Wed 6 Mar 2013
Oh what a night….
In today’s world people often look for a unique experience that stands out from the routine that generally encompasses our daily lives. A lot of restaurants claim to provide a unique culinary experience for their patrons but my experience at the Solitude Mountain Yurt was truly outstanding in several ways. In today’s world, “foodies” can appreciate a good meal, whether it is down home comfort food to a fine dining experience. With the setup at the Mongolian style yurt located adjacent to the slopes of Solitude you would think that the cuisine would be rudimentary at best. Not so…. It was hard to imagine how the resort would be able to pull off a fine dining experience in a large tent with no electricity and running water located a half a mile up from the village sitting adjacent to the slopes of the resort.
The night started off with the guests assembling at the Thirsty Squirrel bar in the Village located at the base of the mountain. Guests from New York, Alabama, Connecticut, and a some local couples were in for a treat as we socialized before our journey to the yurt. Jaseth, our guide introduced himself and informed us that we would be donning snowshoes for our trek through the woods to the Solitude mountain yurt. We put on our snowshoes and headed out onto the mountain trail under the remaining light of dusk. A purple hue hung in the air while the stars were just appearing in the fading light of the day. As we trekked through the woods you felt yourself get lost in the natural world surrounded by a foot of new powder while the spruce and fir trees stood sentinel throughout the wooded forrest. The trail wound through the woods and had a very comfortable incline that was not too demanding even for the sea level guests that were not accustomed to the elevation. After about 15 to 20 minutes of hiking we emerged from the woods to observe a rather inviting yurt providing a glowing invitation to enter to enjoy a night of dining on the mountain. As we entered you were struck by the ambience of gas lit lanterns lighting two long tables prepared with a display of fine glassware and dishes juxtaposed with the rich wood and rustic look of the table and chairs. It was surprising how spacious the yurt was when considering that our chef Joe had his operation already in full swing taking up a third of the yurt with his seasoned gas Viking range and a large wood preparation table in the middle where he would soon plate the food.
I immediately gravitated to our chef Joe, and commented on the set up inside the yurt. He mentioned that the heat from the gas range served as the main warmth for the yurt as the guests took off their jackets enjoying the comfort that the structure provided.
I have had a previous experience staying in a yurt on an overnight trip in the Uinta Mountains. The structure is basically a tent that is set up over a round octagonal frame and usually features a central wood-burning stove. Jaseth mentioned that the Mongolian tribes have used these structures for generations providing them shelter and the ability to move quickly and efficiently due to their nomadic lifestyle. Unlike the dirt floors the Mongolians use the Solitude yurt has a nice wood decking for the floors. The center ring at the top of the yurt is the heart of the structure and would be passed from father to son in the Mongolian tribes.
After the guests were seated Jaseth mentioned that he had come to Solitude in 2004 seeking the legendary Utah powder he had heard about. Coming from central Mexico he was an unlikely candidate for a powder hound but soon found himself snowboarding over a 100 days a year. He joked that the Yurt was like Vegas, in that what happens at the Yurt, stays at the Yurt…. We were here to enjoy some excellent food, the unique atmosphere, and each other.
I had a chance to talk to our chef Joe before the meal and found his introduction to cooking an interesting story. About 10 years ago he was working on a fishing boat in Alaska and they were looking for a crewmember to be the cook. He jumped at the opportunity figuring it would be a good way to get out of the incessant rain. He fell in love with cooking and found a lot of satisfaction when people enjoyed his cuisine. At Solitude he has the creative license to make his own menu at the Yurt. Another guest had commented that this was his fourth time at the Yurt and has had something different every time. Joe starts his preparation for the dinner early in the afternoon down at St. Bernard’s restaurant selecting menu items that he will use in his 5-course meal. He mentions that he often takes a couple laps on the ski hill and works up the menu in his head. This meal is going to be interesting!
Joe previewed the cuisine for the night, which started with a tomato soup with mascarpone cream that had the most interesting sun choke chip in the middle that had the consistency of a potato chip but had an incredible taste.
A salad of mix frieze lettuce with baby kale was topped with a perfectly prepared piece of Salmon drizzled with a warm bacon challotte dressing for the second course. Some blue cheese and pomegranates gave the plate an interesting mix of complementing flavors.
It was funny how the realization that you are up on a mountain in a tented yurt fades into what felt like an experience in one of the finest restraunts around. The expression on the guest’s faces really summed up the environment as everyone was really enjoying the meal.
I took the opportunity to talk to some guests from Alabama and got to laugh with them about their travel stories getting to the greatest snow on earth. Ironically the two groups were both from Alabama and had just met this evening. I asked if this was their first visit to Utah and they mentioned it was. One of the ladies mentioned she had done a bunch of research and had to have the experience of dining at the yurt. Her travel story was interesting in the fact that she was staying here at the village and drove her 4-wheel drive rental car in 2-wheel drive all the way up the canyon. She had white knuckled it all the way up and finally ended up sliding off the road just as she got up to Solitude. Some nice young men came to her rescue and informed her that she had been in 2-wheel drive the whole time. Her husband on the other hand had just as bad as an experience with the airport in Salt Lake closing because of the icing. It forced his plane to stop in Colorado Springs. Then to make matters worse they had a mechanical problem and had to spend the night waiting for parts and a mechanic from Denver to fly down and fix it.
It amazes me the trials people go through to experience a great ski vacation when the locals here (like me) can jump in their car and within 40 minutes be immersed in Solitude..
Scallops. Big ones. In saffron sauce none the less with some amazing greens in the middle that I could not recognize was presented as the third course. I have always found that the sauce is such an influential key to the main element in a dish.
For the main course I was preparing myself for a menu item I am totally unfamiliar with. Moroccan pan seared duck. I have only had duck once before and was quite disappointed. I have always wondered why it was offered at fine dining restraunts as a specialty dish. Well, I have found out. Amazing. It reminded me of lamb in the consistency and tenderness of the meat. Joe prepared it by searing the outside of the duck that is covered by a layer of fat and then the meat. He finished it up in the oven resulting in an amazing taste and flavor not to mention the tenderness of the meat. Yep, I’m a fan of duck now.
The mash potatoes were infused with polenta green beans and added a new dimension to a common menu item. He accompanied the dish with a pomegranate reduction sauce that complemented the meat so well. It is a five-course meal after all and I always have room for dessert that can best be described with a picture….
As we wrapped up the night of fine dining I still marveled at the remarkable experience that the Yurt at Solitude provided us that evening. As we exited out into the natural world that encompassed us the past couple of hours I realized how special this experience truly is. The stars shone brightly with orions belt hovering above us as the light of the moon illuminated a cloud just down the canyon. We hiked back down into reality with our palettes satiated with an incredible evening of wonderful food. When prepared right food is simply amazing. I couldn’t help but notice the few people in the village enjoying what seemed a private resort surrounded by a mountain full of incredible skiing. This is Solitude after all. I guess I should expect nothing less.