Vail Behind the Scenes column: A harvest of autumn pleasures at Larkspur
In the Northern Hemisphere, September signals the start of the harvest. Each culture celebrates this time in various forms of festivals and religious holidays. For oenophiles, it’s when grapes finish their perilous months on the vine and enter the winery to begin their transformation to wine. Home chefs love the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables. Chefs, particularly those in this landlocked mountain community where the growing season is short, revel in the opportunity for culinary alchemy using fresh products available locally. Recently I went from behind the scenes to the front of the house for a great dining experience at Larkspur. Knowing how the kitchen functions at this Vail dining scene star makes dining there all the more intriguing. In his first of two outdoor harvest lunches, over Labor Day weekend Chef Thomas Salumonovich and his Larkspur team created a feast for 80. Since Salumonovich is hosting the second lunch on Sunday, I thought I’d whet readers’ appetites through a virtual dining experience with me at the first event. Dining on the bounty of a High Country harvestAlthough a casual affair, a long white cloth-covered table for 80 was set elegantly on the restaurant’s lawn next to Larkspur’s vegetable and herb gardens. Guests began to arrive at 1 p.m. and were immediately handed an Aperol Spritz aperitivo. Although Aperol celebrates it centennial in 2019, Aperol, the low alcohol (11 percent) Italian bitters, is a recent arrival in America. A double-gold medal at the 2010 San Francisco World Spirits Competition followed Wine Enthusiast’s 2007 rating in its 90-95 category, thereby securing Aperol’s place as a popular appetite-stimulating beverage in America.The drink refreshed us, but our appetites required no stimulation when food began to flow. Appetizers appeared first from Larkspur’s kitchen and the outdoor grill. While chatting and walking about the lawn, guests savored several rounds of crispy lacinato (or Tuscan) kale chips, grilled baby artichokes with caramelized garlic aioli and nicoise olive chapelure and Irish butter dipped baby radishes sprinkled with Murray River pink flake salt before being seated at the long table. The family style meal – guests served themselves from serving plates for four diners each – began with LaVenture Farm (in Gypsum) summer legume crudit with a cold Italian dip, tomato almond pesto and mint Green Goddess sauce. Unfortunately, the heavens poured just as servers poured the first of four included wine pairings. It was obvious there were some seasoned Bravo fans used to drills that ensue when wind and rain invade great orchestral events. With cutlery and wine glasses in hand, guests made a dash for the restaurant where two long tables had been prepared. Once everyone found new seats, the servers resumed pouring wine in the drier environment. Poor Chef Salumonovich was manning his grill in the wind and rain. He was not to be deterred. The 2011 AIX Rose, Coteaux d’Aix en Provence, was a lovely pairing for the salad: Larkspur’s own herbs and greens with simple Katz late harvest vinaigrette, edible flowers and crispy Walla Walla onions. The touch of mint in the salad was a surprise that enhanced the flavors of the rose. I saw these greens in their infancy when I worked behind the scenes in July. Through the hot, dry summer, under the watchful eye of operations manager Allana Smith, Larkspur staff lovingly tended the five beds of delicate greens, herbs, carrots and radishes that now graced our plates.Next up: mesquite grilled Rushing Waters trout with Olathe sweet corn (a must at any Colorado harvest meal), Sea of Cortez shrimp, shelling beans, crab remoulade and vanilla bean essence served in a lettuce leaf “boat.” For this flavor-packed cold fish course, sommelier Matt Barcewitz and wine director James Gall chose an unusual red from Mendocino. The slightly chilled 2009 Lioco “Indica” blend of Carignan (85 percent), Grenache (8 percent) and Petite Sirah went surprisingly well with the fish. I checked with Riverwalk Wine & Spirits afterward to grab a bottle of this unusual wine, but they were out. It’s sold in Colorado, so I urge anyone looking for a surprise pairing with fish to ask for it. The fruits of Salumonovich’s labors in the rain – grilled Colorado leg of lamb – arrived with LaVenture Yukon potato cakes, sumac chimichurri, green coriander blossoms and Vail Valley ratatouille citronette. The Chilean 2010 Lapostolle “Cuvee Alexandre” Cabernet Sauvignon once again showed the pairing talents of the Larkspur wine team. But we were far from finished. As an entre-acte, Allana Smith’s squash blossoms stuffed with requeson – Spanish for ricotta, but in reality is a kissing cousin of the Italian fresh cheese – were served. The squash blossoms came from Smith’s own garden. The housemade requeson, with its sweet and sour flavors, was a perfect bridge to dessert. Like the courses before it, dessert was a perfect mlange of wonderful flavors. Olathe sweet corn made an encore appearance as a spoonful of ice cream with a thyme leaf atop. Combined with the ice cream, this one little leaf of thyme exploded with flavor. Of course we had Palisade peaches, appearing as the star of a “peaches and cream” dessert that also included cherry cannoli and apricot sorbet and paired with NV Brooks Late Harvest Riesling from Willamette Valley. A great way to bring down the curtain on a delightful three hours of dining.Are you hungry? If so, don’t miss the next Larkspur harvest lunch on Sunday. Hopefully, we’ll have lovely autumn blue skies under which diners can enjoy a cornucopian feast while drinking in the golden beauty of changing aspens. My advice is to wear a hat, sunglasses and plenty of sunscreen and bring along a light jacket or sweater. Hope to see you there!