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'Off-Season' Dining in Vail, Colorado

'Off-Season' Dining in Vail, Colorado

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'Off-season' in Vail can be a real culinary adventure

Dessert at Game Creek in Vail.

Vail, Colo. — known for its snowy slopes and great skiing conditions — is also a great year-round destination for any food lover. I spent a long weekend enjoying Vail during the "off-season," which meant morning climbs to 10,000 feet for breathtaking views of the valley and neighboring mountaintops and afternoons spent relaxing with a novel fireside or indulging in spa treatments. And then, of course, there was the food.

Click here to see the 'Off-Season' Dining in Vail, Colorado (Slideshow)

During the day I strolled around the city finding food-centered happenings anywhere from Oktoberfest brat-tastings to local farmers' markets. In early October, you can still get some of the late-summer treats Colorado is famed for: sweet fresh corn and peaches, as well as fruits and vegetables from the fall harvest. Evenings were topped off with cocktails and dinner, without a moment’s wait, at the town’s most coveted tables, every single night. From elk corn dogs at Back of House Burgers — a single hidden able located right in the middle of Flame steakhouse’s kitchen — to fresh sashimi at Nobu’s Vail outpost Matsuhisa, the culinary scene in Vail has something for everybody.

With none of the crowds of tourists you'll find during the winter, your autumn visit will really have you wondering why Vail’s best gem hasn't already been mined by the masses. For a better view of what culinary treats Vail can offer an off-season visitor, check out the slideshow of Vail’s best autumn eats.

'Off-Season' Dining in Vail, Colorado - Recipes

Six recipes from chef Kelly Liken of Restaurant Kelly Liken in Vail, CO.

Chef/owner of Kelly Liken, American focused restaurant in Vail, Colorado.

Kelly serves seasonal American cuisine, sourcing most of the produce and many of the meats locally .


Brandied Beurre Blanc Sauce

Recipe courtesy of chef Kelly Liken

- 1 lb. cold unsalted butter, cut into cubes

1) Put everything, except butter and lemon juice, in a sauce pan and bring to a simmer, reduce until syrupy.

2) Whisk in the butter, 1 piece at a time, off the heat, until all the butter is melted and incorporated.

3) Stir in lemon juice and season to taste with salt and pepper.

4) Keep in a warm place, off direct heat.

5) The sauce will hold in a warm place for about an hour.

Kelly’s Signature Potato Crusted Trout Filets with Caramelized Brussels Sprouts, Plump Golden Raisins, and Toasted Pecans

Recipe courtesy of chef Kelly Liken

Photograph courtesy of Kelly Liken

- 8 rainbow trout filets, skinned

- 10 fingerling potatoes, sliced paper thin into disks

- 1/2 lb brussels sprouts, cored and leaves separated

- 1/4 cup toasted pecan pieces

- 1/4 cup golden raisins, soaked in Chardonnay for 1 hour

1) Dust the skin side of filets in flour and then dredge through egg wash. Lay filets, egg side up, on a sheet pan. Place potato slices on filets to resemble scales on a fish.

2) Cook the brussels sprout leaves, slowly in a saut é pan in a little butter or olive oil until they are golden brown and wilted and season with salt and pepper. Add the pecans and plump raisins to the hot pan and toss together. Keep warm while you saute the fish.

3) Cover the bottom of a large sauté pan with olive oil. Heat to just smoking, season fish with salt and pepper. Place fish carefully, potato side down, in the pan and cook until potatoes are golden brown and crispy, about 3 minutes. Flip over and remove pan from heat while you place brussels sprouts on the plates.

4) Top the vegetables with the cooked filets and dress the plate with the buerre blanc sauce (see next recipe.)

Chipotle n’ Cinnamon Braised Pork ‘Osso Bucco’

Recipe courtesy of chef Kelly Liken

Our Chipotle and Cinnamon Braised Pork Osso Bucco is such a special dish, often a favorite ordered for special occasions or over the holidays. This recipe is a variation using pork and a non-traditional blend of spices. The aromas fill the kitchen and dining room and completely remind me of the quintessential fall/winter dish. This dish is defiantly a labor of love.

- 6 tablespoons cinnamon, ground

- 6 tablespoons garlic powder

- 6 tablespoons cumin, ground

- 1/2 tablespoons chipotle, dry-ground

- 1/2 cup black pepper, ground

- 1/2 cup bacon fat (or reserved pork fat)

- 6 carrots, peeled and large cut

- 1 bunch of celery, large cut

- 6 yellow onions, large dice

- 1 bouquet of thyme, sage, parsley stems

- 1/2 cups of Worcestershire

- 1/2 cup of garlic, crushed cloves

- 1 chipotle, canned (juices too)

1) Thoroughly rub shanks and let sit with rub at room temp for 1 hour.

2) Evenly space out on a sheet pan and brown in 425 F oven for 20-25 minutes deglaze sheet pan and reserve juices for braise.

1) Get a large rondo hot and begin to sweat/brown vegetables.

2) Once the onions and carrots begin to color slightly, deglaze the pan with the red wine.

3) Let the wine reduce for a minute or so and add the remaining ingredients. Continue to cook for another few minutes (aromatics will begin to release smell) and add 10-12 quarts of stock (veal is preferred, but chicken will also work) and bring to a boil.

4) Once the braising liquid is boiling, taste and season with salt and pepper, and add in the shanks and the reserved deglazed pan liquid.

5) Cover the rondo tightly with foil and place over a low burner on the stovetop or place in a still 325 degree F oven for 3-4 hours.

6) If doing on the stovetop, be sure to check that the burner isn’t set so high that the braise boils rapidly.

7) Once the cooking time is through, remove the shanks promptly and store in the strained and reserved cooking liquid.

Cocoa Crusted Wagyu New York Strip Steak with Roasted Wild Mushrooms and Dark Chocolate Infused Port Reduction

Recipe courtesy of chef Kelly Liken

Sometimes when pairing wine, the food comes first. However, more often than not, it works the other way around. The Cocoa Crusted Wagyu New York Strip Steak was inspired by those warm chocolaty, spice notes we see in many of our favorite wines. Red meat and red wine is a classic pairing, but this cocoa crusting solidifies the marriage.

- 2 Wagyu or All Natural New York Strip Steaks

- 2 tablespoons cocoa powder

- 2 tablespoons kosher salt

- 1 tablespoons sweet paprika

- 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

- 1 tablespoon chopped parsley

- 1 tablespoon chopped tarragon

- 1 tablespoon chopped chives

- 1/2 lb beef trimmings (ask your butcher for some end cuts or trimmings)

- 1 quart roasted veal or roasted beef stock

1) In a heavy bottomed stock pot, heat the olive oil for the sauce.

2) Brown the beef scraps well, add the shallots and garlic and continue browning until well caramelized.

3) Deglaze with the 1 cup of port and reduce until syrupy.

4) Add the stock, thyme and bay leaf. Simmer until reduced by half, skimming any fat off periodically.

5) Strain through a fine mesh sieve and return to a sauce pan over low heat.

6) Whisk in the dark chocolate until fully incorporated, season to taste with salt and pepper and reserve in a warm place until ready to serve.

7) Whisk together spices and cocoa for the steak in a small bowl.

8) Rub the steaks with the olive oil and liberally season them with the spice/cocoa mixture.

9) Grill on high heat until preferred level of doneness is achieved (4 to 5 minutes per side for medium).

10) Allow to rest for at least 5 minutes in a warm place before serving.

11) In a large saute pan, heat the olive oil for the mushrooms over medium high heat.

12) Add the mushrooms and cook through, about 5 minutes.

13) Deglaze the pan with the white wine and reduce all the way.

14) Finish the mushrooms with the chopped herbs and the butter. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

1) Place a mound of wild mushrooms in the center of the plate.

2) Slice the steaks and arrange a few slices on top of the mushrooms.

3) Drizzle the chocolate/port sauce around the plate.

Kelly Liken’s recommendations on where to eat and drink in Vail, Pittsburgh, and New York.


