The Alpine Gourmet, On and Off the Mountain
By Laura Pope
A gifted cadre of chefs working in the alpine reaches of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont ski resorts offer winter warriors savory options well beyond ubiquitous pub fare, from Upscale Rustic and European Comfort Food to Contemporary American cuisine. This selection of fine dining establishments, on and off the mountain, features a remarkable mix of masters in the kitchen, including a self-taught chef, two owner/chefs (one is CIA-trained) and three ski resort chefs, all alumni of the prestigious Chef Apprentice Program at The Balsams who have gone on to helm dining operations at major ski resort restaurants.
Vermont, On the Mountain
Chef Josh Berry, Solstice at Stowe Mountain Lodge, Stowe, Vermont
Broadcasting a menu that is rustic, seasonal, contemporary and American, Solstice at Stowe Mountain Lodge has long been “the big place on the hill, a family resort where everyone chooses an entrée and lots of side dishes to pass around, family style,” describes Joshua Berry, executive chef at the premier dining and inn destination, as well as Hourglass, a lounge setting offering lighter, gastro-pub cuisine.
The casual, comfortable ambiance at the 110-seat Solstice presents a signature Neo-Lodge aesthetic that is both traditional and contemporary and pairs seamlessly with an imaginative, interactive a la carte menu that allows Chef Berry to not only lower price points, but “fully engage diners who are wowed by all the options and flavor possibilities.”
The “build-it-yourself” menu style generates instant buzz with patrons who come to Stowe Mountain Lodge, full of high expectations. A generous offering of starters, soups and salads starts the menu (the Vermont Goat Cheese Croquets, served with Stewed Apricots, Kalamata Olives, Watercress and Fennel Seed merit serious consideration), followed by an impressive Charcuterie of assorted meats, sausages and terrines, available in a small or large portion, continues with a staggering nine selections of local Vermont cheeses, served with local raw honey, stone fruit chutney, toasted walnuts and fresh bread, all sourced from Vermont farms, creameries and cheese makers.
“We’re one of forty Destination Hotels located all over the United States, and I’m proud to say that here at Solstice, we have the largest cheese selection,” boasts Chef Berry, another graduate of The Balsam’s Chef Apprentice Program who went on to serve as executive chef there for three years.
Diners at Solstice custom design entrees by first deciding whether they want one that is braised and sautéed (such as their signature Truffled Beef Pot Roast) or stone oven roasted (local cod, duck breast, baked stuffed mountain trout or scallops) or grilled (prime cuts of beef and Shetland salmon). Once that decision is made, they have the option of adding a flavor enhancements such as truffle, lobster, foie gras, crab, shrimp or blue cheese and equally important, and choosing from a wide selection of side dishes, that includes Truffled Mac and Vermont cheese, baked or Whipped Potatoes to Braised Red Cabbage, Confit of Wild Mushrooms and Caramelized Root Vegetables.
A Chef’s Signature item, a winter-hearty dish of Spiced Local Venison Medallions; a Friday-through- Saturday Queen- or King-cut of Slow Roast Prime Rib of Beef; specials such as a Braised Lamb Shank served with Creamy Polenta, Gremolata and Braising Jus; Vegan and Pasta items round out the winter wonderful menu.
“The heart of my culinary style is seasonal and local so that diners may experience a taste of northern Vermont and New England. I use a lot of regional ingredients and prepare them with a twist, such as the New England staple, pot roast, an old recipe I transform when I add the truffles from Italy.”
Vermont, Off the Mountain
Michael Kloeti, Michael’s on the Hill, Waterbury, Vermont
~In Waterbury Center, at the rim of snow-blessed Stowe, Vermont, Chef Michael Kloeti and his wife, Laura, preside over Michael's on the Hill Restaurant, a hill top restaurant with views of the Green Mountains, purchased ten years ago, now an acclaimed bastion of European comfort food.
Like the Oxford House Inn and Sugar Hill Inn, the pair’s 1820 farmhouse with barn 85-seat restaurant, and newly renovated lounge, is often recommended by other top chefs and lauded by exacting food bloggers. It’s also sanctioned many times by other more conventional bestowers of greatness: Vermont Restaurateurs, Vermont's First Chef of the Year award, Sante Magazine Restaurant Award, Wine Spectator Award of Excellence, First Certified Green Restaurant in the Green Mountain State.
