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SNOWBIRD’S CREATIVE CHEFS DON’T DISAPPOINT

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The restaurants at Snowbird recently unveiled their summer menus and invited members of the culinary media to sample their offerings and become better acquainted with their facilities one soft, summer night. This week's Dining Out column is going to vary from the norm a bit, in light of the special occasion.

It really was a remarkable evening. I wish you could have been there, because if you're discriminating enough to read this column, I have no doubt that you would have enjoyed the affair immensely. But since the capacity was limited, we'll just have to settle with my sharing the insights, impressions and information I gained.The meal featured six courses, each prepared by an individual chef from one of six of Snowbird's finest restaurants, and the chefs themselves were on hand to explain their creations. The Snowbird policy is to scout out chefs who specialize in the type of cuisine each restaurant serves, and then let that individual create their own menu. The offerings are often dictated by the current season, the current trend or the current new libation that resort sommelier Vickie Martinez has been able to procure.

Chef Fred Henion of the Lodge Club Bistro noted that, as with many of the offerings in his restaurant, the salad he prepared that night was made from greens he grows in his extensive garden, along with pears, walnuts and warm gorgonzola croutons, a combination inspired by the 1994 Georges Dubouf Viognier with which it was served.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The salad was actually the fifth course. The first course was Willie Willingham's Australian Rock Lobster and Beef Tenderloin Kabobs, from the Steak Pit. The Steak Pit, I was told, is the locals' favorite restaurant at Snowbird. Utahns don't seem to mind the scenic drive up Little Cottonwood Canyon if they know they'll find a good steak waiting for them up there, and that's fine, but I found myself hoping that more year-round residents would dare a new appreciation for culinary adventures and would be willing to try some of the more daring offerings at the other sites.

Something like Wildflower Chef Andy Vaughn might prepare at his Italian ristorante in the Iron Blosam Lodge. That night, for the second course, he presented a satin smooth garlic bisque with fresh herb foccacia, both pungent and creamy, flawless.

Not wanting to be creatively outdone, third course chef Garrett Penistan, the youngest of the Snowbird chefs, concocted cunning "Beggar's Purses" made of jalepeno pasta, filled with shrimp and salmon mousse and served on a smoked tomato coulis with anaheim pepper creme fraiche. Under Penistan's direction, Keyhole Junction has changed from Mexican to Southwestern, with whimsical Caribbean and Mediterranean touches. You'll not find a menu like his anywhere in the valley.

The fourth, or main course, was appropriately prepared by Chef Jodie Koestler of the Aerie, Snowbird's flagship dining establishment. We were told that if we had been up at the resort earlier in the afternoon, we would have spied Koestler harvesting the main flavor-contributing ingredient of his vinaigrette, the new growth from the local fir trees. He combined the Douglas Fir Vinaigrette with galantine of New Zealand elk, yellow chanterelles and Yukon potatoes. While Koestler also serves more traditional fare at the Aerie, including numerous offerings on the expansive and exquisite Sunday brunch, this course was reflective of the ambition and originality in which the Aerie prides itself.

Brian K. Florida, executive chef for the entire resort, would have quite the challenge topping the preceding five courses, but he made a noble attempt with his tiny samples of chocolate Grand Marnier pate, blackberry and phyllo Napoleon and petite tiramisu, all drizzled with a hardened caramel sauce and served with Starbucks coffee.

Granted, that evening the chefs were out to impress their critics, and admittedly they did. But in serving a "signature" dinner, they are aware that if they didn't meet the same standards on our return, incognito visits (yes, I wear a disguise), we would publicize our disappointment, and the disappointment of our readers, whom we encourage to respond. They are confident in their cuisine and willing to put it to our tests.

While meals at the finer Snowbird restaurants are not inexpensive, ranging from $9 for cappellini pomodoro or fettucine Alfredo at the Wildflower to $31 for a steak and crab combination at the Steak Pit, they are certainly not exorbitant. The quality at least matches, and often surpasses, much of what can be found at lower altitudes. No one should make it through an entire summer without at least driving up for a taste, and preferably an ambitious one.

Rating: * * * * (Individual restaurants could receive more or fewer stars.)

Snowbird Restaurants, up Little Cottonwood Canyon. Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, reservations recommended. Call for specific hours. The Aerie, 521-6040 ext. 5500, at the top of Cliff Lodge; The Lodge Club Bistro, ext. 3042, in the Lodge at Snowbird; Keyhole Junction, ext. 5100, in the Cliff Lodge; Wildflower Ristorante, ext. 1042, at the Iron Blosam Lodge; The Steak Pit, ext. 4060, in the Snowbird Center.