Photograph courtesy of Kelly Liken

Recipe courtesy of chef Kelly Liken

- 2 cups white button mushrooms, sliced

- 1/4 cup shallot, fine diced

- 2 teaspoons garlic, minced

- 1 cup chicken stock (or mushroom/vegetable)

- 1 tablespoon sliced black truffle

- 2 oz unsalted butter, cubed

- 2 oz parsley washed, stemmed, chopped

1) In a 4 quart sauce pan, heat oil and begin to saute the mushrooms.

2) Once they begin to release their juice and brown slightly add the shallots and garlic.

3) Cook for a minute or two longer and add in the stock and milk, salt and pepper, and the aromatics.

4) Let the mixture simmer for 5 to 10 minutes (or until the thyme and bay leaf begin to release an odor).

5) Remove herb stems and bay leaves and blend 3/4 of the hot mixture in a blender (leave some of the whole mushroom slices unblended), recombine the mixture and place on medium heat on the stovetop.

6) With a whisk, slowly add the cornmeal to the hot mushroom mix and cook until the mixture pulls away from the pot and becomes quite thick.

7) Pour mix out into a large bowl and mix in the cubed butter (until incorporated). Set aside and allow mix to cool slightly before adding the egg yolks and herbs.

8) Whisk the reserved egg whites to medium peaks and fold into the batter in two stages.

9) Spray the aluminum (or ceramic) baking dish and dust the inside with semolina flour. 400 degree F oven (fan on) for 13 to 15 minutes.

10) Spoonbreads will rise out of baking cup and be golden brown on top a paring knife may be slid around edge to help with removal from baking dish.

Vail Valley Restaurants

Unlike the nearby Summit County ski resorts, which pride themselves on standard "mining fare" like surf and turf, Vail has a distinctly European dining style. This is the town in which to sample creamed pheasant soup or bite into a good cut of venison. For the most romantic options, look into a slope-side restaurant like Beano's, where the fixed-course menus and unique transportation (horses in summer and sleighs in winter) make the experience more than just a meal. The farther down-valley you move, the more the prices drop.

Recommended Fodor&rsquos Video

'Off-Season' Dining in Vail, Colorado - Recipes

I was able to eat a breakfast and a lunch on different days at the Little Diner in the off-season in Vail, CO. I was thankful they had some open hours while most of the town was closed for the short off season.

The diner is extremely clean and organized. The wait staff are always smiling and friendly and very accommodating.

The chefs/cooks were a well-oiled machine and prepared food in plain sight. The kitchen was again, extremely clean and organized and they put out great food with very prompt service. The food was not only great, but plentiful.

I love this little diner and gave them the 5 score they deserve but I do have one major complaint. Caesar. Not sure what position he held but he seated me and was expediting food. When I entered, he told me I could sit anywhere along the counter. I took an end seat but it was chilly with a clean up area close by with an outside door. I moved one seat in. I was finishing my lunch when he asked me if he could close out my ticket and if I could move over so he could seat a trio just entering. ? I’ve never felt more pushed out of any place, ever. He wasn’t even thoughtful about it, just move and hurry. The waitress was more than apologetic and told me I could stay put. She was very sweet and upset I had been treated in that way. The cooks looked on in disbelief. I thanked them and the waitress, promptly finished what I could and packed up my things to leave. Ruined my day.

I don’t want The Little Diner to suffer a bad review for Caesar. I clearly could’ve done so but this diner is a gem and the rest of the staff should be praised for a job well done. You can tell there is great pride in their service and I appreciate it very much. I hope Caesar learns from this and is not so rude to a paying customer ever again.

'Off-Season' Dining in Vail, Colorado - Recipes

OPEN Monday - Saturday
5:00 pm to 9:00 pm
Closed on Sundays

Dear Friends of La Nonna Ristorante,

On behalf of the entire team, we would like to thank each and every one of you, our extended La Nonna family, for a very successful winter season! We want you to know how much we appreciate your love and support. You are a huge part of our success.

To all of our regulars that have supported us during these unprecedented times, we truly could not do this without you.

As we will be closed during the shoulder season, spending time with friends and family, we wish you all a happy and healthy spring. We look forward to seeing you all on June 4th when we reopen for the summer season.

