Monday, September 27, 2010

Likin' Liken

I’m a Top Chef junkie. I love the Bravo show so much I used to look forward to when it would air on Wednesday nights. Seeing the beautiful culinary creations would excite me and inspire my food creativity throughout the coming week. Season 7 concluded a couple weeks ago and I’m just now getting over my withdrawal.

For those of you who don’t watch the delectable reality show, seventeen chefs begin a food battle in which they compete head to head in two challenges per week, one of which results in an elimination. The final four contestants; Angelo, Ed, Kelly and Kevin, all decidedly talented, were deserving of their places at the top. However, I’ve been rooting for Kelly from the very beginning.

Aside from being beautiful, modest, and talented beyond her years, Kelly Liken is one of Colorado’s most artistic young chefs. At age 27 she opened her own namesake restaurant, Kelly Liken. The sophisticated eatery focuses on seasonal American cuisine. She maintains relationships with local ranchers, farmers, and artisanal food producers and frequently changes her menu as various products come in and out of season.

My best friend, a certifiable foodie, food blogger (check out and fellow Top Chef junkie, and I have decided to leave the husbands and kids at home to get away for a weekend together, just us girls. Part of our objective is to make a pilgrimage to Restaurant Kelly Liken in Vail, Colorado. Other than stalking our favorite reality show contestant, we plan to pamper ourselves and take a much needed break from actual reality.

It is early Saturday morning and we set off on our hour and a half journey from Denver to the chic mountain town. We talk, we laugh, and we reconnect, not that that we were ever disconnected. Our busy lives just make these trips and our time together even more precious.

When we arrive in Vail we stumble upon Gourmet on the Gore, a two-day food festival in the heart of Vail Village that offers tastings of food from local restaurants paired with wine, beer, and spirits. We stroll the festival while basking in the glorious sunshine amidst wafting smells of elk tenderloin, flank steak sliders, and shaved pork sandwiches.

We resist the tempting food served at stalls on each side of the street in the heart of the picturesque Vail Village. Set against a back drop of evergreen trees, changing aspen leaves, and blue skies this afternoon couldn't be more perfect. We decide to stop at Sweet Basil, one of my friend’s longtime favorites and voted Colorado’s most popular restaurant by the Zagat survey. We order a few things to share; Garden Tomato Gazpacho with toasted coriander and cucumber mint sorbet; Citrus Glazed Crispy Duck Wings with toasted sesame, black garlic and jalapeno; House Cut Fries with truffle and parmesan; and Foie Gras Corn Dogs. We’re stuffed and somehow manage to resist dessert.

After lunch we make our way to our hotel, the Vail Cascade Resort and Spa. The resort is located just minutes drive from the heart of Vail Village. The four-star hotel is located in breath-taking mountain surroundings and gives the inviting warmth of a cozy all-season retreat. Roaring fireplaces and lodge-type ambiance invites us to unwind and relax.

Relaxation is just what we are looking for as we head over the Vail Cascade’s spa, Aria. We enter the unpretentious sanctuary and slip into our comfy spa robes. We sit down on plush arm chairs and enjoy citrus infused water while we zone out to trashy gossip magazines. We are taken back to our treatment rooms, one after the other, where we receive an hour of blissful and healing massage. My massage goes by so serenely fast it seems as though only ten minutes have passed.

We make our way through a corridor from the spa back to our hotel room. With the lines of the massage table pressed into my forehead and oil from the masseuse’s hands in my hair I begin to dress for dinner. I don’t care that because of my slicked hair I look like a fifties greaser; I’m so relaxed I don’t dare worry or stress.

We rush out of the resort to Restaurant Kelly Liken, excited for our decadent meal. We arrive and Mike, a charming young lad valets the car. We enter the small restaurant and I half-joking say, ‘um, ok, so where is she?’ referring to Kelly Liken, our Top Chef crush. We are escorted to the bar for drinks while we wait for our table to become available. My friend has a blackberry cocktail of house made blackberry syrup, fresh thyme, Small's Oregon Gin, Cointreau, served over ice with a splash of ginger ale. I go for the blackberry mocktail of muddled blackberries, Sprite, served over ice with a splash of pomegranate juice.

