That night we had dinner reservations at Alpino Vino.
That made it a day of in-bounds off-piste skiing followed by an evening of in-bounds, off-piste dining. Maybe it was in the snow coach after dinner, returning to the gondola station on the ridge where the evening had begun, that I thought: Gold Hill is to skiing as Alpino Vino is to dining.
Think of it as adventure dining, because sometimes it’s not just what you are eating but where you are eating that makes a meal especially memorable. You might say the same thing about yak butter tea or a modest vegetable curry in Kathmandu or roasted guinea pig or chicken quinoa soup in Cusco, to mention a couple of other high altitude tourist destinations, and Alpino Vino sits at nearly 12,000 feet in elevation.
I’d wager it’s the highest altitude dining in North America. It’s extreme, and that light-headedness you may feel is not only from the thrill of it.
Imagine you were in Telluride on a skiing vacation, or maybe you are in Telluride on vacation. At $125 per person for five courses, plus another $50 for a wine pairing with each course, Alpino Vino is not inexpensive, but considering what you get it’s priced fairly and it is an experience you’ll never forget. Not just the getting there or the being there. The food is really good, too.
As it happens, a few days earlier, on Thursday, Marta and I organized a group expedition to the Rico Hotel’s Argentine Grille, where chef Eammon O’Hara is launching an adventure dining experience of his own. Thursday evenings in Rico: $65 for a three course meal, including a couple of cocktails or glasses of wine, and including transportation over Lizard Head Pass to and from Telluride, or $85 per person if you take an earlier shuttle and experience Rico’s spectacular cross-country track, with a guide.
(In the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t personally experience the skiing, owing to work – plus I’ve never been cross-country skiing, and don’t have the gear, and, and, and…but when I arrived in time for cocktails before dinner the rest of the party was happily seated before the crackling fire in the hotel’s front lobby, each of them, to a person, wildly enthusiastic about their ski tour. The takeaway: Rico’s track is an unsuspected, hidden gem.)
For restaurant enthusiasts, dining can be an adventure anytime and anywhere a talented cook finds his or her groove. But adventure dining this winter in Telluride is something more specific. At both Alpino Vino on Fridays and Saturdays and the Rico Hotel on Thursdays through the few remaining weeks of the ski season, you can follow up a great ski experience with a great dining experience, and getting there is half the fun. Locals may have skied past Alpino Vino hundreds of times, but will still be enthralled when the specially outfitted ski coach towed by a snow-cat heads straight up See Forever at dusk. Bet you’ve never done that. Likewise a local might be blasé about the drive over Lizard Head at dusk, but it’s still a pleasure to be able to leave the driving to somebody else on either side of a delicious meal from Rico Hotel chef Eammon O’Hara. The light on the peaks at dusk this time of year is spectacular.
Visitors, of course, will have a different and less jaded perspective, making either or both of these adventures all the more a worthwhile part of their vacation.
Both O’Hara and Alpino Vino chef Bobby Bell are working under some serious restrictions, despite which they turn out terrific food. While Bell is cooking at an elevation where boiling water is only a few shades hotter than tepid, O’Hara has somehow kept the flame on his stove burning for close to a decade in a remote town with maybe a couple hundred residents and not many more than that passing through on the highway at mealtime on a busy day. Whereas Bell has conceived a menu that can be largely prepared in advance at the low elevation kitchen at Allred’s (10,800 feet), then brought to temperature at a high-tech Rational oven, O’Hara is the maestro of making a lot out of putting culinary topspin on familiar ingredients, far as he is from provisioners.
Now in its third season of operation, Alpino Vino draws crowds during the day with the focus on charcuterie: cured meats and cheeses, with one soup on the menu, Gorgonzola-tomato, and a handful of Panini. It’s sommelier Andrew Shaffner’s extensive wine list that really makes this mountain lunch exotic. This European inspired way of eating midday at altitude makes a lot of sense, requiring very little in the way of actual on-site cooking.
But at night, for the first time this season, the bar has been raised. The prix fixe menu keeps it simple in one regard – your only choices are one of two entrees, braised lamb shank or butter-poached, parmesan-crusted swordfish and one of two desserts, tiramisu or a cheese plate – and there is still an emphasis on wine, an inspired pairing with each of the five courses.
Climbing off the snow coach, which accommodates only 13 at a time and makes only two round trips, the maximum number of 26 guests per night are greeted with a glass of prosecco, and ushered in to Alpino Vino’s cozy quarters. The antipasto of grilled artichoke heart keeps with the daytime charcuterie theme, with some terrific diced salami and Romano cheese as accompaniments and lemon zest and balsamic as accents. The next two courses are spinach, garlic and asiago cheese ravioli and escarole bread soup. The aforementioned lamb shank and swordfish are both served with polenta and eggplant.
As ambitious and as tasty as all this food is, it’s the warmth of the staff – from sommelier Shaffner to hostess Cathy Schwindt and servers Max Koepke and Nathan Kaiser – that is most striking, as if they all feel they are part of something so special and unusual that it elevates them, they are privileged to work at Alpino Vino, and the feeling is contagious: you’ve been privileged to dine there. Chef Bell himself offered our party a personal au revoir as we boarded the snow coach for our journey back to reality at Telluride’s mere 9,000 feet in elevation.
The Rico Hotel (also around 9,000 feet) is every bit as warm, similarly cozy and remote, and the staff is equally house-proud. O’Hara was once a big-city chef, executive sous chef at the Bel Air Hotel in Beverly Hills under Wolfgang Puck; he is unassuming and allows his talent speak for itself, a manner that inspires loyalty from staff and customers alike. For the Thursday night special, guests are welcomed with a cocktail or glass of wine après ski, and then invited to order off the menu. You can never go wrong by starting with one of Eammon’s soups; it was a carrot-ginger bisque last week, and there were special starters of steamed mussels, chilled oysters on the half shell and a vegetable crepe, too. Marta had the grilled salmon, served with a Korean barbecue sauce, I went for the evening’s special of beef tips with bowtie pasta, but among our party of 11, most of the entrees on the menu, including a grilled chicken and paella, had a taker or two. For dessert: your choice of flourless chocolate cake or crème brulee.
I’ve been sending people to Rico for dinner for years, with never a complaint. Now, I say, make it all the more convivial this winter by assembling a party of your own, going for the guided ski tour (or, if you prefer, a soak at Rico’s undeveloped hot springs), and by leaving the driving to somebody else.
Reservations for Alpino Vino, which serves dinner Friday and Saturdays only through the end of the ski season can be booked by calling 970/728-7474. With seating for only 26 diners per evening, reservations are limited. The Thursday special at the Rico Hotel can be booked by calling 970/967-3000. At Rico, the Thursday stipulation is to make it feasible for the restaurant to book enough parties to constitute a group, but self-constituted groups of at least six may book for any night of the week.