Straight from the sea to Vail’s Sonnenalp |

Straight from the sea to Vail’s Sonnenalp

Caramie Schnell
VAIL CO, Colorado
HL Sonnenalp 1 KA 1-11-12

It took nearly a decade, but Sonnenalp hotel manager Stefan Schmid finally got Steve Topple exactly where he wants him: As exec chef at the Sonnenalp. Topple left his position at Beano’s Cabin in Beaver Creek (a position he’d held since ’06) and joined the Sonnenalp family in October. He replaced Richard Beichner, who is now at The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Topple said.

Topple is overseeing the four food and beverage outlets in the family-owned hotel – Ludwig’s, Bully Ranch, King’s Club and Swiss Chalet –as well as Balata at the Singletree golf club in Edwards, also under The Sonnenalp umbrella.

The two men first met in 2002, or thereabouts, at the Lodge at Vail when Topple was working at The Wildflower and Schmid was the director of the food and beverage program. Schmid has had his eye on the affable British chef ever since, he said.

The deal was sealed when Topple shared his vision for Ludwig’s, which included keeping some of the game offerings, like elk and rack of Colorado lamb, and adding a slew of fresh seafood fare, which changes weekly depending on what’s in season in the sea. Last week that meant Hawaiian spearfish and mackeral.

“His approach with seafood and game, the combination sounded to me like something we don’t have enough of in the valley,” Schmid said. “His style of cooking is light and honest, with great Colorado flavors.”

Overall Topple said his goal was to freshen, and lighten, up the menus at each of the restaurants, though he’s made the most changes at the flagship Ludwig’s.

“I really enjoy cooking seafood and game, and think of them as healthier options,” he said. “I can buy seafood straight from the docks from Hawaii, Seattle, New England or Florida and serve it to our guests the very next day.

“With game, some people are hesitant to try it but I love to show them that with wonderful sauces, it can be delicious and not too strong,” he continued.

As far as Ludwig’s menu goes, the only dish he kept was the signature Dover sole. The fish is cooked whole, and then filleted and finished table side, in front of hungry diners.

There are two dishes that get Topple’s salivary glands going: the black cod, which has an Asian flare with braised bok choy, udon noodles and a soy ginger butter sauce –“it’s really truly amazing,” he said – and the Colorado striped bass from Alamosa, which has a blue crab crust and chive sauce, and comes flanked by leek potato hash.

“I’m really excited about that one since it’s a local product. I went down adn checked out where it’s raised, near the New Mexico border,” Topple said.

The King’s Club lounge, which used to serve burgers, bratwursts and other items from the Bully Ranch kitchen, has a new tapas-style menu with more refined small plates like beet consumme with goat cheese dumplings; porcine gnocchi with Parmesan sauce; and seared scallops with white bean ragout.

“The feedback has been incredible,” said Topple, who revealed plans for a renovation of the club this coming summer to make it a little more “hip.”

Each month Ludwig’s is hosting winemaker dinners with smaller, boutique wineries. Last week Topple created five courses to pair with wines from J. Christopher winery, located in Oregon’s Northern Willamette Valley. Matsuhisa beverage director Andreas Harl was one of the guests at the dinner, held at one long table in Ludwig’s private dining room.

“I thought the food was wonderful,” said Harl, a sommelier who worked for the Sonnenalp a few years back. “I’d never actually had (Topple’s) food before. I’ve always heard good things about him and he seems to be doing great things for the Sonnenalp.”

Two of the evening’s five courses showcased seafood, and were the standout dishes of the night. The winery’s 2010 sauvignon blanc, a racy number, paired perfectly with Topple’s butter-poached Maine lobster salad with pineapple salsa.

“Everything worked together,” Harl said. “It was nice and light. The little richness from the lobster and the pineapple’s natural acidity balanced perfectly with the wine.”

But it was Topple’s over-the-top Green Lip mussels, served “casino style” with bacon, spinach and Parmesan hollandaise, that still stood out in Harl’s mind nearly a week later.

“The mussels were just awesome with the chardonnay,” Harl said.

Next month, on Feb. 8, wines from California’s Melville Vineyard will be featured. Sommelier Jarrett Quint is picking smaller, more boutique wineries to showcase at the dinners.

“They’re wineries that maybe aren’t too well known, but do a phenomenal job,” Topple said. “It helps them to get their name out there too.”

Recently the chef sat down with his staff to sip the wine being showcased next month and begin planning the menu.

“We taste the wines, we all talk about it, take notes and make the menu based on that,” Topple said. “It’s a collaborative process. We tried a syrah and the wine screamed smoke and bacon so I’m going to get some ostrich and do a smoked bacon-wrapped ostrich, which will be really different.”

High Life Editor Caramie Schnell can be reached at 970-748-2984 or

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