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A Taste of Vail

Chef Chase Wilbanks from La Tour Restaurant and Bar holds the winning dish from the 5th Annual Colorado Lamb Cook-off.

by Dalma Heyn

Skiers' coming-of-age stories so often take place in the spring you'd think skiing were a warm-weather sport. Wistful narrators tick off their don't-miss experiences as if recounting love affairs: The descent through Tuckerman Ravine in mid-April. The Arapahoe Tailgate Picnic in late May. The corn at Mammoth almost till June.
    But listen carefully: Detect a worrisome absence of decadence in these reminiscences? A distressing dearth of mellow Cabernets and succulent filets; of soul-soothing apres-ski rejuvenation?
     Warm beer and cold nachos are swell  but….no, actually, they're not.  So, you adults who like a dollop of hedonism with your granular, have I got a story for you. I even have the title: A Taste of Vail. 

    I'd long heard about this annual four-day spring festival of food and drink and fun. I remember a phone call two years ago from friends who, sipping an "exquisite" California Chardonnay at the event's famed top-of-the-mountain picnic, went on (and on) about the views, the back bowls, the sunny weather, the innumerable booths of food, the precise texture of the corn snow with the simple aim of torturing their back-east pal who'd hung up her skis for the season. 



    So last April 1, I went to the 19th annual Taste of Vail. I too would now ski the famed back bowls; attend the cooking seminars (this year, with over 30 guest chefs in attendance) and the wine tastings and pairings (with sommeliers from over 50 wineries). I arrived under flakes of a coming snowstorm  (remind me again why most ski areas shut down their lifts at the precise moment when they have highest base snow of the year?), just in time to check in at the Vail Mountain Lodge & Spa and walk over to the first Taste event, the 5th annual Colorado Lamb Cook-off in nearby Vail Village.

    So my own first taste of the largest ski area in the country (which is even now deep into the second billion of its so-called Vail Billion Dollar Renewal; even now expecting another 350 units to over 450 new condos, homes and hotel rooms; even now looking at a new 120-room Four Seasons expected to open this winter, and a Ritz-Carlton and Fairmont, to boot) was succulent Colorado lamb–fifteen different dishes of it, each prepared by a local chef competing in the Cook-Off.  


   The whole world seemed to be represented: sunburned Texans in their Stetsons; newly face-lifted and lip-enhanced Russian wives/lovers adorned in brightly dyed furs the color of sunrises and sunsets alongside their serious-as-Putin comrades; smoothly tanned, rail-thin German ski instructors in sleek ski duds, as if sent from Central Casting; Bavarians in their lederhosen and dirndls;  local kids soaked from a morning in the back bowls, lining up for their lamburger sliders; and Foodies from everywhere, Pinots in hand, arguing over which restaurant would win.

    Would the judges decree La Tour's Grilled leg with goat cheese Gougere, morels, English pea puree, pickled ramps and smoked red wine sauce, better than Terra Bistro's Kingston Lamb Patties with Tropical Mango Chutney, and Sweet Basil's slow roasted leg with ricotta and fennel pollen? (Yes. La Tour came in first, Terra second and Sweet Basil third).
    Everyone — the locals and the first-timers; the rich and the not-so, the hardy and the frail, the furred and funky — rambled happily down the street to stretch their stomachs for such next-day Taste events as the Bar Chef Mix-off; the Cigar and Grand Marnier Pairing; the Cooking Seminar with chef Mark Fargione; the Apres Ski Tasting; the Cane Rum Mixoff, and the Wine Pairings lesson.

    A blizzard arrived in full force to greet the Eagle's Nest picnic,  but I had enough of the truffled macaroni and cheese and excellent mahi-mahi tacos (from the Vail Marriott restaurant), washed down with enough hot cocoa with vanilla liqueur, to enjoy it fully. It was time to get myself  back down on the gondola for some serious down time at the spa. (Life is hell.)


Yoga at the Vail Athletic Club.


    The 20-room Vail Mountain Lodge & Spa (not to be confused with huge 165-room Lodge at Vail, which played host to the Chef Showcase dinner and live silent auction that night), is more than the laidback, homey place it first appears. It's luxurious, but unpretentious and blissfully free of the kind of attitude that wealth and entitlement can often provoke in a staff.
     Despite boasting the attached and beloved 32-year-old Terra Bistro and the updated, two-storey Vail Athletic Club-turned-spa, the mellow feeling here persists, I suspect, because it was never sold to the corporate big guys. General manager Frank Johnson, a Vail resident for 25 years and at the hotel for three, is a low-key host who speaks slowly, does business on a handshake, remembers your family members' names.Want to bring your dog to Vail? There's no official policy (another lovely non-corporate touch) but call Frank and probably Rufus will be welcomed.
    Warmed up and stretched out now by a superb yoga class (for just three of us) and a sauna, I wandered into the Terra Bistro bar to try the Quinoa lettuce cups (the grain sprouted personally by chef Kevin Nelson ) and the fried avocado with the house Terratini (a strong, sweet-ginger martini with rum and sake). The room rate includes breakfast at Terra Bistro, but outsiders love (and pay $10.75 or so for) the "Baa Noan Skillet," an omelet of cage-free eggs, kale, roasted garlic, potatoes and goat cheese –the "Baa"– over toasted noan bread.
    Even for Vail, home of the Steadman Clinic, and altogether fitness-oriented, the emphasis on wellness at this lodge feels unique. It regularly adds finest experts on anti-aging and modalities in preventive health care, experimenting on a high level with healing. There are spas all over Vail, so of course you needn't necessarily come to this one, but here, with 13 spa rooms to its 20 hotel rooms, I never felt anxious about getting in. Nor did I question, after that first yoga class, the quality of the treatments or commitment of the practitioners. One massage therapist told me she'd left a bigger (read: more corporate) job elsewhere because its treatments weren't tested properly and the products were inferior.
            Looking out at the mountain from my deck chair, drinking freshly squeezed fruit juices to hydrate myself before a massage with a gifted therapist, is my promised end to this sybaritic spring story. But there's more. There's a Peruvian healing treatment. Not a Steadman Clinic kind of thing, to be sure, and hard to describe, but just right for my particular sensibilities, and my very last taste of Vail. Ask for Felix. 


        This year's Taste of Vail will be held April 7 to 10, 2010. For general information, call 970….

         The Vail Mountain Lodge and Spa is offering its Taste of Vail weekend guests special savings: Book a Valley View Room for three nights, get the fourth night free, with rates starting at $345 per room, per night. In addition to free entry to the Vail Athletic Club and complimentary breakfasts in Terra Bistro, guests will receive discounted lift tickets; a 20 percent discount on all spa treatments (except nail treatments); and complimentary concierge services to book all Taste of Vail tickets and passes.  To book this special offer, call 866-326-6094.  Mention Code VML_Taste10.

DALMA HEYN is the bestselling author of two books on marriage
(The Erotic Silence of the American Wife and Marriage Shock: The Transformation
of Women into Wives) and one on dating (Drama Kings: The Men Who Drive Strong
Women Crazy), now out in paperback. Her travel articles and essays have appeared
in various magazines, including Travel & Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler and
Diversion. She has appeared both as author and social observer on Oprah!, The
Today Show, Larry King Live, The Charlie Rose Show, and Good Morning America.Visit her website at www.dalmaheyn.net

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