Warmth from the Timber Hearth
Editor’s Note: Locals living in the Vail Valley often exchange careers and money for the everyday recreation fun to be had in the mountains. This is the first story in the “Winter Quest for Fun” series that reveals some of our favorite activities, dinners, snow outings and pure mountain magic.
CORDILLERA ” Living in a real-life winter wonderland that is the Vail Valley makes it possible to live out certain Christmas carols. One of my favorite yule-tide songs came true Monday when I rode through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh o’r the hills of Cordillera to Timber Hearth Grille.
Mugs of hot cider in hand, my date and I climbed aboard the magical red vessel led by a beautiful blonde Belgian draft horse and piled on layers of blankets as the glistening snow fell down upon us in precise geometric stars. From Cordillera’s Summit Course, the lit-up lodge emitted a welcoming glow amid December’s cold. And especially after a day of skiing in plush powder, I couldn’t wait to indulge in a warm home cooked meal.
Inside the hand-built post-and-beam lodge, just beyond the blaze of the 40-foot stone hearth awaited our table, overlooking the valley iced in pure white. The amuse bouche did not keep us waiting, a sumptuous duck confit atop a warm, crisp triangle chip, which only made our mouths desire more.
Where there is food, there is a creator. In this case, Executive Chef Richard Bailey, who specializes in turning classic American cuisine into irresistible seasonal comfort food, evidenced throughout the menu.
The tuna tartare tacos ($12) adorned in wasabi cream topped with a refreshing baby seaweed salad are a favorite among the starter fare, a dish inspired by chef Bailey’s love of Asian food. The sweet tender tuna melts in your mouth, benefitting from the spicy cream sauce.
Under the guidance of the Clubhouse Manager Mike Ostlund, we sipped a 2004 Crocker and Starr sauvignon blanc from Napa Valley. The bold fruitiness of the vintage marvelously offsets the zest of the wasabi. Ostlund’s passion for wine is contagious. Within the past year, he has developed an entirely new wine list of more than 400 varietals, mostly from California. Unlike many wine afficionados, Ostlund said, he pays attention to the ratings. It’s important that restaurant’s wine list presents familiar, as well as affordable selections.
In the good company of the sauvignon blanc, we also relished in the novel grilled asparagus salad ($8), prosciutto and sherry vinaigrette drizzled over spears neatly wrapped in bacon, a hearty addition to the crispy vegetable. Those wanting traditional greens should try the frisee salad ($8). Served with a warm Pancetta-blood orange vinaigrette, toasted pine nuts and asiago polenta croutons, it’s the perfect savory balance before a meal.
The chef, inspired by fresh ingredients, changes the menu once a month. There’s always a surprise waiting to be found on the exemplary one-page menu. Unlike many chefs in the valley, Bailey didn’t go to culinary school. He didn’t have to. Growing up in Napa Valley, he was constantly surrounded by fantastic food and wine. He created culinary masterpieces at the Sonoma Inn and Spa for seven years under the watch of seven different executive chefs, a quick education for Bailey, who has been executive chef at Timber Hearth for five years.
For the main course, Bailey relinquished the duck breast ($28) for which he harbors a certain affection. Probably the last thing I would order and now the first thing I would recommend. Bailey smears his special California-spiced Love Rub onto the tender liberty duck before encrusting it in pecans. A small bowl of sweet chili vinaigrette and green chili macaroni and cheese delightfully contrasted the sweet meat, and sent me back to my days of youth, only better.
My date dined on the portion of grilled elk chops ($36) spiked with a bleu-cheese-lingonberry sauce. A generous portion, the cashew-parsley rice adds a nutty flavor, the perfect winter meal in the evening.
For the signature entree, Ostlund paired a 2002 Howell Mountain Vineyards zinfandel. The protein brought out the magnificent berry flavor in the wine, evened by a warm fullness in the finish. Ostlund described it as a red most people are bound to admire.
In my opinion, no meal is complete without dessert. Although it resembles a slice of art out of this world, a bite of the pineapple napoleon with fresh cream and spun sugar is the perfect finish to a hearty meal for dessert minimalist. For chocolate lovers, the flourless chocolate cake oozing with chocolate cream sauce provides a decadent seduction of the palette. Not a crumb was left on the plate, neither a drop of port in the glass as the chorus of “Jingle Bells” danced in my head.
Staff Writer Laura A. Ball can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 14641, or email@example.com.