Given the lengthy waiting list on weekends, it may strike some as ironic that the casual sibling of Vail’s iconic fine-dining mainstay—Sweet Basil—goes by the meat-and-potatoes name of Mountain Standard, especially when chef Paul Anders, who pulls executive kitchen duty at both restaurants, explains that the place is meant to be anything but trendy.
“We are getting back to our roots, even using cooking techniques I use when I go camping,” Anders says. “You can get as technical as you want with food, but we don’t want to be foo-foo here. We’re simple and rustic.”
That means no white tablecloths and an emphasis not on $100 bottles of Oregon pinot but on pints of Colorado crapft beer. Wood dominates the folksy dining room, which is furnished with hand-hewn tables and chairs and open, diner-style booths. The stone masonry walls, in spite of the large glass windows that open to Gore Creek, make the place feel cozy but somewhat subterranean. The most expensive entrée—even the prime flat iron steak—costs less than $40, and most items can be had for far less than that.
Which is surprising, given the artistry that goes into the arrangement of nearly every plate, most touched with at least a little open flame. A wood-fired rotisserie and grill, after all, form the place’s centerpiece.
The only real resemblance between Mountain Standard and Sweet Basil—other than sharing the same founder (Kevin Clair, who also birthed Montauk in Lionshead and Zino Ristorante in Edwards) and managing partner (restaurateur Matt Morgan)—is that both restaurants take great care with everything they do. And thanks to its popular, well-established older sister, prospective diners at times have been hard-pressed to secure a table at Mountain Standard since it opened downstairs from Sweet Basil in December, 2012.
“We literally went from the frying pan into the fire,” Morgan says. “Quality-wise, the mind-set doesn’t change from what we do at Sweet Basil. It sounds trite, but you’re really only as good as your latest meal. If anyone walks out of the restaurant with a less-than-stellar experience, you’re making a mistake.”
Given that Mountain Standard’s logo features a chubby pig mapped out for butchering and that Anders has nearly the same image tattooed on his forearm (along with a cow and a duck—“it’s cliché, I know,” he admits), it’s probably no surprise that the chef’s signature dish is a fall-off-the-bone, mouthwatering pork shank. This, of course, is coming from the kitchen of a man whose mantra is: “the world would be a better place if more green vegetables tasted like bacon.”
Yet Anders also caters to non-carnivores. The soup of the day is typically vegetarian, if not vegan. And an entire corner of the menu is devoted to aquatic entrées and appetizers FedExed fresh from the net to your dinner plate, such as an ahi tuna crudo appetizer that rivals any sushi dish in town. Or wood-fired Rocky Mountain trout served pioneer-style (whole and buttered with a touch of lime) accompanied by seasonal sides ranging from summer squash to a carrot chips. And that hint of bacon? It's not because the fish has been tainted by pork, but because it's been grilled with hickory.
“We’re trying to utilize the wood element as much as we can, even menu items that don’t look like they’re specifically from the grill,” Anders says. “It’s not a smokehouse. It’s not barbecue. It’s just that wooden taste.”
This means slightly blackened proteins mixed in with the salad, charred lemon wedges next to the chilled oysters, and bone marrow served with buttery French bread crisped with a thin line of charcoal.
Fire. It’s the simple element that sets Mountain Standard apart, and also what makes this welcome Vail dining standard so hot.