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SILVER FORK LODGE

The most thrilling part of the summer for me, as a small child, was the annual mountain trip my grandparents generously planned. Every July my mother would tenderly send off my sister and me with a peck, a pillow and an ample supply of Dramamine to explore the vast wilderness with Gramma and Grampa. Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Tetons, we packed up the Impala and puttered to them all.

Among the many highlights of the trips were the meals in log cabin restaurants. Hugging the sides of mountain roads, they were inevitably surrounded by pine trees and had the obligatory stream out back. They served hearty, home-cooked meals with buttery baked goods and lots of fresh vegetables. I've always been partial to these types of places, little jewels of Americana sparkling on forest-covered hills.With a background like that, how could I help but enjoy the Silver Fork Lodge, just off the highway near the top of Big Cottonwood Canyon? When I arrived at this rustic destination, I turned off my cellular phone and reverted back to the pigtailed girl with the blue cat-eye glasses, just happy to be there.

The menu has changed significantly since my own wonder years, and I was actually happy about that. Fried chicken and meatloaf never did sit well with me. The fresh vegetables, pure, lightly steamed, and crispy, were still there in abundance, however. So were the delightfully lumpy mashed potatoes with country gravy. For some reason, mashed potatoes, and almost every other type of food, taste heartier and more fulfilling in the mountains than they do down on the hot city streets.

The delicious baked goods were also what I remembered from similar establishments. Bread is served hot and steamy from the oven, and all desserts, like the gooey brownies, cakes and pies, are made right there on the premises. These kinds of desserts are justifiable at the Silver Fork Lodge, because your meal there will often precede a vigorous hike?

A small bit of nouvelle cuisine has now made its way up the mountain, however, and this is not a bad addition. For example, appetizers other than your basic relish tray have found a place on the menu, although they still stick to the Alpine theme of being stout and hardy rather than teasingly delicate. We tried the mushrooms, sauteed with sherry and a heavy dose of garlic, then sprinkled with mozzarella, for $4.50; along with the warm tomato slices with mozzarella, fresh basil, olive oil and roasted garlic, for $3.75. both very satisfying. We would like to try the "twin golden filo rolls" that were filled with vegetables then baked and served on a mild garlic-chili aioli for $5.25, but they were fresh out, as they were with a number of dishes. It's best to try these places early, since it's impossible to run down the street to a 24-hour supermarket for the ingredients they run short on.

The entrees were equally strong and satisfying. I was tempted by the manager's favorite, the sea scallops sauteed with green onions and mushrooms in a sherry-cream sauce for $15.95 but instead tried the Greek marinated breast of chicken, sliced and served on a bed of wilted spinach, for $14.95. All entrees come with the vegetable of the day and your choice of pasta, rice, French fries or mashed potatoes and gravy. For this dish I chose the pasta; spinach and egg fettucine which was the perfect complement. I'll admit to frequently digging into my dining companion's mashed potatoes and gravy, however. He appropriately ordered them with the medallions of pork that came glazed with orange and roasted walnuts, then topped with a cranberry garnish, for $13.95. The fruits were strong, almost overpowering, and I found myself scraping them off to the side while enjoying the pork that had absorbed the flavors more subtly.

I was happy to see a number of meat-free dishes on the menu, like pasta primavera, for $11.95; and towering portions of vegetarian lasagna, served with salad, for $7.75. There were also salads. We tried the Caesar-with-a-twist," for $4.95 for a small and $9.75 for a large, which was a little weak, more like a Caesar's ghost.

The Silver Fork Lodge has long been noted for its extraordinary breakfasts, and with dishes like banana cream cheese pancakes and real corned beef hash, one can see why. For its hearty meals and its nostalgic, alpine atmosphere, however, it's worth the drive for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Rating: * * * 1/2

Silver Fork Lodge, Big Cottonwood Canyon, Brighton. 533-9977. Open 8 a.m. through 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 8 a.m. through 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Banquet and lodging facilities are also available. Checks and credit cards are accepted but not reservations.