For Michael, MOTH represents a coalescence of his Swiss heritage, landscape and culinary roots, follows a top notch career at several dream destinations – the four star Lespinasse in New York City, the Lodge at Koele in Lanaii, Hawaii and the St. Regis Hotel in Manhattan – and ultimately, offered an escape hatch from the corporate bottom line ethos that dominates many urban food empires.
“To me, winter is all about eating more and comfort foods and nothing is more comforting than food you can serve in a bowl. I make a lamb stew, served with locally-made Nitty Gritty polenta that has a vein of red wine in it, like beef bourguignon. Winter food is not necessarily heavy, it can be very refreshing. I can still remember the venison stew my mother made with red wine braised cabbage and spaetzle.” says the chef, who recently completed another guest stint aboard Holland America Cruise lines on an Asian/Pacific journey.
“Diners camp out for a savored experience in one of the four dining rooms: The Porch with its wall of windows, the Barn with its exposed frames and wood prints from Switzerland, the Bar or the Trout Room. I would describe it as casual, but then the tables wear nice table cloths.”
Growing up on a farm, Michael absorbed a local, fresh, sustainable and seasonal way of gathering and preparing food he still abides. “It’s hard for me and the trout farmer to know just how many fish he has so it will come off the menu as the supply dwindles.” Venison was recently replaced with a Lamb Navarin dish on the entrée menu which also includes a skillet chicken, beef tenderloin, Maplewood smoked pork loin, an herb butter poached Maine lobster, a gnocchi dish and roast Atlantic char. Menus may change more than once in a season. “I run this place by our own rules and policies, so I choose to pay more for local provisions. It has more to do with high chef and customer satisfaction than the numbers.”
Maine, On the Mountain
Featuring: Executive Chef Chad Davidowicz, Sunday River Ski Area & Resort, Newry, Maine www.sundayriver.com
As executive chef of several eateries serving skiers a variety of cuisine during their time on the eight peaks at Sunday River Ski Area & Resort in Newry, Chad Davidowicz, with his delegation of managers and assistants, operate three daytime cafeterias, five restaurants at two slope side grand resort hotels, (the Grand Summit and Jordan Grand) plus a popular nightspot called The Foggy Goggle at Southridge.
The offerings vary, from family friendly cuisine at Grand Summit’s Legends Restaurant and Moonstruck Café and the upscale pub food at Jordan Grand’s Sliders to the on-the-go, lunchtime cafeteria buffets for skiers eager to refuel. For those seeking fine dining, Chef Davidowicz recommends the 100-seat restaurant, Dining at the Peak, “a place on top of the mountain, on top of the world.”
Normally reserved for winter-time Saturday evenings beginning in mid-December to coincide with Winter Fest, Dining at the Peak patrons “take the gondola ride up to the summit of North Peak where they’re greeted with a blanket and met at the door with a glass of champagne, followed by a four-course, sit-down dinner. During the day, Peak is a bustling skiers’ cafeteria, but on special days we transform it into a restaurant so that someone who had chowder or chili for lunch may return at night for finer dining.”
Last winter, the Peak’s four-courses included a soup course of Truffled Cream of Mushroom Soup with Duck Confit garnish as well as Lobster Bisque; artfully composed Baby Spinach and Gathered Greens salads; varied entrees such as Veal Chop Oscar, Seared Free Range Chicken Breast, Tenderloin, Seared Diver Scallops, and Honey Poached Gnocchi and sweet finishes of a classic Crème Brulee with sugared berries and a Chambourd Ganache Cheesecake.
“I tend to lean toward the French influence in the dishes I create or cook, but I’m also a huge fan of Italian and South West cuisines,” shares Davidowicz, who oversees other wildly popular culinary happenings -- Moonlight Dinners in summer, staged during full moon cycles, featuring live music and buffet style service. “At the Peak, we try to create an atmosphere that tells patrons ‘everything was made just for you.’”
