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The Shallow Shaft above Alta

I was expecting a restaurant deep up a narrow canyon overlooking Alta. It was actually much easier to find Shallow Shaft, as it was just across the narrow road from Alta Lodge my first stop in town many years ago. I must have arrived in a snowstorm that night because when the shuttle dropped me off I had no idea there was anything else around. That’s how Alta feels, dark, open, a window to wild mountains. What a great surprise to learn there was a restaurant worth a visit just across the road from it. Even better, we were early for our reservation so we had an opportunity to have a drink first at the Alta Lodge.

Some of my favorite places for dinner are the ones with an interesting watering hole across the street. Robataya, in New York, serves Japanese food across from a sake bar called Decibel. Al di la, a well-loved restaurant in Brooklyn serves Italian food across from a French bistro, named Moutarde which is perfect for a glass of wine. Popular restaurants work well with good bars near them, having a place to wait makes it a lot easier to tell a customer they have to wait for an 8:30pm reservation. Knowing that we were going to have time to stop at the Sitzmark for a drink before dinner was a treat.

Sitzmark is a prohibition style bar hidden on the second floor of an inconspicuous hallway at the Alta Lodge. Opening six years after prohibition ended in the 1930’s, most people skiing at Alta wouldn’t even know it was there. Despite the secrecy, USA Today named it one of the “10 great places for apres ski” in North America. The aroma of spicy hot cider welcomes you as soon as you arrive, so we started with that and some whiskey. Their ginger ale tap wasn’t working so they suggested we try Sprite with Angastura bitters instead. A great twist with whiskey, going to try that one at home.

Our table at Shallow Shaft, which we were told was the best in the house, was ready so we climbed many stairs, crossed the street, and climbed many stairs again. High up overlooking the groomers who were shining their lights on Alta, we were seated at Peri’s table. Immediately I knew we were in good hands. It is rare to find a server who knows as much about the food as the Chef. He introduced the specials as if he had cooked them himself, not stumbling over a single ingredient or preparation.

The wine list we were handed was unusual. Neither Sean or I recognized any of the names, except for a few favorites that we knew we liked. From the few we recognized, it was clear the list was carefully selected. From the wines we didn’t recognize, I could tell the wine was being special purchased from outside of the State-controlled liquor supply. Takashi does this to have great sake. And it was impressive to see Shallow Shaft doing this too. Not only were they special ordering, but they arranged the wine menu in a very easy to read fun way. Each page only had about a dozen specially selected wines. There were French wines, then a page simply to include “interesting” wines. Absinthe was on a page by itself, and we watched the ceremony at the next table. It turned out our server was actually the sommelier, and had been working with Chef Kurtis Kraus since Metropolitan.

The menu included a list of local purveyors, that went beyond the usual. Sean ordered a potato soup and the steak and I had trout cakes and fried quail. The best dish was the potato soup, which was hearty with fresh green vegetables and perfectly cut carrots in a small square bowl. There were some other tasty bits on top for flavor and texture. The food I ordered was good, but I think the restaurant was going too far to appease Utah diners. One or two trout cakes would have been perfect, serving four was a bit much for an appetizer. Seeing Quail on the menu was a great surprise, but frying it reduced it from a special treat to an ordinary, if tasty, chicken dinner. The special Sean ordered was a Steak Oscar, which included fresh crab on a steak served with bearnaise sauce. The steak was good, and right away, I was impressed with the preparation of the broccolini, perfectly cooked and probably blanched to enhance its natural color.

Not long from now Shallow Shaft will be renovating. Curious what they do in their terrific location. I know each time I return to Alta, I’ll be hoping to stop at Sitzmark and Shallow Shaft because I can’t imagine a more perfect way to end a perfect day.

March 15, 2014