Rustic retreat |

Rustic retreat

Sarah L. Stewart
special to the Vail TrailThe snowcat-drawn sleigh ride to Zach's Cabin, a restaurant on Beaver Creek Mountain, makes getting to dinner a (chilly) adventure. Zach's is one of two restaurants on Beaver Creek Mountain that is accessible for dinner only by sleigh, giving patrons a chance to see a different side of the mountain.

I struggled not to slide off my seat as the snowcat-drawn sleigh scaled the mountainside. An icy wind, laced with bits of man-made snow and a faint diesel odor, assaulted my exposed cheeks and nose. My date and I didn’t say much over the roar of the engine, other than to thank the nice attendant who tucked one blanket after another around our shoulders to protect us from the sub-zero wind chill.

This was by far the least chic way I’d ever arrived to a chic dinner. But the ride to Zach’s Cabin, a restaurant nestled high on Beaver Creek mountain, did elevate a recent Saturday night dinner date to a wintry adventure.

Zach’s, recently named one of the west’s Top 10 mountaintop restaurants by Sunset, a western living magazine, is one of two sleigh-accessible restaurants on Beaver Creek Mountain. Intended to give guests a different perspective of the mountain and an experience to write home about, Zach’s has become popular with visitors since it opened for dinner in 2000.

My evening at Zach’s began in the great room at the Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch, where we arrived in time for our 6:45 sleigh departure. Joanna, the woman checking reservations, spied the expectant, slightly lost look on our faces.

“You have that Zach’s smile,” she said, before pulling out a menu to offer a few suggestions. Scallop and pork belly sandwich with truffle hollandaise sauce.

Tomato-encrusted red snapper with edamame salad. No wonder we were smiling.

Fine dining gets a survivalist twist at Zach’s, thanks in large part to the means required to get there. Any pretension you might expect from a restaurant that’s generous with the truffles and is one of three in the valley to earn Wine Spectator’s “Best of Award of Excellence” honor disappears into the frigid mountain air on the way there.

(On that vein, a word of advice for the ladies: I nearly made the mistake of wearing a skirt and stiletto boots to my Zach’s dinner, but fortunately opted to risk being underdressed rather than frostbitten. In corduroys and snow boots, I was still on the dressier end of the “mountain casual” attire, which ranged from jeans and sweatshirts to ski gear.)

After about 10 minutes of ascending a slope steeper than I, a beginner snowboarder, have yet mastered, light appeared through the snow-covered aspens. Cold, but curious, we followed the red carpet toward the door that read “Members Only” ” a designation Zach’s suspends for dinner.

We had been told we really couldn’t go wrong choosing from Zach’s menu, and with our selections at least, that was true.

I’ve often thought that a good measure of a great restaurant is its bread. The meal began with a few warm slices of rosemary bread, served with slightly sweet butter, and I knew I was in for a treat.

For the first course, my date took waiter Brett’s advice and ordered the three-part sashimi appetizer, which tasted fresh (especially given we were on a mountainside) and included accents like creme fraiche and spicy pickled ginger. I took Joanna’s suggestion and tried the scallop and pork belly sandwich: a sea scallop sliced through the middle, with a lightly browned piece of pork belly nestled between the two halves, surrounded by a truffle hollandaise and drizzled with parsnip puree and a few fine herbs.

In a way, that yummy little sandwich was a microcosm of Zach’s itself: an interesting blend of high-brow and hearty, dressed-up and down-home. Eating at the cabin felt like I was at a dinner party at my friend Zach’s house: soft jazz crooned, interrupted only by the growl of the snowcat and gush of cold air that announced the arrival of a few more guests. A few young diners sat on the edge of the stone fireplace to warm up. Sommelier Willem greeted some guests like old friends, and for me, recommended a cabernet to accompany the chili-encrusted venison tenderloin I selected as my entree.

Even for someone who doesn’t eat much game, the venison was a good choice ” medium-rare and tender, with the heat of the chili balanced by a cherry demi-glace. My date ordered the red snapper, a flaky white fillet that gave way to a golden crust on either side, atop a warm edamame salad.

For dessert, we decided on what Brett said were the two most popular sweet treats: a towering piece of smores pie and banana bread pudding. The only problem with the smores pie ” layer after layer of vanilla ice cream, chocolate and marshmallow ” was that I couldn’t finish it. The warm, gooey bread pudding, however, vanished from its leaf-shaped white plate. Not bad for a guy with only a mild sweet tooth.

After a leisurely two hours, the hostess informed us that the next sleigh would be leaving in about 15 minutes, and after that they would only come every 45 minutes. Though spending another hour in the restaurant’s soft-lit warmth did sound appealing, our Zach’s smiles had been replaced by Zach’s glazed-over looks of eating too much good food. We decided it was time to return to reality ” or at least, the Ritz-Carlton.

The ride back was quicker, and colder, but my date and I laughed despite our shivering. We just took a sleigh-ride up a mountain to dinner. Only in this valley.

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