This winter, Peak dinners are scheduled for special times, such as Winter Fest, New Year’s, and at on other occasions, with overarching themes such as Wine Dinners or a dinner featuring French cuisine.
“We’re always looking to satisfy our customer base, and to that end we alter and add things, such as adding a tasting menu at the Jordan Grand,” says the Balsam’s Chef Apprentice Program graduate who stayed on at the famed resort destination as sous chef before taking a position at Sunday River, first as executive sous chef and four years ago, as executive chef.
Maine, Off the Mountain
Chef Jonathan Spak, Oxford House Inn, Fryeburg, Maine
~Since 2007, Chef Jonathan Spak and his wife, Natalie, have welcomed guests at The Oxford House Inn in Fryeburg, Maine, right next door to North Conway, NH and the ski-centric Mt. Washington Valley, as innkeepers of their four guestroom inn and 70-seat restaurant, both highly praised by the likes of Downeast and Yankee magazines.
A Connecticut native, Jonathan trained at the Culinary Institute flagship campus at Hyde Park, NY, and more than a decade later left a perfectly fine job at a conference center in West Cornwall, Conn., after a vacation in North Conway, to preside over the Oxford House Inn, a Mission Style house built in 1913 by famed architect John Calvin Stevens.
Describing his culinary sweet spot as Contemporary American, the one-time apprentice with CIA-trained French chef, Gerard Coyac at Le Marmiton (Little Kitchen Boy) in the northern reaches of the Constitution State, explains: “I draw on traditional flavors and make them my own by breaking them down or reinventing the components.” Diners will find a hybrid menu melding the Inn’s pub and dining room offerings, from smaller bistro dishes to the more robust fine dining entrees.
Four separate dining rooms set the alpine tone– a fireplace and a large bay window dominate the Front Parlor; the Middle Room features a more formal atmosphere; three walls of windows on the Back Porch let in sweeping views of the eastern edge of the White Mountains (Kearsarge, Black Cap, Bald Face and the Twins) and lastly, Jonathan’s Pub beckons with an entirely distinct atmosphere all its own.
Patrons flock to sample Jonathan’s Bangs Island mussel dish and local brews on Thursday evenings in the darker months. “It’s called Pint and a Pound: You get a pint of beer, currently Geary's Pale Ale or Moat Mountain Brown, crafted in North Conway, on tap, or a glass of wine or bottled beer with a pound of mussels or clams in one of five different preparations. Currently we offer yellow curry with potatoes, apples, raisins and coconut milk; pesto, roasted tomato, pine nut & chardonnay; chorizo, sweet potato, roasted corn and Corona; smoked bacon, English pea, cream and sage and our traditional with garlic, chardonnay, pepper flakes and butter. This weekly special has taken a life of its own.”
A sampling of the winter menu (entrees include braised lamb shank, a cider-brined pork tenderloin, cornmeal crusted rainbow trout and a grilled filet mignon) and specials (a braised beef short rib and potato tart with roast root vegetables and rosemary gratin) reveal an inventive orchestration of cooking technique and seasonal provisions.
Never forgetting the importance of a sweet finish, Spak touts the caramel cheese cake with Grand Marnier citrus salad. “We use at least six different citruses, no lemon or lime, in the salad and a slightly thickened, uncooked Grand Marnier. ~
New Hampshire, On the Mountain
Chef Matthew Holland, Seasons Restaurant, Mountain Club on Loon Resort & Spa, Lincoln, NH
On the heels of a $9 million renovation at the Mountain Club on Loon Mountain Resort & Spa in Lincoln, Chef Matthew Holland launches Seasons Restaurant, formerly Rachel’s Restaurant, at Christmas for fine dining dinner service, featuring the very best New England or “indigenous” cuisine tapping local/sustainable food sources.
“When I think of winter fare, I think of root vegetables, onions, seafood such as lobster and scallops which are at their very best this time of year, braised items, pork and heartier cuts of beef,” says the chef from Twin Mountain who worked at his family’s restaurant before signing on, at 16, at the Mt. Washington Hotel to work with Chef Val Fortin (now the executive chef at the Sugar Hill Inn) where he attained the position of executive sous chef. He later completed a chef apprenticeship at the Balsam’s Grand Resort’s prestigious program, where he worked as the executive pastry chef and also worked as executive chef at Bonta, in Hampton, NH.
