As ski season arrives Coloradans are eager to trek up to the mountains to shred glistening slopes of powder and to explore the otherwise quiet towns and resorts. But the trip also presents another opportunity, to taste the diversity in Colorado cuisine.
The Sebastian-Vail, located in the heart of Vail Village, takes a step forward with a new, excitable staff and a fresh approach to their food and beverage program. RMFR travels up to the magical and notably affluent area to taste the reconstructed menus inside Frost Bar and their fine dining and tapas restaurant, Leonora.
As we enter the artfully decorated Frost Bar we receive flutes of champagne and notice a long table that stretches across the foyer full of dried fruits, a variety of cured meats and honey-whiskey ham from Colorado Meat Company. A raclette cheese station captures everyone’s attention and ramicans full of new potatoes, gherkins and house-marinated pearl onions lie beneath it to stay warm. We watch intently as a slow-spilling avalanche of cheese cascades onto the pickled and root vegetables.
We travel upstairs to Leonora to begin a family style meal with the accompaniment of formal introductions to the hospitality staff and the opportunity to weigh in on the menu changes.
Under the new leadership of Chris Okamura, food and beverage director, and Tyson Peterson, executive chef, formerly of Spoke & Steele in Indianapolis, Indiana, and former sous chef at The St. Regis Deer Valley, Leonora implements a whole animal butchery program to compliment and guide the menu overhaul. Colorado Meat Company provides access to a whole Zimmerman Berkshire Hog, prime beef selections and locally sourced wild game. In the summertime, The Sebastian plans to host Korean-style pig roasts on the mountain view terrace.
“No other restaurant in Vail is offering a unique program like this,” says Peterson. “Each week we’ll have a new whole hog to prepare and present to our guests. We think it’s a distinctive offering that will entice both locals and visitors to sample the new menu at Leonora.”
The entrees operate around a core of simplicity like local roasted trout with kale and turnips and a lovely wagyu ribeye from Snake River Farms, available with saucy accompaniments like chimichurri, bernaise, creamy horseradish or shallot bordelaise.
The team is currently constructing a three-word concept for their culinary style and on the spot Okamura coins an accessible, enticing phrase. “Simple, honest and local,” says Okamura.
To preserve the tapas roots at Leonora chef Peterson utilizes seasonal elements and offers small plates with Colorado lamb ‘albondigas’ (meatballs) and a mint lime yogurt sauce or the crispy, sumptuous Japanese eggplant croquetas.
The team is green to the Vail valley but not to their craft and plans to expand their local sourcing with a development project to bring a farmer on-site to supply most of the restaurant’s needs. In the meantime, The Sebastian utilizes Vail’s farmer’s markets, finds micro greens in nearby Edwards, Colorado, and says they strive to nurture relationships with more growers in the area.
“Wherever we possibly could on the menu, we went local,” says Nicholas Fielding, director of operations for Timbers Resorts. “We want to be as responsible as we can be and we want to support businesses that take what they do hyper-seriously.”
Leonora features a handful of cocktails like ‘Peter the Great’ with Port Charlotte heavily-peated single malt scotch, Giffard orgeat syrup, for a slight nuttiness, and lemon juice. But the real beverage star stands tall like a pillar in the center of the dining room. The vastness of the wine list is in plain sight as a see-through wine silo displays an impressive collection. The cylindrical case holds up to 1,000 bottles and already almost reaches it’s full capacity.
Laura Hayden, executive pastry chef, who is a veteran member at The Sebastian, also reinvents the dessert menu with new additions like the dulce de leche cheesecake and whisky au baba. Chef Hayden’s most popular creation is The Sebastian signature hot chocolate spheres. Each dome is made up of two types of chocolate that undergoes an overnight infusion with a mix of five different spices. Then Hayden hand-casts each piece in the span of approximately seven minutes.
A porcelain kettle pours a hot chocolate, ganache mixture all over the mystery globe of goodness and as it melts, it slowly dissolves and opens to reveal homemade Bailey’s marshmallows that bloom inside the glass mug with crunch pearls. It remains one of the most desirable items available at The Sebastian and on Sunday a select flavor is 50-percent off with weekly specials like raspberry truffle, peppermint white chocolate (turns bright pink), mocha milk chocolate and dulce de leche made with a blond hot chocolate.
The last day of the week Leonora serves The Sebastian’s “Sunday Funday” brunch, voted “Best of” by the Vail Daily, from 11:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m. Most resorts typically offer a buffet but The Sebastian opts for a variety of endless small plates that you can order until fully satisfied. Okamura admits to us that he has tapped out at five. It includes bottomless mimosas and bloody Mary’s with two signature house mixes, four infused vodkas, 14 different pickled vegetables and a salt bar alongside charcuterie and an additional breakfast menu is available year-round.
Another guest in attendance present at a recent brunch service speaks to the comaraderie and sharable atmosphere, adding that the energy at the establishment was a lot of fun and features background music from Pink Floyd. We can get down with that. Fielding confirms that “it’s definitely catching on in the community.”
“When we were putting the concept of brunch together we really sat down and thought about the best brunch experiences that we ever had,” says Fielding. “We wanted it to be this kind of care-free, fun, sit, relax, enjoy, and drink as much as you possibly can.”
The Sebastian is adamant about inclusion due to the cyclical nature of their business and believes that the diversity of their menus and a resourceful, hospitable nature is key to staying busy even during the off season.
“The locals are the heart and soul of the restaurant,” says Fielding. “So we wanted to give them enough reason to come back here and I think this new menu achieves that.”
After dinner concludes we return downstairs to Frost Bar to sip on a slew of cocktails which leans into interesting spirits like smokey mezcal. We also try a variety of tropical, tiki drinks that amuse us as they create a retro “Christmas in July” feel amidst the snowy grounds.
The evening at The Sebastian-Vail is enlightening and invokes the fickle nature that ski resorts and dining establishments encounter when patronage relies heavily on weather conditions and seasonality. The Sebastian embraces a heightened awareness in the value of offering visitors and locals alike an affordable and delicious dining experience that attracts and keeps guests coming back even when the snow fails to fall.
“We’re trying to get a group of people, concepts and products going that we feel happy and warm and fuzzy about doing,” says Fielding. “Because that’s what hospitality should be about, passing that on, and we enjoy it.”