SNOWMASS, Colo. — Dining has always been a big part of the total skiing experience, but for many years Snowmass had a reputation as the less exciting sibling to the glamour of Aspen's food scene.
Families stayed in Snowmass and ate in their condos or went into the village for burgers or pizza; the grand night out often called for a trip to Aspen. But that has changed.
Snowmass visitors demanded more refined fare, and the area's restaurants and chefs are happily expanding their menus to accommodate customers.
One of those adding new spice to Snowmass's dining scene is the restaurant Eight K in the Viceroy Hotel. Chef Will Nolan brings a Cajun-Creole flair to the mountains in the sleek, gleaming dining room that feels warm even though filled with glass and steel.
Nolan, whose culinary background combines his experiences in the Pacific Northwest and New Orleans, was one of the nominees for Food & Wine magazine's people's best new chef in 2012.
The chef's Cajun roots show up most prominently in his appetizers, with barbecued shrimp and grits and a quail gumbo with house-made Andouille sausage being real standouts.
"I try to use local ingredients, meats especially, and give them a Louisiana twist," Nolan said. "For example, I make a rack of elk and then pair it with boudin blanc."
He also pays tribute to his Louisiana roots with his seafood.
"I buy as much of my seafood as possible from My Gulf Wild," he said. "That is a supplier of wild seafood that can tell you within about 10 square miles where the fish came from." (Viceroy Hotel, 130 Wood Road; 970-923-8000; viceroyhotelsandresorts.com/snowmass.)
The Artisan in the Stonebridge Inn is another of the area's cutting-edge restaurants with a highly creative chef at the stove. Chef Randall Baldwin is a Colorado native who is dedicated to using seasonal, locally sourced ingredients whenever possible.
"I try to use as many locally produced items as I can," Baldwin said, "but sometimes they just aren't available. If they aren't, I'll try to make them in house. We make our own ricotta, our own sauerkraut, even our own pastrami and mustard."
Baldwin wants to lift Artisan's bistro-toned menu to a higher level this season.
"Last year was my first here," Baldwin said, "and I was just starting to get the feel of the clientele. Now I have a better idea of what they want."
In some ways, Artisan's menu has become simpler. For example, Baldwin has replaced his three previous versions of mussels — Italian (red chilies, garlic, white wine, tomato), Thai (coconut milk, red curry, cilantro, lime) or Con Formaggio (shallot, white wine, Stilton) — with single version with white wine, chorizo and roasted tomatoes. Here's hoping that the delightfully crisp and flavorful fries never change.
If the grilled flatiron steak came with the same fries, a guest might think he had been transported to a Left Bank brasserie. And the lamb meatballs served with rosemary polenta are comfort food raised to the highest level. (The Stonebridge Inn, 300 Carriage Way; 970-923-2420; stonebridgeinn.com.)
Those looking for upscale Italian cuisine need only head to Il Poggio on the Village Mall. A heady bouquet of herbs and sauces greets guests as they enter the warm, intimate dining room.
Though the menu clearly is rooted in Italy, chef Chris Blachly has added his own riffs to many of the classic dishes. The spicy shrimp appetizer, for example, includes Serrano pepper and ruby red grapefruit. The ravioli is filled with sweet potato and goat cheese and is tossed with sage butter, diced tomatoes and speck (a unique Tyrolian ham).
Blachly points out that the acclaimed locavore trend is great in the summer, but it gets rather difficult in the middle of winter in the Rockies
"I try to get the best and freshest products available," he said. "But sometimes the best ingredients don't come from anyplace nearby.
"Quality is the most important. For years we served an excellent olive oil from Italy, but we have found one from California that is fresher and more flavorful, so we now serve that."
Blachly's main courses are more traditional, but don't miss the duck breast with spinach, pumpkin cappelletti and currant sauce or the baked sea bass with lemon-salt crust.
The wine list is extensive and priced fairly, especially for a ski resort. (Il Poggio, Snowmass Village Mall; 970-923-4292.)
Another tradition-rich dining experience in Snowmass is Krabloonik. Founded in 1974, Krabloonik was one of the first adventure-dining destinations, in this case combining a dog sled ride with gourmet cuisine in a log cabin setting.
The menu matches the tradition of the setting, and guests would be well served to have skied hard before sitting down to dinner here. The dishes are hearty and filling, and the portions are not for the faint of heart.
Several of the dishes I tried on my first visit more than 30 years ago are still on the menu — and still delicious. This was the first place I had baked brie, and it remains a luscious, decadent way for the whole table to start the meal. The wild mushroom soup is better than I remembered, especially because it is drizzled with truffle oil now.
Game lovers will rejoice at the entrees: wild boar scaloppine, grilled elk loin and the "Chef's Trios" of game preparations are superb choices. A few fish and vegetarian options lighten the menu. (Krabloonik, 4250 Divide Road; 970-923-3953; krabloonik.com.)Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun