VAIL, Colo. -- The Game Creek Club, nestled 10,200 feet above sea level in the Rocky Mountains, defines the phrase "destination restaurant."
A private club for skiers and riders by day, Game Creek Club is open to the public for fixed-price gourmet evening dining.
Located in the Game Creek Bowl near the summit of Vail's more than 8,000-acre resort, the restaurant and adjoining eight-bed lodge are worth the trek. During the day, club members can ski to the gourmet lunch buffet.
After dusk, visitors arrive via the Eagle Bahn Gondola based in Lion's Head, Vail. At the top of the gondola diners gather in a heated lounge until a snow cat, a converted groomer, docks near the doorway to finish the journey.
On the December opening night of the 2001-02 season, several inches of fresh powder swirled at the top of the mountain. Upon entering the passenger cabin of the snow cat, we were glad we didn't have to drive through the snow squall down the narrow curvy runs to the restaurant.
The driver assured us that when skies clear; a spectacular view of the entire Vail Valley adds ambiance.
Once inside the Bavarian Alpine Chalet restaurant, patrons can warm by the fire and enjoy cocktails. Servers advise caution when drinking since the high altitude may enhance the effects of liquor. Club members are provided with cozy, fur-lined slippers, a welcome reprieve from clunky ski gear.
Timely experience: Executive Chef David Wiehler describes the cuisine as regional contemporary American fare. Diners should plan at least two and one-half hours to fully enjoy the alpine culinary experience that offers two extensive menu choices -- a seven-course "Grand Tasting Menu" complete with accompanying wine or a gourmet four-course menu.
Since many patrons are repeat customers, Wiehler creates new preparations each month.
When Wiehler assumed the position of Game Creek executive chef in 1997, a year after the restaurant opened, he concentrated on offering Colorado fare.
"As a chef and fellow traveler, I like to create preparations that use indigenous products," he noted. After working in Philadelphia and Manhattan, he has adapted to a more Southwestern cuisine including elk, venison, caribou and antelope.
Although some products are raised in Colorado, Wiehler also purchases from purveyors who find game from South Dakota and Texas.
"Both regulars and vacationers are willing to try new entrees," he observed. My family decided to be adventuresome in our choices from the four-course menu.
An "amuse bouche" of fresh crab and mushrooms awakened our palates. Two of us thoroughly enjoyed the pan-seared blue point crab cake. Served with avocado puree, tequila lime glaze, glass leeks, the culinary combination gave a new twist to an old east coast favorite. My vegetarian husband found the four-mushroom soup garnished with chives quite tasty.
The salad selection of petite mesclun salad with toasted goat cheese included red and yellow pearjoilis, roasted walnuts with a sherry vinaigrette.
Trying the game: Since we were dining at Game Creek, I was persuaded to taste the grilled venison strip loin and was pleasantly surprised by the mild flavor. The venison was served with fresh chestnut ravioli, blood orange noisette and roasted root vegetables.
One daughter selected a yellow tail grouper pot-au-feu, which included manila clams, julienne of vegetables and orange scented basmati. Even the picky preteen enjoyed the more mundane but nicely presented grilled chicken, mashed potatoes and onion rings.
Food preparation and delivery can be "a logistical nightmare" at 10,000 feet, Wiehler acknowledged. The day crew workers may ski in to the restaurant and take snow cat to gondola to reach the base at the end of a shift. Provisions, like patrons, are transported via gondola and snow cat.
Certain recipes such as breads must be adjusted because of altitude. "Dried beans take longer to cook. Water boils at 192 degrees," Wiehler explained.
Dessert description: Dessert options included a Game Creek banana split, crystallized lemon cake, a pumpkin creme brulee and our favorite, a warm chocolate tartlet with homemade caramel ice cream, white chocolate shavings and raspberry coulis. The sweet chocolate and tart raspberry flavors were a perfect combination end to a spectacular meal.
The restaurant can serve up to 175 guests per evening. There are several private dining areas that cater to business travelers or private parties. In fact, manager Peter Woodward liked to name drop some recent diners which included Michael Bloomberg, the new mayor of New York City, Ross Perot and members of the Kennedy clan.
As with most Colorado restaurants, casual or ski attire is perfectly acceptable. The restaurant is busy during the summers with weddings every weekend. Wiehler recommends advance reservations during the busy winter season. The restaurant is closed Sunday and Monday.