Splendido style | VailDaily.com

Splendido style

Wren Wertin
Vail Daily/Bret HartmanExecutive Chef David Walford and Chef de Cuisine Soa Davies collaborate on the menu at Splendido, which changes with the seasons.

Splendido’s attentive staff is well versed in the culinary delights that come out of Executive Chef David Walford’s kitchen. Our server, Brian, didn’t hesitate to wax poetic about the food, and instilled an excitement in us about the impending meal.

The hamachi sashimi is a miracle of simplicity – deceptively so. Glossed with a bit of olive oil, lemon, chives, fleur de sel and cracked pepper, the fish fans out next to a salad studded with oranges and the occasional spicy chile. The contrast of colors and flavors sits well on the tongue, and awakens the palate.

For a heartier starter, try the lobster-saffron risotto ($18). Creamy and piping hot, the dish is generous with lobster pieces that are cooked to perfection.

“We don’t have a lot of filler on our menu,” said the chef. “I think it’s made up entirely of great things.”

Anyone with even a passing fondness for lamb will appreciate Walford’s rack of lamb ($38), served with a sheep’s milk cheese souffle and rosemary jus. Marinated in pomegranate juice for 24 hours, it picks up the fruit’s tangy sweetness. But the real trick, said Walford, is roasting it in their extremely hot oak-burning oven, which gives the lamb a good crust. It arrives melt-in-your-mouth tender, and slices like butter. The dish inspires the dedication to get every last bite off the bone – even if it requires fingers.

Though not the geographical center of the kitchen, the wood-burning oven is certainly the soul of it. Walford inherited it – it was used exclusively for pizzas in the restaurant’s former life – and decided to make it his own.

“I wanted the restaurant to reflect where we are,” he explained. “There’s no real indigenous cooking style of the Rocky Mountains, so I took advantage of the wood oven, which gives a rustic feel to the menu.”

Thus he has oven-roasted chicken, lobster, duck and more. Juxtaposed with the hearty, mountain quality of the portions is Walford’s own delicacy of taste, which draws on both up-and-coming foods and tried-and-true classics.

“I hate trying to pigeonhole our food,” said the chef. “We have a lot of French influences in technique, but our style is more gutsy American. To me, it’s just cooking with my heart and soul with great ingredients.”

Within the entree list is “Dover sole a la meuniere, caper potatoes, $45.” The phrase doesn’t begin to capture the sparkle of Walford’s interpretation of the classic dish. Arriving at the table as a whole fish, it’s filleted with a few deft movements by the server. The fish’s natural flavor is enhanced by a delicate, savory crust. In a nod to tradition, crisp-tender potatoes share the plate, soaking up the excess essence of butter, lemon and herbs that serves as the lightest of sauces.

Other options include wine-braised beef short ribs ($28) (“Like your grandmother used to make,” said Walford), grilled prime filet mignon ($36) and pan-roasted rabbit ($28).

Walford moved to Vail in the ’70s to ski. When he decided to become a chef, he moved west and trained in Napa Valley. After working in France and then San Francisco, he returned to Vail as executive chef for Sweet Basil. He was hired to open Splendido, and everything in the restaurant has his mark on it. He’s quick to share credit with his staff, who is able to run the restaurant like a well-oiled machine. He holds Chef de Cuisine Soa Davies in especially high regard; the menu reflects her as much as it does him.

Dining room manager Jim Lay takes pride in his wine knowledge. He’s often found at tables, helping diners navigate the comprehensive wine list. Unafraid of non-traditional food-and-wine combinations, he successfully paired wines with all of our courses.

We retired to the piano bar for our dessert – the house chocolate souffle, crowned with a gold leaf and served with a Grand Marnier sauce, and the honey-roasted pear with ginger-cherry ice cream and honey-soaked frangipane.

The piano bar has its own magic. With a piano man’s peculiar ability to size up the musical desires of his audience, Bob Finnie’s repertoire extends from Broadway musicals to old-school jazz to rocking classics. One party was having so much fun listening to Finnie and sharing a bottle of wine they were disappointed when their table was ready. They can’t be blamed, as they didn’t yet know what culinary delights awaited them.

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