LUDLOW, Vt. — As we stood by the fire at the base of Okemo Mountain, a spotlight emerged from above. Like a ship plowing through a foggy evening our snow limo heaved out of the darkness. Somewhere up on the mountain, a five-course tasting dinner awaited.
Climbing aboard the cushy snowcat, 16 of us departed for Epic. The mountain’s daytime restaurant transforms into an intimate dining room on Saturday nights. The nocturnal ride up trails and through tunnels on a tricked-out groomer took a mere 10 minutes, but the transition from one world to another was magical, punctuated with headlight glimpses of frozen creeks and snow-draped trees.
We exited the snowcat, and a friendly staffer took our coats. Within seconds we were whisked to a table next to a blazing fire. No coat check, no attitude, no hostess fumbling to find our reservations.
Welcome to slope-to-table dining. A world away from the family-friendly hubbub at the base area where we departed, we delved into a relaxed evening of double black-diamond fare prepared by what felt like our own chef.
From curried cauliflower soup with fried oysters to elk chops crusted in juniper berries and black pepper, to a lush cabernet sorbet palate cleanser, alpine cuisine has gone from ho-hum to haute. “It used to be just burgers, wraps, and quesadillas,” said Epic chef Craig Cornell, on a table visit after the meal.
After an exhausting day shredding moguls, skiers craved more, better fare. And resort owners, tired of losing out to the inns in the village, got creative.
At Sunday River in Maine, a Chondola takes guests to peak dinners, where rum pairings and full moon specials are a welcome diversion from rowdy après-ski scenes. At Sugarbush, the adventurous ski off their indulgences after a romantic rendezvous at 3,150 feet. Farther north at Stowe, shussers eat like royalty underneath gondolas at Solstice.
“The food at ski areas has evolved. We were ahead of the curve,” said Ellen Demers, culinary services director for Okemo Mountain Resort, where the Snowcat Dinners are in their fourth season. “The average skier is not a day traveler anymore.”
And resorts like Okemo are trying to keep them on the mountain as long as possible. Nine years ago, nighttime dining options at Okemo did not exist. Now there are three — Italian grill Siena, the Coleman Brook Tavern with a deep wine cellar, and the Saturday night prix fixe popup at Epic.
Because skiing has become more travel destination, less sport, guests want “the whole package,” said Demers.
They get it at Epic. True, dinner comes with an epic price tag ($125 per person, not including wine) but you notice the upgrade. This is personal, intimate dining perfect for an anniversary, or as I did, to toast turning another year.
In a tiny kitchen with six burners, Cornell manages to lay out a five-course meal that’s worlds beyond what most top chefs are throwing down in cosmopolitan cities. There are three seatings — 6:30, 7, and 7:30 p.m. And the relaxed ambience is part of the appeal.
On the night we dined, about 30 guests, couples and groups, ringed the glowing fireplace in the middle of the room. Flames were stoked all night, giving the room a dreamy elegance that worked perfectly with everything from rocket salad to citrus chiffon for dessert.
In Killington, guests are conveyed by sleigh to a private yurt on the side of the mountain. Inside the heated, domed tent, couples in flannels and sweaters tuck into a Vermont-focused meal laid out on pewter trays. Wine and beer is served in goblets, and the kinks of the day relax with the first taste of Cavendish quail from nearby Springfield.
“We are focusing on quality and strive to give people a really positive guest experience,” said Greg Lang, executive chef at Killington Resort. “We want to be known for our quality of food, not just for skiing.”
Ingredients from rabbit to cheese to bread to whiskey are sourced from Green Mountain State purveyors, and it all is served in a fabulously hidden location adding to the intrigue.
“It’s not just about the food, it’s the sleigh ride, and the attentiveness is spot-on. Everything is made fresh from scratch,” said Lang. “We are not bringing in a pre-made anything.”
Lavash crackers, served with local sheep and cow’s milk cheeses, are made with spent grain from the Long Trail Brewery. “No one can touch it. It’s very unique,” he said.
With an entree of beef and bison tenderloin, who cares if the temperature outside is dropping fast. This is food worth the arctic blast.
At night the mid-mountain warming hut Allyn’s Lodge at Sugarbush turns romantic. Ski boot scuff is concealed under white cloth and candle-lit picnic tables as moonlight descends. Country pate, cheddar fondue, ribeye steak, rack of lamb — everything you wouldn’t expect in a place that specializes in hot cocoa and soup by day — are served.
“It’s not ski lodge food,” said Patrick Brown, Sugarbush communication manager.
Should you overindulge, don’t worry about your snow pants not fitting the next day. Guests can strap on helmet lights and ski to the Timbers Restaurant for maple eggnog crème caramel dessert. Go on a full moon for an over-the-top experience.
At Stowe, you don’t have to travel far for a magnificent meal with a view. At the base of Vermont’s first ski mountain, chef Josh Berry turns out fare so elegant at Solstice, it’s easy to postpone that last run indefinitely.
Truffle pot roast served by the fire as Mount Mansfield looms in the distance is an alpine extravagance that skiers are sopping up.
“Eating in Vermont and living here is more like Europe. Everyone plans their day around food,” said Berry, a classically trained chef who cooked in Lucerne, Switzerland, and the Balsams Grand Resort in Dixville Notch, N.H.
With a network of dairy farms, gardens, and meat purveyors so close, ski chefs are living the locavore dream.
“I have farmers calling me to get on my cheese program,” said Berry, who offers 18 local fromages from the tender bijou goat from Vermont Butter and Cheese Creamery to Cabot’s signature clothbound cheddar.
Berry “micro sources” from 45 to 50 miles away and most of his dairy products travel a mere five miles.
Cheese is paired with local, raw honey, toasted almonds, and stone fruit chutney. Add charcuterie like house-made duck liver pate with artisan bread, and it’s clear this is not your father’s après-ski.
Back at Okemo, after we had polished off our best meal in recent memory, our snowcat driver was ready to roll.
Climbing into the vehicle, I noticed he was clutching a dinner to go. “Why do you think I volunteered for this?” he said, steering the craft back down the silent, dark slope.Kathleen Pierce can be reached at kathleen-pierce.com.