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From Soup to Moose, Chefs Take Colorado Cuisine to New Heights

<i> Kuehl is a Denver free-lance writer. </i>

Eat high in the Rockies during ski season when the designer-parka clientele arrives, liberating the resort chefs to create pricey dining experiences.

Or dine on a budget. The trick for the food lover is to plan an itinerary that includes some of the finest restaurants in Colorado, and season it with a few low-cost spots favored by locals.

When the Vail Valley started to develop 25 years ago, the best you could hope for in apres- ski sustenance was mediocre chili and overcooked cheeseburgers. “Gourmet” restaurants were those with tablecloths, steak and steamed artichokes.

But those were the days when the tab for a day of skiing was $7. As Vail’s social stature skyrocketed, so did the price of its lift tickets. And so did the quality of ski-country cooking. The sophistication of the international ski set promoted demand for sophisticated dining and produced a supply of well trained, creative young chefs who have replaced ski bums in the restaurant kitchens.

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A fringe benefit has been that good food is no longer confined to chic and high-priced restaurants. There are some excellent low-cost rhinestones amid the pricey diamond eating establishments in the sparkling snow along Interstate 70, which winds through the center of Colorado ski country.

On the expensive side, a couple could go through $700 a day at the Lodge at Cordillera (near Edwards) if they partook of everything, including a room with a knockout mountain view, services at the sybaritic spa and meals at the intimate Picasso Room, where Belgian chef Philippe Van Cappellen rules with a firm hand and creates a menu that changes daily.

Dining among the Picasso originals, it’s possible to sample a four-course dinner that includes a warm salmon salad, sauteed scallops with endive and seared duck breast with chanterelles. Sample an interesting desert (pear chocolate mousse and coffee) in the hotel’s immense alpine living room. Tab for the fixed-price menu is $48 per person--$66-$70 if you include wines selected by the chef.

Once you’ve emptied your pockets at the Lodge at Cordillera, pay as little as $4 for a light lunch at the Columbine Bakery in Avon, just down the hill on I-70.

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We tried the soup of the day--a thick corn chowder served with the same dinner rolls served at the Picasso Room--and were delighted to find the $4 price includes a choice from Swiss pastry chef Daniel Niederhauser’s desserts.

The lemon zucchini cookies are buttery wonders, or you can opt for the even richer midnight chocolate cake.

Decidedly on the pricey side, Sweet Basil in Vail Village is the name most likely to pop up when you ask the locals to name the darling of pampered palates passing through town. Sweet Basil is so popular during high season, Dec. 20 to the end of March, that it’s necessary to make dinner reservations two weeks in advance.

Owner Kevin Clair bucked the Vail Village look (some call it “Disneyland Tyrolean”) in favor of a contemporary gallery-like setting for New American cuisine when he opened Sweet Basil in 1977.

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The best-selling dish on the a la carte menu--saffron angel hair pasta with lobster, scallops, shrimp and tomatoes with a shallot cream sauce--is currently priced at $18.50.

At Sweet Basil, it’s easy to eat your way through the price of a lift ticket. Start with a crispy lasagna appetizer made with won-ton skins layered with chicken confit, chanterelles and mascarpone ($6.75). Move on to saffron pasta, served as an entree ($18.50). Cap the dinner with a homemade cinnamon-basil ice cream and a poached pear in a puff pastry shell ($4.25). A festive evening for two can easily run to three figures. For that investment, make sure to reserve a creek side table in the dining room.

On the less expensive side, downstairs from Sweet Basil you can find heartier food and earthier prices at Blu’s. Go for the Gypsy schnitzel, breaded pork tenderloin in a peppery sauce tempered by Marsala, with a choice of noodles, rice or potatoes. It’s heavy dining in more ways than one for under $10.

Two other budget stretchers may be found in tiny Minturn, about seven miles southwest of Vail. At Booco’s Station, feast on smokehouse barbecued brisket, pork, sausage, chicken or ribs served with corn bread and a choice of cole slaw, baked beans or French fries.

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For dessert there’s homemade apple, pecan or blueberry pie. Under the same ownership, the Saloon serves Mexican food and quail appetizers. Entrees at either place start at about $8.95.

Penny pinchers should head for Poppyseeds Bakery Cafe on the West Vail Mall, where a big bowl of homemade soup and one refill goes for $2.50. The cafe’s specialty is soup, muffins and granola.

Between Vail and Denver are two more restaurants for the economy-minded, within an hour’s drive of Vail.

Pesce Fresco is a find, if only for the Chocolate Fitz--pastry chef Chris Fitz’ winning entry in a ski-area chocolate competition. So rich it’s served with two forks, the cake has layers of chocolate mousse between thin layers of chocolate cake, with a fabulous chocolate glaze studded with hazelnuts. It’s conspicuous consumption calorie-wise, but well worth the guilt.

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Another find: Silverheels Southwest Grill, Ltd., hides in the woods in Wildernest, a condominium development in Silverthorne. Owner-chef Bobby Starekow combines basic American ingredients with exotic Mexican and Spanish spices, then uses French cooking techniques for good results.

How about a 1 1/2-inch-thick pork chop marinated in orange and tamarind sauce, then charbroiled and sauced with a mandarin orange and tamarind glaze ($15.95)?

Vegetarians come out on top when the daily special is an eggplant relleno: eggplant stuffed with a combination of ricotta, pepperjack and cheddar cheeses and various chopped vegetables, then rolled in a batter, deep fried and served with a green chile sauce ($12.95).

Those with enough money left for one more splurge may want to drop by the Keystone Ranch of Keystone Resort at the base of Loveland Pass on U.S. 6. There executive chef Chris Wing specializes in Rocky Mountain cuisine. That translates to a six-course, fixed-price ($38) menu of such foods as caribou, moose, antelope or elk, wild mushrooms and American Indian pemmican (dried rabbit, pheasant and venison cooked with a variety of dried fruits).

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Start with a pheasant dumpling served with sauteed spinach and mushrooms over a sweet red pepper sauce. Move on to smoked Cornish hen soup, Webster Pass salad (chicories and lettuce dressed with a vinaigrette of nut oils and dried fruit) and a winter fruit sorbet.

Then, if not game, try a veal cutlet rolled with a pemmican of game and fruit served with crab and corn cooked in the husk. The dessert, served with coffee in front of the fireplace in the ranch living room, could be an apple tart with Gorgonzola cheese or perhaps a slice of hazelnut log with dried cherries.

Balancing the sophistication of his menu at Keystone Ranch, Wing also supervises the food at the primitive Back Ranch, which has no indoor plumbing and is reached by a 20-minute sleigh ride.

At the converted bunkhouses, guests pig out on a set menu of Kansas City steak, corn bread, biscuits, venison-barley soup, fresh vegetables, garlic mashed potatoes and dessert cobbler. It’s $39, but that includes the sleigh ride.

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