As we’re enjoying our blackberry elixirs we see Kelly Liken herself glide by with a mixed air of celebrity and modesty. We make eye contact with the beautiful young chef and she approaches us. We introduce ourselves and mention that we’re huge fans. Mrs. Liken is humble, friendly and chats us up for a few minutes. We ask her to pose for a photograph with us and she graciously agrees. Score!

Like giddy tweens at a Justin Beeber concert we feel like we’ve hit the lottery and that’s before the meal even begins! We sit down at a table situated between two other tables covered with mouthwatering food that we instantly covet. We order our own selection of mouthwatering food to share; English Pea Angolotti with Olathe sweet corn, roasted local mushrooms, a prosciutto chip, and corn cream; Pan Seared Veal Sweetbreads with a Vidalia onion soubise, pickled Vidalias, sauted fennel and fennel fronds; a Cucumber Juice Shooter with citrus salt and a parsley salad; Braised Veal Cheeks with summer pea sauté, tender great Northern beans, pea tendrils, veal jus and pea puree; and a Wild Rice Hoe Cake with blackberry conserve and sautéed arugula. For dessert we can’t decide on just one so we share the Chocolate-Blackberry Tower with layers of hazelnut dacquoise, creamy chocolate pastry cream, blackberry curd, blackberry thyme coulis, with chocolate sorbet and the House made Honey’d S’mores with rich chocolate cake, toasted house made marshmallows, honey caramel, smoked hazelnuts, and a graham cracker crumble.

English Pea Angolotti

Cucumber Juice Shooter

Braised Veal Cheeks

House Made Honeyed S'mores

The meal is so outrageously delicious I don’t want it to end. It is like a roller coaster ride of different flavors and textures, each course like a swoop, loop, and a glide along the roller coaster tracks of culinary genius.

While the food is gorgeous, a highlight of the meal is Kelly Liken’s signature Tomato Consommé Martini. The martini is crystal clear but packs the strongest, boldest, red, tomato flavor imaginable. Heirlooms are in season and are beautifully highlighted in this not-to- be-missed drink. Check out this link for an easy recipe:

Our girls’ weekend of simple pleasures culminated in one amazing meal at Restaurant Kelly Liken. Though I’m not crazy about the uninventive restaurant name or the fact that Kelly Liken didn’t win Top Chef, the experience was one I won’t forget. Not only did we get to meet Kelly herself, the evening was time spent in an inviting setting with my best friend, enjoying each other’s company over beautiful food. Inspired by Top chef’s host Padma Lakshmi’s eliminating weekly phrase, ‘please pack your knives and go’, I recommend any food lover and Top Chef fan to ‘please pack your bags and go’ to restaurant Kelly Liken in Vail, Colorado for an unforgettable meal of seasonal American cuisine…and for all you paparazzi, a possible reality show star sighting.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Eat, Eat, Eat, Eat!

Much to my amusement, my toddler has learned the words ‘eat’ and ‘airplane’ this week. Instead of crying when he is hungry my adorable young son says ‘eat, eat, eat, eat’ like a broken record until he gets his food. He also points enthusiastically at the sky each time an airplane passes overhead and says ‘airplane’, though it sounds a lot like a drunken foreigner with a strong accent pronouncing it a lot like the word ‘open’.

With baby on the brain I thought it only appropriate to tie the two concepts together- airplane food. Let’s agree, one of the worst things about flying is the food. You’ve just been pushed, shoved, and herded around like cattle to finally get into a pressurized metal tube that will blast through the skies at 35 thousand feet for hours on end. After all that, you’re getting served what often smells like SpaghettiO’s and looks like vomit. For better or worse, airplane food represents an airline, reflects a country’s culinary traditions and preferences, and also offers an in-flight activity…eating.

Airline meals vary widely across airline companies and classes of travel. I’ve never flown first-class. I admit I prefer to save the extra money for additional trips rather than paying for the superficial comforts of a champagne welcome, fully reclining seats, personal armchair DVD players with countless film choices, fluffy slippers, superior service, and the seven-course ‘gourmet’ (how gourmet can pre-cooked, microwaved food really be?) meal that is served to the ‘other half’. I say superficial comforts because while the above luxuries make travel more comfortable, you’re still stuck on an airplane for 11 hours and to add insult to injury you just paid $3000 to do everything I can do when I arrive at my destination for a mere fraction of the price.