Again, many thanks for a truly remarkable season. Your support since the very first day has meant everything to us.

See you in June!

With gratitude,
Mira, Simone, Luc, Liz and the entire team of La Nonna


The Zino Experience


At family owned and operated Zino Ristorante in Edwards, the food is Italian inspired, but the dynamism and warmth are pure Italian. Given our Mediterranean influences, the menu is never boring and always delicious. Biannual menu changes pay homage to the seasons freshest ingredients. Mainstays include the always-popular house made burrata, but executive chef Nick Haley’s creative streak of his grandmother and mom inspired dishes come alive as seasonal menus take shape.

Whether for drinks in the vibrant upstairs bar or vinous libations to pair with Haley’s menu, their well-curated wine list has something for all palates and budgets. Most of the wines are Italian – primarily Tuscan and Piemontese – but guests can also find excellent choices from American wineries.

The infectious energy in the front of the house and the inventive cuisine of well-traveled, Piemontese-trained Chef Haley combine to make Zino a locals favorite that Vail Valley guests can enjoy year-round.

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This isn’t exactly an edible as much as it is a "drinkable." If you’re looking to experience drinking your high, try a glass of non-carbonated CannaPunch.

This is a favorite option for healthy travelers who want a refreshing drink instead of a snack or dessert. These punches are vegan and organic and come in refreshing flavors like watermelon. They're all-natural, gluten-free, soy-free and corn syrup free, too.
Bonus: CannaPunch also offers a Dutch Girl line, infused caramel waffles that are inspired by Dutch Stroopwafels. Try one with a cup of tea or coffee.

Cissy’s Club Igloo

It was the winter of 1976 Willie McDonald, son of Cissy and stepson of Vail Mayor John Dobson, returned home for a weekend college break to find a “huge mess of ice and snow in the front yard” of his house alongside the Vail Golf Course.

When Willie, somewhat confused yet intrigued, walked inside, the mayor blurted out. “Thank God you’re here. I need help.”

And thus began the first of what has now been an annual construction ritual, of almost four decades, known simply as “Club Igloo.”

In the summer of 1965, John and Cissy Dobson left the ski hills of Vermont for the Rocky Mountains of Colorado with the intent of opening a retail shop in a new, fledgling ski area called Vail.

They opened a ski shop next to a recently completed bridge over Gore Creek. And as a way of bringing a touch of New England charm to the mountains, they decided to call their store The Covered Bridge. Only problem was, the bridge had no cover. And the brand new town had no money to construct one.

In a moment of brilliant clarity, John and Cissy offered to pay for the cover, thus cementing their place in Vail history early on. In fact, a plaque is still there today thanking the Dobsons for their well-timed generosity.

The store was an immediate success, and propelled the Dobson name to a prominent place in Vail lore for evermore.

That same year, 1976, Cissy purchased an “Igular” from a Neiman Marcus catalogue, convinced the home igloo concept would catch on in the retail business.

No such luck. So the Dobsons had brought it home that fateful day of Willie’s return, and after eight wet solid hours of cussing and tossing pails of soggy snow in each other’s direction (sometimes on purpose), they constructed the first Vail igloo. Willie fondly recalls his favorite memory from that evening being a particularly well-aimed shovel full of slush smack into his father’s face, immediately extinguishing his always-present cigarette.

Cissy placed round furry rugs and pillows on the inside of the structure, along with hanging whatever igloo jokes she could find on the walls. Lighting was provided by old sets of Christmas tree bulbs that put out so much heat, it was decided that whoever received the most drips from the ceiling would be dubbed the “Hottest” of the day. (Don’t forget, this was the 70s.) Cissy even put an old black and white TV inside, but the ancient electronics would not survive the spring melt.

Arriving home one night during a huge snowstorm Willie noticed some extra cars parked outside. As he headed towards the front door, he could hear a number of voices emanating from inside the igloo. Upon poking his head in, imagine his surprise to find the Vail Town Council, laughing, joking, imbibing a few hot toddies and discussing the current and future needs for their now successfulbeyond- anyone’s-wildest-dreams ski town.

By this time the Dobson igloo had become quite the meeting place for the cocktail hour, but they never entertained the thought of it becoming a commercial enterprise, as it was much more of a “private, fun thing” for family and close friends to enjoy.

Although John sadly passed away in 1983, thanks to Cissy the igloo tradition continued, and thinking it appropriate to reward those who helped during construction, one year she surprised a crew of friends and family with special tee shirts. They were adorned with the now extra special logo known simply as “Club Igloo.”

Enter Bill Rey, now of Claggett-Rey Gallery fame. In 1983 the 18-year old Vail newbie was working for the Squash Blossom, a jewelry store in Vail Village.

Bill became fast friends with Willie, who was the “most impressive teleskier I had ever seen,” he says, and this is how he came to know Cissy Dobson, “a tell-it-like-is, whiskeydrinkin’, cigarette-smokin’, total Bronco fan…neat gal.”

It was 1984 when Bill was introduced to Club Igloo, and he has the tee shirt to prove it. And with each passing year, Bill felt more and more privileged to be part of the “inner sanctum.”

The annual raising of the igloo usually occurred sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, depending upon snowfall. But just a few days before the turkey feast of 1993 Cissy was diagnosed with lung cancer and the ritual was, of course, postponed. She passed away on New Year’s Day 1994 – and Club Igloo was relegated to become yet another memory in Vail’s big ol’ book of history.

In the summer of 1999, as the millennium was creeping to a close, Bill was having a “let’s catch up” conversation with Willie, when the question of “whatever happened to the igloo?” came up.

“Oh, I’ve got it in its original box,” said Willie, “I’ll give it to you if you want it.”

And thus Bill Rey, Club Igloo member in good standing, along with his wife, Maggie DeDecker, became the new, and only second, owners of the prized, but little publicized, Vail tradition.

As it happens, the Rey’s home is a bit out of town – where it can be a few degrees warmer – and, because a 20-inch base is needed to begin “igloo construction,” they had to wait until early January of 2000 to begin. And an eager crowd of fifteen friends and family was there to help out.

Of course, Willie was there too.

Finally, at 9 a.m., with a pleasant temperature of -1, the crowd began its work. And it was nine long hours of hard work. (Yet, with the help of Baileys and beer, it seemed a lot shorter.)

How does one build an igloo, you ask? To begin, in order for igloo construction to “take,” extremely cold temperatures and very, very wet snow are needed. If too wet, the snow refuses to pack and eventually a cave in, of sorts, takes place. If not wet enough, the snow also refuses to pack, like trying to build a sand castle at a beach with no ocean.

The snow must also be perfectly clean, with no grass, dirt, or anything of color, as the evil impurities can absorb heat and lead to unwanted melting. (Actually, there’s no such thing as “wanted” melting)

And, how does one have super wet snow in super cold temperatures?

By constantly having buckets of warm water nearby during the building phase, and a good hose. “It’s the sloppiest, wettest mess in the world,” according to Bill, and at Cissy’s old house in Vail this caused many to politely decline assisting. (Akin to asking friends to help you move from East to West Vail). Keep in mind, that was in the days before Gore-Tex, and workers got thoroughly soaked most of the time.

The actual igloo maker is a piece of work! It’s a metal center-pivot with a round bracket, about two feet in diameter, pinned into the ground. Welded to it is a crude universal joint attached to a six-and-a-half foot rod. On the end of the rod is a large silver disc, somewhat like a saucer kids use for sledding.

The principle is simple: pack extremely wet snow up against the disc, slowly going around in a circle, each level becoming a tad thinner as it goes up. This makes a thirteen foot diameter, six-and-a-half foot tall igloo on the inside much larger on the outside.

By the time it’s finished the bottom is about a foot-and-ahalf thick, with the tippy top being only about four inches and solid ice all the way around.

A snow blower is used for everyday maintenance, unless it happens to snow incredibly hard each day. As the snow lands on top, gravity does its thing, gently falling over the entire igloo in a uniform manner, keeping the walls thick and the ice packed.

