TELLURIDE/MOUNTAIN VILLAGE – If you find yourself eating Seared Diver Sea Scallops at the new Palmyra Restaurant at The Peaks Resort and Spa, can you possibly be enjoying homegrown Telluride cuisine?
How about Cumin Scented Elk Carpaccio?
These are two of the starters on one of executive chef Ross Martin’s recent menus at Palmyra. A locavore can get behind elk carpaccio, even if it’s cumin-scented, and served with figs and Spanish manchego ($14). The sea scallops with cauliflower mousse and fried capers ($16), not so local. And yet it seems possible that a Telluride cuisine has evolved, and it is one that is not shy about the incorporation of exotic ingredients (in the sense that they are not local), but that also makes good use of local provisions.
“People who visit Telluride expect to find certain items on the menu,” Martin allows, hinting at how a local cuisine may, at least partially, be inspired. “They expect steaks and game and lamb.”
As they expect lobster in Maine and barbecued brisket in Texas.
Regardless of what people expect, a cuisine must be delicious or it will not have had the legs to evolve into anything deserving of being identified as such in the first place, whether the constituent ingredients come from nearby or far away. But how can a small remote town like Telluride possibly achieve culinary distinction? This is, by now, a story so familiar to locals and frequent visitors that we are at risk of taking it for granted. We are a long, long way from New York or San Francisco, but still, somehow, can manage to eat out awfully well. In considering the riddle of a Telluride cuisine, if such a thing exists, Martin noted that four of Telluride’s premier chefs of the moment and the last decade or so have worked together for extended periods of time over a period of years and have unquestionably influenced each other, just as chefs in a big city draw inspiration from their peers. The four are Martin, now of Palmyra, formerly of the New Sheridan Chop House, Allred’s and 221 S. Oak; Bob Scherner, now cooking at La Piazza, but formerly at 221 S. Oak and Allred’s (in two separate stints); Erich Owen, now at the New Sheridan, after having put in time at both Allred’s and the late, lamented Harmon’s at the Depot; and Michael Weist, now at Allred’s for the second time, having also manned the stove at 221 S. Oak.
This would be downright incestuous if all four of these chefs hadn’t also picked up a trick or two outside the region, their collective resume too long to recount here. But it’s notable that Martin returns from a posting at a restaurant in Montana. To which the only reasonable response is, “Hey, man, welcome back where you belong!”
This is not to suggest that Telluride’s other fine chefs aren’t fully contributing to our astonishing local dining culture – astonishing because there is so much that is so good in such a small town – or that the cross-currents and influences don’t spread beyond the four named here. And yet, there are some common themes at La Piazza, Allred’s, the Chop House and now Palmyra: all serve up thick, juicy steaks in steak-house fashion, all feature local game and Colorado lamb, all incorporate some Asian influences – a bit of lemon grass here, some sushi or soy there – and all employ as much local produce as possible, which in summer is not so hard to do.
Under the steady hand of Martin, Palmyra is an impressive addition to the Telluride restaurant scene and all the more so because it restores a venue that has functioned so far beneath its potential. On a recent night, our party of seven sampled many of the items on that evening’s menu, sharing everything, and when I polled the table to ask which of the items they had tasted that they would order next time, virtually everything we tasted got at least one vote. Among the starters, my vote went to the pan-seared Foie Gras ($21), served with toasted banana bread (compliments of pastry chef Carly Kunselman), a celery and mint salad, and blackberry bourbon reduction.
Junior hasn’t yet developed the taste for Foie Gras, though I’m confident he will – and then he’ll wonder what took him so long. Never mind, his vote for the Hamachi Tuna Tartar with Barbecued Eel ($16) was perfectly respectable. Do I recall a similar starter, the tuna, a layer of smashed avocado, some tangy greens, something crispy (at Palmyra it’s gyoza) at another meal Martin served at a prior post? I’m sure that I do and I’m glad it’s back on a local menu.
Among entrees, a Juniper Crusted Venison Short Loin ($32) won the most accolades at our table. Served with spatzle and braised Swiss chard, the venison was meltingly tender, perfectly lean, and delicate. But Junior and his friend David voted for the Beef Tenderloin, resting in a wild mushroom demi-glace ($32), while Marta went for the Scottish Salmon with smoked gouda risotto, arugula, hazelnut and lemon zest salad, with a blackberry reduction.
As dining partner Mike Hess, the redoubtable marketing whiz who is a force behind the restoration of The Peaks? The 15 oz. bone-in dry aged Bison Ribeye, of course ($36), truffle chive mashed potatoes, melted St. Agur blue cheese, Bordelaise sauce – and who can blame him? There is a lot of big flavor on that plate.
As for me, I’d order the Cinnamon Ancho Crusted Duck Breast next time ($27). And if you don’t feel like going big, there’s an eight oz. burger among the entrees, too, at just $16.
The new owners and management at The Peaks have done something that in retrospect seems incredibly obvious and makes an enormous difference in how the place feels and functions. They knocked out some walls and installed floor-to-ceiling windows in a room that formerly felt like a bunkered conference room, or an ideal place to keep business travelers away from the distractions of any pleasure the region might offer.
Palmyra now is, by contrast, an extension of the Great Room lobby and adjoining bar so you can see from one end of an enormous space to the other. People across the way are relaxed, cocktails in hand, laughing. You can glimpse the television flickering above the bar, which buzzes while the dining room hums.
Yes, there is life at The Peaks. And why did the former management hide the unobstructed view of the Wilsons from the Palymra space, as if you could enjoy the scenery only in the Great Room but not, heaven forbid, while dining? Beats me, but you can’t doubt you are someplace special when you are dining at Palmyra, and that just has to make the food taste even better. There are, for good measure, these new gadgets called “fire walls” throwing flames around, like huge candles with no wax or small fireplaces with no wood, only more ethereal than either. Cool.
Yes, you are in Telluride, no doubt about it. Not only the view, but Ross Martin, in Telluride mostly since 1998, and Hess are locals, as are pastry chef Carly Kunselman, who worked with Martin at the Chop House and also worked at Harmon’s, and front-of-the-house man Pierre Mesa, who actually went to high school in Telluride and worked at one of modern Telluride’s earliest fine dining establishments, Julian’s, when he was in the ninth grade. Mesa left for a decade or so, as any kid who grew up here ought to do, and lived in Napa, returning home with a deep appreciation of the California wines with which he has stocked the Palmyra wine list.
Given its local character, and its cast of local characters, the cuisine just has to be local, too, doesn’t it? Even if the onion soup ($12) is one hundred percent classically French, with no twist at all. Nobody will object to that.
Nor will anyone object to finishing the evening with Kunselman’s complex Pumpkin Chiffon and Butterscotch Custard Pie ($11), which she brings with her to Palmyra from earlier gigs, though the very simple Dulce de Leche ice cream, one of three flavors in a trio of ice creams ($9), may have been every bit as popular at our table.
Palymra is the flagship at the new Peaks, but the same crew will be serving snacks in the Great Room, and room service, and catering parties and weddings. Let us hope they enjoy a good, long run.
We deserve it.