Symphonie Gastronomique

At TimberHearth, a sleigh pulled by French horses follows four magical courses.

By Ted Katauskas February 1, 2014 Published in the Midwinter/Spring 2014 issue of Vail-Beaver Creek Magazine

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Image: Zach Mahone

Now, for a culinary adventure. One night this weekend, forsake the most-favored dining rooms in the villages of Vail and Beaver Creek, drive downvalley to Edwards, and corkscrew up a dark, snow-packed road to an upstart restaurant so far off the beaten path it has yet to register on the local culinary radar.

No signs point the way. Just follow the road as it wends up toward the crest of a canyon, trusting your intuition—because your GPS, using the restaurant’s published address, will direct you to a gatehouse at the road’s midpoint, where an attendant will bid you to turn around (don’t)—so that once you finally arrive at your destination, it feels as though you’ve stumbled upon this place by accident.

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Image: Zach Mahone

You see: a great gabled lodge at the edge of a vast meadow—a golf course, yes, but once the hay fields of Fenno Ranch—slumbering beneath undulating white drifts that expand outward into the blackness to a horizon ringed by mountains, shimmering in the diffuse light of moon and stars. Outside the lodge stands a team of stately Percherons (a pulling breed from northern France) harnessed to a wooden sleigh fitted with steel runners, with a handsome driver in a broad-brimmed pioneer hat and an oilskin greatcoat warming his hands over a bonfire whose glow dances out onto the shadowy landscape, mingling with curtains of yellow lamplight from the lodge’s floor-to-ceiling windows: a beachhead of warmth pressing against the boundless cold and dark. Kudos if you’ve brought children, because this moment’s magical, like a scene from Disney’s Frozen or the mystical Lake of Coheeries in Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale. You may even swear you hear the restaurant’s name whispered on the winds. 

For the past two winters, the Club at Cordillera’s marquee dining room stood snowbound, its doors locked and ovens cold, the casualty of a protracted legal dispute. Today it’s been reborn, with the ambition of ascending from an unknown oasis in the wilderness to a bucket-list dining destination at the center of the Vail Valley’s culinary universe. “TimberHearth”: a cavernous hall of old-growth fir beams lit by wrought-iron chandeliers, and at its center a massive stone fireplace reminiscent of WPA-era lodges at Oregon’s Mount Hood and Crater Lake.

Beside that hearth, your table awaits. Who knew?

“I’ve lived here for eight years, and I’ve never even known about this place,” says executive chef Matt Limbaugh, who for the past five years worked as chef de cuisine at Vail Village’s Restaurant Kelly Liken and before that was sous chef at Beaver Creek’s Mirabelle. “It’s a little bit of a drive, but once you’re up here, it’s awesome. What I want to do is top-notch everything. I want to emphasize the freshness of the food and the work that goes into it. The only thing I’m buying that’s ready-made is our butter, which contains 83 percent butterfat. We want to open up people’s eyes.”

Judging from a December evening’s visit, it’s working. The meal progresses as movements in a symphony: an amuse-bouche of pickled apples, goat cheese custard, and radish microgreens; then piquant squash soup poured from a porcelain tureen over Honeycrisp apple and toasted pumpkin seeds; pan-seared Maine lobster in a froth of coconut curry reminiscent of sea foam (pictured, p. 109); hazelnut dacquoise with passion fruit, yuzu, lime granit, and wildflower honey–infused mascarpone. All of this is accompanied by a chorus of wine by the glass that’s more curated than poured by wine director and dining room captain Jason Baez (formerly assistant wine director at Kelly Liken) from a tasting table where, as each bottle is uncorked, the waitstaff gathers with Baez to sniff and swirl and compare subtle tasting notes (“this one’s like honeycomb!”).

When it’s all over, it’s not really over, because idling outside, instead of your car, stands that sleigh. After tucking you beneath a mound of blankets, Phil Shapton, a farrier by day, climbs aboard, takes the reins, and cries, “Ha, Jim-Jack!” And off you glide out into the night, floating silently over the snow, on yet another adventure.

TimberHearth: The Club at Cordillera, Edwards, 970-926-5588; open Wed–Sat from 5 to 10 p.m. through ski season; sleigh rides $30/person

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