Head for the Hills 

Culinary gold discovered in Vail

No matter how good life gets at home, sometimes a summertime getaway is in order. And the Vail Valley with its contrast of man-made opulence and natural beauty, monumental commercialism and backcountry adventures, is just the place.

Accommodations in the Valley range from the very posh to the very cozy. Sonnenalp Resort and Austria Haus Club, for example, offer the elegance, amenities and service of fine European hotels. No need goes unmet. Smaller B & B's, especially in the outlying towns of Minturn and Avon, are a more intimate and friendly alternative to the glitz and glamour that is Vail. Sometimes heated marble floors get to be too much.

We had a weekend recently that combined outdoor activity, fine dining and intimate mountain inn charm. A gondola ride to the top of Vail Mountain left us with almost too many choices for hikes. And mountain bikers, take note: many of the trails are designated for bikes only. After long, leisurely (and mostly downhill) hikes, we spent cozy nights at the Minturn Inn, a log house built in 1915. In between the day's exertion and the night's rejuvenation, we enjoyed some fabulous meals in two of Vail's finest restaurants.

Vail Mountain Lodge, formerly the Vail Athletic Club Hotel and Spa, is currently undergoing extensive renovation that would make Ralph Lauren proud, and is scheduled to reopen later this fall. Our disappointment that we couldn't stay at the Lodge was dispelled by the meal we had at Terra Bistro, located in the Lodge's lower level. The dining room is spacious and intimate, with wall-sized windows in the bar and central dining area, and low ceilings and indirect warm lighting in the smaller dining area. Every decorating touch, from the pressed white table linens to the heavy coils of gold wires that served as napkin rings, whispered, "Attention to Detail." And all this was before we even looked at the menu.

With 11 first course selections and 12 main course choices, we spent a lot of time looking at the menu. Should we start with Spiced Corn and Sweet Potato Soup drizzled with toasted pumpkin seed oil, or a Tuna Tartare Napoleon with avocado, passion fruit and wasabi? A Maine lobster (the only kind whose shell is worth cracking) with creamed corn and chanterelle mushrooms, or an arugula and endive salad with pears, goat cheese and a maple walnut vinaigrette?

After sending our attentive server away far too many times, we were ready to commit. We selected a mozzarella and tomato salad, alternating slices ringed with an olive tapenade and topped with delicate blue cheese crisps -- the colors and flavors were like fireworks -- and a salad featuring a sweet potato ravioli. This was a balance of textures and temperatures -- warm mixed greens; soft ravioli; crunchy walnuts; cool, sharp Gorgonzola.

Peeking around the main courses was a subtle Pan-Asian influence: a little nori here, a touch of wasabi there, or one of several vegetarian options, Udon noodles tossed with shiitake mushrooms, leeks, white wine, spinach and tofu. Elsewhere was evident the influence of nouveau home-style -- Yukon Gold mashed potatoes, broccoli and peppered beef filet, glistening in a Cabernet reduction; venison surrounded by mashed yams, grilled Portabello and Swiss chard. And lastly we saw the fondness Chef Kevin Nelson has for seafood with delicate sauces: King Salmon with a tomato basil vinaigrette, trout encrusted with pine nuts and dribbled with a tomato consomm; shrimp, scallop and lobster tossed over capellini with a saffron cream sauce.

We could have happily let the server choose our entrees. Which was also true the next night when we dined at Sweet Basil, located in the heart of Vail Village and surrounded by scores of chichi shops. Here, too, is a vaguely Asian influence, with items like potstickers and sticky rice spring rolls. Chef Bruce Yim also takes full advantage of fruits in his sauces and garnishes: A spicy pineapple sauce dresses the pan-roasted duck breast; a dollop of apricot ginger marmalade sits atop the pork chops; a sun-dried cherry reduction raises the lavender-smoked Alaskan halibut to heights seldom reached by mere food.

Dining at Sweet Basil is a delightful blend of server formality and bistro friendliness. The sommelier appeared, ghostlike from the shadows, and recommended the perfect wine from an impressive list. Our server performed his tableside presentation of Asparagus Soup with Peekytoe Crab -- pouring the soup and topping it with a timbale of crab -- with aplomb and grace. At the same time, we were elbow to elbow with our neighboring tables in a clamorous lively space; Sweet Basil is not the place for intimate, quiet conversation.

But it is the place for extraordinary food with gorgeous, careful presentations. The menu offers an impressive variety of fish -- start off with tuna tartare, Southern fried oysters and mango salsa, or a warm lobster salad; follow up with grilled mahi-mahi, sauted snapper, or orange chili glazed tuna as the main event. Meat lovers will have plenty to enjoy as well: Seared foie gras with spicy orange almond syrup and Beef Carpaccio are among the appetizer choices. Colorado T-bone lamb and a Tex Mex--inspired spice-rubbed beef tenderloin with black bean sauce, avocado and pico de gallo are two entres that carnivores can look forward to.

Whatever one chooses, one would be well advised to save room for dessert. We shared a fabulous toffee pudding cake, a moist crumbly cake with a warm rum sauce I would have liked to bathe in, and crepes made with Palisade apricots topped with vanilla ice cream and a Muscat wine syrup. Chocoholics can feed their addiction with the chocolate tasting -- a chocolate profiterole, a sliver of flourless chocolate cake and a wedge of chocolate pate.

Go ahead, indulge. You'll burn off all those calories the next day biking the back bowls of Vail or hiking into the Gore Range. Go fly-fishing on the Eagle River, or browse those high-end shops spending imaginary money (who needs a $300 Majolica platter, anyway?). See Vail before the snow falls.


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