Sunday, February 25, 2007

Elevated Alpine Cuisine

My experience at the Cloud Nine Bistro qualifies as a true epicurean quest. At 10,740-feet elevation in the Aspen Highlands Mountain and Ski Resort, you can only access the aptly named restaurant by chairlift or snowcat. If that's not enough, they also require a reservation.

After multiple runs of ripping moguls or cruising wide lanes, you take a mid-mountain chairlift and ski down to a little green wooden shack. A former ski patrol lodge retrofitted for fine dining, it couldn't be more cozy and authentic.

Hungry diners burst through the door out-of-breath rosy-faced and windburned, squinting, sweating beneath bulky layers. Inside, steam rises from the kitchen fogging up the windows. The fireplace crackles and fine meats sizzle. Crystal wine glasses chime.

The decor is charming and decidedly alpine, full of ski signage, plaques, and paraphernalia. French blue checked curtains adorn windows looking out onto partial snowdrifts, icicles, and snow blowing horizontal. Wrought iron Raclette ovens sit in wait atop the tables for large parties. As you begin to feel the warmth and your sense of smell detects the aromas, you realize heaven resides at Cloud Nine.

At this point, there is only one thing on my mind: Fondue.

Oozing molten gold.

Cloud Nine has two traditional European-style fondues on the menu: cheese fondue and Raclette -- Swiss raclette cheese served with cornichons, air-dried beef, and potatoes, all cooked on the table-top ovens.

The best thing about fondue is the transformation it undergoes while you're eating it, from bubbling liquefied cheese, to a rich thickening gluey goo, and, finally, to the crusty carmelized bits on the bottom.

The second best thing is the wine paring for digestion's sake. We opt for a 2004 Gruner Veltliner (Wachau Gruner Veltliner Federspiel), which is lovely.

Other options on the menu are equally mouth-watering. Cloud Nine offers high quality organic ingredients from local producers, as well as world renown purveyors. Our second course is the daily special: Gruyere stuffed pheasant sausages wrapped in pancetta with savoy cabbage and yukon gold mashed potatoes. In a word, it's "to die for."

Meanwhile at the eight-top table next to us, a crowd of Patagonian ski instructors fire up their Raclette ovens. The process goes like this: First melt a hulking knob of butter on the top grill, then add 25-30 whole cloves of garlic. Let that go a bit, then add large potato wedges to cook in the buttery, garlicky goodness. Next comes the air-dried beef and raclette cheese. There are triangular-shaped iron skillets that fit into the middle section of the oven. Place a piece of beef in the skillet, top it with a slice of raclette and insert it into the oven until the cheese melts. Eat the beef and cheese with the potatoes and cornichons.

The Austrian chef and owner, Andreas, is happy to share stories with us. He insists on a complimentary sip of dark walnut liqueur before heading back out on the mountain. "It gives you a little spring on the slopes," he tells me. And we're all about good food and good form.