At Seasons, Chef Matthew’s proffers a refined dining experience, “to give our patrons more options. We’ll have linens on the tables, but we won’t be fussy or pretentious. We also have the flexibility of creating cuisine for two dining venues. Black Diamond Bar & Grille at the Mountain Club features more casual surroundings and fare, and with a fantastic group of culinarians in the kitchen, we strive to serve great, consistent food at a great value, from casual to more upscale.
Seasons at the Mountain Club on Loon features regional New England cuisine “focusing on the finest of seasonal, local and sustainable ingredients found in our fantastic soups, stews, breads, braised items, grains and produce so prominent in our fall and early winter harvests. Our focus at Seasons allows diners a more formal dining option with respect to the menu items and top-notch service, but executed in a casual, relaxed atmosphere.”
New Hampshire, Off the Mountain
Chef Val Fortin, Sugar Hill Inn, Sugar Hill, NH
~The comfortable, sophisticated guest rooms and cottages at the Sugar Hill Inn, taken together with its Euro-upscale 25-seat dining room have earned this oasis in New Hampshire’s White Mountains impressive accolades: multiple DiRoNA Achievement of Distinction in Dining awards; a Distinguished Inn of North America recognition from Select Registry and a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence.
Executive Chef and New Hampshire native, Val Fortin, joined owner Steve Allen’s team in 2006 when Allen purchased the inn minutes away from Cannon Mountain, Bretton Woods and Attitash, and began restorations. The self-taught chef worked his way up from dishwasher to chef, including a long stint at the Mount Washington Hotel and as chef in private hotels and clubs in Florida and Cape Cod.”
Fortin ’s passion for Creative Cuisine, a fusion of international flavors (think herbed spaetzle, Italian bread soup), as well as his “made from scratch” credo and adherence to local and sustainable food philosophies, surfaces all over the four course prix fixe winter menu.
“The food here tends to be inventive, creative, passionate and comforting. For those diners who are a little more adventurous you may even see a little molecular gastronomy on the menu.” He forages for local food sources at the co-op in Littleton and works with local farmers including the Walker Hill Farm in Lisbon, where he gets all his heirloom tomatoes.
Dinner guests may decide on one of Val’s signature dishes, the horseradish crusted filet mignon of beef tenderloin set atop a scallion and fresh herb potato cake served with a parsley lemon butter and red wine braised shallots or the red wine slow braised beef short ribs with smashed winter root vegetables and fingerling potatoes served with a sauce from it’s own braising liquid. His trio of soups deliver of winter’s essence: a winter squash medley, a broccoli and gruyere combo, almost a fondue, and a heaven-scented potage of mushroom and truffle.
“The pan seared quail breast, served medium rare, and the crispy leg, served with a house made wild mushroom ravioli, crisp prosciutto and wild mushroom and truffle broth is a great beginning to your dining experience. The wild mushroom and truffle broth is served table side so as to get the full aroma of the broth. The tasting of duck is an inn favorite with pan seared duck breast, confit of leg and foie gras ravioli served with whipped gingered sweet potato, French haricots verts, baby white turnips and a lingonberry gastrique.” Trout, lamb and truffle béchamel mac and cheese dishes round out the entrée offerings.
Desserts are homemade, decadent, beautifully presented. If the homemade ice creams, mini pistachio and pecan whoopie pie (with a orange and Vermont goat cheese filling finished with a salted caramel sauce) or a petite German chocolate cake scented with a touch of espresso (finished with a homemade vanilla bean ice cream and a Tuckerman’s ale chocolate sauce) doesn’t quite fit the bill, then perhaps Val’s handmade bittersweet chocolate and pomegranate laced truffle will.~
On the Mountain Alpine Chefs in this post were profiled in the December issue of Northeast Flavor Magazine; profiles of Alpine Chefs Off the Mountain were written as a Web Extra for Northeast Flavor Magazine. Both articles have been combined here by the writer.