Saturday, August 10, 2013

Restaurant Kelly Liken, Vail Valley, Colorado

Grilled New York Strip with crispy smashed Yukon gold potatoes,
green garlic aioli, roasted red pepper romesco, fennel & red pepper slaw

While visiting the Vail Valley in Colorado this summer, I made plans to visit Restaurant Kelly Liken.  The self-named establishment of Chef Kelly Liken won the 2012 Open Table Diner’s Choice Award and has been featured in Food & Wine Magazine.  Chef Liken herself has appeared on both Top Chef and Iron Chef America.  Her distinctions as a James Beard Award Finalist made this restaurant a sure pick for my Colorado dining list this year.

The restaurant is located near the entrance to Vail Village at Vail Road, which is a plus since much of Vail Village is restricted to walking and Village bus traffic only.  The convenient access to the restaurant’s complimentary parking made it easy for us to meet our 6:30 p.m. reservation on time after a very full day in nearby Glenwood Springs.  Inside, the contemporary American d├ęcor lends itself well to business casual dining without need for a formal dress code, just perfect for dining with our two children. 

When I make any dinner reservations through Open Table, I always include a note to let the restaurant know that we will be dining with my children so that the chef can be prepared with appropriate menu suggestions.   So, I was pleased when each of my children were presented with a mini version of the full size menu containing a $35 prix fixe menu designed especially for children.  It’s this kind of touch that I appreciate since most high end restaurants don’t take the time to cater to younger eaters.  The children’s menu options were appropriate yet sophisticated for those with budding epicurean tastes, like my Anna.  Of the children’s menu items, I found the macaroni and cheese “amuse bouche” to be the most surprising.  The updated Kelly Liken version of this children’s staple is made with small pearl-sized pasta in a mild cheddar cheese sauce.   The dish, which at first bears a strong resemblance to couscous or quinoa, looks nothing like its traditional counterpart but would certainly satisfy the most picky of eaters. 

For us “adult” diners, Restaurant Kelly Liken offers a $74 three-course prix fixe menu.  Although the menu doesn’t provide a la carte pricing and the option wasn’t offered, a la carte ordering is permitted (which is something I had picked up when reviewing the restaurant website before our visit).  So, with that knowledge in hand, my husband and I opted for a small shared cheese plate, a shared first course of pork belly and separate entrees of pan roasted wild caught bass and grilled New York strip steak (pictured above).

What I loved:  My pork belly was perfectly cooked and well-presented.  The seared presentation of the belly was akin to that of a well seared section of foie gras.  And the texture wasn’t far off.  The meat was incredibly fork-tender.  The fat held on the plate but melted past my lips.  Surprisingly though, it was by far the “lightest” tasting pork belly I’ve had to date.  This piece was excellent in that it did not have the fatty taste that is often characteristic of pork belly.  This was exactly the kind of pork belly that I could eat everyday without concern for my weight or my health.  It was paired well with pickled onion and charred lettuce, both of which helped to enhance a slight heat that I picked up in the taste of the belly. 

I also loved that our car was waiting for us at the front when were ready to leave the restaurant, engine on and doors open.  The valet service is impressive!

What I didn’t love:  My wild bass was accompanied by a tomato-watermelon gazpacho, warm shrimp and pickled watermelon salad, fresh mint, sliced radishes, heirloom tomatoes and pickled chills.  The gazpacho and tomatoes had the right amount of sweetness and tang to compliment the bass and its nicely crisped skin.  But I was confused by the warm shrimp which frankly didn’t need to be there.  While they were cooked appropriately, they didn't add anything to the dish.  I would have been just as happy without the shrimp and, in hindsight, feel that they detracted from my appreciation of the dish.   

I also did not love that a server dropped the dish carrying Anna’s ranch dressing dip, splattering dressing all over my dress and the leg of my husband’s trouser.  While the staff was very quick to clean it up, offer soda water and provide fresh napkins, I would have thought that the bill might have reflected something for the inconvenience and the certain dry cleaning bill that would be in my future.  Unfortunately, that was not the case.  Perhaps I was just too gracious about the whole thing. 

How much we spent:  ($$$$)  We were a party of four that included two children dining from the $35 prix fixe menu.  We don’t order alcohol but did have two large bottles of Pelligrino water for the table.  Even with two adults dining a la carte, we spent $236, with 18% tip included. 

My overall rating:   3 3/4 spoons (out of 5).   Overall, the food presentation and preparation were exactly as one would expect from a two-time James Beard Award finalist.  I cleaned every plate and did not leave hungry.  Despite this, I didn’t feel that Restaurant Kelly Liken was one that I would be compelled to visit on my next trip to the Valley.  I would love to say that I truly loved the experience but something was lacking in the ambiance.  Perhaps having dressing spilled on my dress was enough of a mood killer to make an impression.  Or perhaps it was because our waiter was slightly tongue tied and seemed to be at a loss to make good conversation.  I will still recommend it to others planning to visit the area, based solely on the quality of the food.  But I don’t think I’ll feel compelled to make a second visit anytime soon.  The Valley has a lot to offer a seasoned diner so I won’t feel cheated if I don’t make it back for a while.  

Kelly Liken on Urbanspoon

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