Each year, Bill and Maggie creatively decorate their humble igloo. Shelves are built inside and can be used for a well-cooled bar or, perhaps, Eskimo sculptures, candles and other knick-knacks. And each year a shrine to Cissy is built that includes her photo and the official Club Igloo logo. The old style Christmas lights have been replaced with the much cooler LED, and three-dozen hand-blown glass ornaments from Pismo Gallery hang from the ceiling at different heights creating a multi-colored chandelier. A small Petzl headlamp, hidden in a glass vase provides a soft glow for the entire area. Another line of LEDs, hidden along the bottom edges, provides an upward glow.

Most of the decorating is done before the floor is installed to keep the space as snow free as possible. The floor is two inches of blue construction foam topped with three layers of tarp and a buffalo robe to finish it off. Socks only, as no shoes are allowed, but the air warms up into the mid-50s.

The day the igloo is built is like an old style family barn raising, and ends with a big festive dinner, everyone whipped beyond belief. “It’s simply magical,” muses Bill. And what happens when the snow stops falling and ice begins to melt?

Sometime after April 1st, usually the first week or so, the family spends a final evening in Club Igloo, eating dinner and reminiscing about the winter, and then methodically begin removing everything from the inside, beginning with the ceiling lights and ending with the floor.

From that point the igloo just slowly melts away. A small hole appears near the very top depending upon direct sunlight and then simply gets a little bigger each day. The thick walls at the base are even thicker by the end of the season, and can last at least another month or so before giving grass a chance to do its thing.

Tibetan Monks, gallery guests, members of the CA (Cowboy Artist of America) and people of all walks of life, including a sheriff (for fun, not on business) have communed inside the walls of the igloo.

“It’s an Interfaith Igloo, if you know what I mean. What happens in Club Igloo, stays in Club Igloo,” quips Bill.

The igloo was even auctioned off at Vail’s famous Black Diamond Ball, where four lucky people bid $3,000 to have dinner within its walls. The four enjoyed the place for five hours, dining on little igloo-shaped foie gras, among other delectables, accompanied by champagne.

Bill hopes that by seeing the place it will spawn others to build their own igloo to understand just how enchanting it can be.

“It’s magical to be inside the igloo when it’s snowing heavily outside. It constantly reminds me of how lucky we are to live in the Vail Valley, and in a really cool way Club Igloo is carrying on the old guard of Vail. We have this treasure, and sure, it’s a personal, private thing, but to see it, all anyone has to do is ask. Cissy, in a sense, had a passion for Vail that radiates through the Rey family, along with anyone who ever steps inside,” Bill says.

Yes, The Covered Bridge Store is long gone, but the Covered Bridge is still around, and thanks to the Rey family, so is Club Igloo. And, Willie couldn’t be happier.

Blue Mountains, Ontario

About two hours from Toronto, you’ll find the Blue Mountains between Georgian Bay and the Niagara Escarpment. With an off-season that runs from mid-April to late November, you have ample time to enjoy the family-friendly town.

On the Mountain:Ride the scenic gondola to the top of Blue Mountain where you’ll find ropes courses, a bag jump, alpine coaster, zip line, hiking trails, mountain biking trails, and Segway tours.

Other Activities:There are plenty of bodies of water perfect for paddling, sea kayaking, as well as caving and climbing. You can also golf or opt to relax at the Scandinavian baths and spa or iwa Spa. About 10 minutes away you’ll even find a beach, located on Georgian Bay. And take note of the Apple Pie Trail, as the Blue Mountains are in Ontario’s largest apple growing region. There are two wineries nearby—Georgian Hills and Coffin Ridge.

Local Happenings:Blue Mountain Village has plenty of shopping and dining. In nearby Collingwood, check out the brewery and Cooking Academy. Off-season annual events include Centurion Cycling Canada, Peak to Shore Music Festival, Canada Day Celebrations, and The North Face Endurance Challenge.

Where to Stay:Westin Trillium House, Blue Mountain. The resort is located next to the Plunge! Aquatic Centre with indoor and outdoor pools, slides, swings, and hot tubs. The resort is part of Westin’s Well-Being Program complete with a run concierge and New Balance gear—and it’s pet-friendly for your pup. Check out the seasonal offers.


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