Focusing on only long-haul flights (when actual meals are served...I'm not talking peanuts and pretzels here) and coach service and food quality to keep my assessment equitable, there are a few airlines that have gotten it right. In my experience, Air France, Virgin Atlantic, and All Nippon Airways know that food is a representation of their company as a whole and will strongly influence customers’ overall experience with the airline. The above three airlines have food that is indeed not only edible but nutritious and believe it or not, appetizing.

Is it any surprise that France’s national airline would serve delicious airline food? Food is paramount in France and the national airline reflects the significance of eating and drinking well. Air France manages to capture a tiny bit of the French culinary tradition. While Air France is not a Michelin starred restaurant by any stretch of the imagination, it is consistent with the French tradition of satisfying meals that consist of rich and flavorful ingredients. Paired with complimentary wine, Air France serves vegetable gratin, Normandy cheeses, Provencale-style sauté of beef with olives and tri-color pasta, filet of red mullet and green lentil salad and many other appealing choices. Moreover they serve Haagen-Dazs ice cream for dessert…yeah!

Virgin America has been consistently rated number 1 for airline meals in America. Their worldwide partner Virgin Atlantic parallels their top quality airline meals. How about a bagel with raspberry cream cheese, a tapas plate or a turkey Caprese sandwich? Relax with a champagne cocktail or a Hornitos margarita. Um, yes please! Virgin Atlantic, a British airline, does a great job of representing the diversity of the commonwealth and the tastes and preferences of the many British and non-British passengers that fly this superior airline. Virgin Atlantic offers meals such as chicken with baby leeks in a cream sauce, pepperpot beef, pasta with mornay sauce, and Paneer Lababdar with stir fried potato cauliflower and fenugreek. Not only that, but you can order all of your meals from a touch screen at your seat.

Not only do the incredibly classy All Nippon flight attendants change into different, sleek uniforms for each segment of the flight, they don colorful, full-length aprons to serve meals such as Bento boxes, Miso soup with pork and vegetables, Teishoku meals (a meal set that includes rice, miso soup, a main dish, a side dish, and pickled vegetables), and noodles to passengers. While Western meals are available, the Japanese do Japanese food best and for an American from a land-locked state, I must say the All Nippon airline food compared well with many Japanese restaurants stateside.

Airline food is no doubt a manifestation of an airlines commitment to service as well as an expression of a country’s national culinary preferences. On All Nippon from Tokyo to Honolulu we were served a tasty Donburi bowl (a rice dish with simmered fish, meat and vegetables) with chopsticks. The smell of warm Mirin and soy sauce wafted through the crowded cabin. All of the Japanese passengers ate the healthy fare happily and wielded their chopsticks with ease. We made our connecting flight with a good number of the same passengers and flew United Airlines from Honolulu to Los Angeles. We were served dried-out chicken in red sauce reminiscent of jarred Prego, a ‘fake’ roll and a wilted salad with packaged Ranch dressing. The meal was disgusting but I must admit it was somewhat hilarious to watch Japanese passengers try to eat with forks. They looked like toddlers learning how to use utensils (probably what they thought when they saw me acting all cool with my chopsticks).

Airline food represents an airline and national culinary traditions and preferences but it also offers an in-flight activity…eating. You’re on an 11 hour flight; you take your seat, settle in, read your trashy gossip magazine cover to cover, you sleep for what seems like hours, you go to the lavatory, you watch a bit of the in-flight movie, and then finally the meal cart begins its way down the aisle. You look at your watch and much to your chagrin you still have 9 hours left. You’ve eaten all of the snacks you brought on-board and you have exhausted all of the activities you've prepared for yourself. Now what? Eat the disgusting food in the gross foil tin because it will kill at least twenty minutes…and then you’ll only have 8 hours and 40 minutes left.

Eating is an activity even if it’s not healthy or satisfying. When I fly I eat out of boredom. Whatever the meal is I get very excited when presented with the question, beef, chicken, or pasta. While I know full-well that any choice I make will result in a revolting, likely radioactive, microwaved meal full of pesky preservatives, it is still exciting to be given a distraction from zoning out into the seat back in front of me, hypnotized from complete and utter boredom.

While most airlines have maintained a terribly low standard of food quality some carriers like Air France, All Nippon, and Virgin Atlantic have gotten it right. They show their commitment to service through their food. They represent their companies and their nations well while giving their passengers a tasty distraction from long and uncomfortable flights. When it comes to these 3 airlines, as my toddler would emphatically say, ‘eat,eat,eat,eat!’