personality. A flagstone bar, artsy chandeliers and copper pillars channeled the industrial chic of a Manhattan art gallery while fire pits on the deck cooed mountain elegance.
But what was with the menu? Half-pound “Smash” burger? Iceberg “Wedge Salad”? Where were the fancy dishes to match the decor?
In much the same way an Armani suit demands a sophisticated model, this restaurant in the Beaver Creek Lodge begged for a wordly menu.
Enter Jeffrey Blackwell. The newly-hired chef overhauled the menu this past summer, leaving in tact only the Kessler Calamari ($12), the owner’s favorite dish.
For the first time in Rocks’ three-year history, the restaurant boasts a brand new list of dishes that will change with the seasons. The fall menu debuted Monday without a single burger. Instead delicacies like the potato and spinach gnocchi carbonara ($23) showed off Blackwell’s flair for global fusion.
“I’m trying to recreate Rocks into a destination for fine food,” Blackwell said.
Blackwell, 38, rattled off his long resume of head chef positions without a trace of vanity. He refrained from bragging about the fact that the Rusty Parrot Lodge and Spa in Jackson Hole, where he served as executive chef before moving to the Vail Valley, hit the top of the Zagat list during his tenure.
Blackwell also deflected credit for his skills to three chefs who showed him the ropes at the Green Hill Yacht and Country Club on Maryland’s eastern shore. That’s where Blackwell took his first job as a line cook in 1988.
This bit of Blackwell’s history is relevant when one considers his candied jalapeno and roasted corn crab cakes from the summer appetizer menu ($16).
The Maryland crab cake, once content to wallow in Old Bay and lemon juice, takes on an eclectic flair in Blackwell’s kitchen. Jalapeno that has been diced and steeped in simple syrup conspires with the earthy, nutty chimayo chile to give the dish a kick.
With temperatures beginning to dip, the fall menu fights back with rich, warm foods. Entrees range from $23 for the gnocchi to $34 for the “Heritage Pork Two Ways,” a green curry braised pork belly. Appetizers like the Colorado lamb Kibbeh, a take on a Middle Eastern dish ($12), cost between $10 and $13.
Prices have inched up because Blackwell swears by organic, sustainable ingredients like the Berkshire brand pork, free-range, hormone-free meat from family farms in Minnesota. However, Rocks will offer an off-season tasting menu with three courses for $35. A winter menu will replace the fall menu around Thanksgiving.
Blackwell was among 750 people who applied for the executive chef post at Rocks. He wanted to move to the Vail Valley so his fiance could be closer to her family.
Managers at Rocks narrowed the field to a dozen candidates, the best of whom were flown into the restaurant for a cooking test.
Blackwell found himself faced with a “mystery box,” a list of random ingredients like plantains that he was expected to turn into gourmet cuisine. He responded to the challenge by whipping up a six-course meal, complete with a braised pork belly.
The spread impressed Brian Haemmerle, food and beverage director for the Beaver Creek Lodge.
“His food was just off the charts,” Haemmerle recalled. “It was absolutely stunning. I’ve worked with celebrity chefs. I’ve worked with some of the best chefs in the world and I would put Jeff’s food with any of them.”
The cuisine scored points, but what about the chef himself? Haemmerle had known chefs who created scenes in the kitchen by “yelling and screaming and throwing saute pans.”
Blackwell was no prima donna. Courteous to the kitchen staff, he performed his own grunt work like rinsing his dishes, Haemmerle recalled.
Blackwell started work at Rocks July 1. He replaces Greg Barnhill, who held the post for three months before heading to The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Haemmerle said. The original, more casual menu dates back to Rocks’ first chef, John Trejo.
Since Blackwell took over the kitchen, the transformation in the food has been striking to everyone, including lead line cook Billy Ettawil.
“The old menu was like Burger King,” Ettawil said. “It was like diner food. Now it’s classy, upscale comfort food.”
High Life Writer Sarah Mausolf can be reached at 970-748-2938 or firstname.lastname@example.org.