Author: Wren Wertin
Photographer: Coreen Sapp
Date: July 26, 2004
Kelly Liken: new restaurant in Vail committed to local, seasonal cuisine
Planning to be an astronaut, Kelly Liken majored in physics as a student in Boulder. When she decided to make out-of-this-world cuisine instead, the chef-in-training headed to New York for the Culinary Institute of America. But she’s back in The Rockies, as chef and proprietor of the restaurant that bears her name.
From the eclectically tiled floor to the upholstered chairs and cushions, the room is sleek and chic. But it’s also enormously fun, referencing wine in none-too-obvious ways, such as the chardonnay-colored walls and the fabric that recalls a view of a wine room. The tables aren't draped in linens — they're beautiful, burnished wood — but the service is reminiscent of such establishments.
"We really want this to be a fun, high-energy, metropolitan atmosphere," said Kelly Liken, for once sitting at her own bar instead of standing in the kitchen or wandering the dining room to greet her customers.
Kelly Liken — both the restaurant and the chef — specialize in seasonal American cuisine. Unusual in a market saturated with great restaurants, Liken brings something innovative and necessary to her tables. The twists and turns on her menu elevate her non-fussy food to pure flavor, while the vibrant room encourages a sense of celebration.
"I'm in the business of making people happy," said Liken. "I'm classically French trained, but I feel strongly that our country has a bounty of product and a great history of food. We want to keep the food very simple, tasting like what it is."
Liken isn’t afraid of greens that bite or tomatoes that zing. Her approach makes the flavors laugh out loud. We started our evening with the striped bass ceviche ($10) with citrus overtones. Surprisingly, the lightness of the fish wasn't overwhelmed by the savory piles of red and gold beet "caviar." Served with a chenin blanc by Chapellet ($8), it was a refreshing way to begin the meal. Next, we dove into the elk carpaccio ($12), drizzled with a grainy mustard cream. Accompanied by a slightly chewy bulgur wheat salad, it was a great balance of flavor and texture.
For those with a penchant for soup, the crab and red pepper bisque ($9) won't induce any guilt. A bowl generous with lumps of crab and avocado arrives at table, and the bisque is poured over it tableside. Though creamy, it's not heavy — a rather wonderful summer soup. Try it with a glass of La Crema chardonnay ($10), a pairing made for us by Rick Colomitz, general manager and, in a twist on the classic "husband as celebrity chef, wife as the people person" relationship, Liken's fiance. The couple will be married this fall.
Though I could have happily eaten my way through the entire appetizer selection, my date and I dug into the entrée list. The pan-seared halibut ($27) is an inventive interpretation of the white fish, topped with a delicately crispy breadcrumb salsa verde accented by briny capers. It's served with an Israeli couscous-artichoke-asparagus concoction almost elusive in its subtle flavors, and good to the last bite.
"Everybody wants halibut on the menu," explained Liken. "But if you don’t keep it new and fresh, it gets really boring."
Boring it ain’t.
For those craving Colorado lamb, the rack ($35) is a solid choice. Lightly seasoned and cooked a perfect medium rare, it's complemented by a braised lamb shank ravioli, chock full of deeply concentrated flavors. To keep the whole shebang from being too heavy, a spring vegetable sauté completes the dish. Keep an eye out for the edible chive flowers, which are fun and tasty.
Next time around I'll try the pot-roasted poussin, a whole — albeit small — chicken sliced open and pan seared crispy, skin side down, before being put in the oven to cook in its own juices and filled with root vegetables. It's a recipe Liken has been perfecting for years. According to her, she's nailed it just right. Having eaten at her table, I'm inclined to trust her. Other temptations include the Colorado wildflower honey-glazed duck breast with spinach cornmeal crepes and roasted apricots, or the potato-crusted trout filets with haricots verts, currant tomatoes and fava beans.
Liken is assisted in the kitchen by her sous chefs, Brian Ackerman and Justin Large.
"Brian has an incredible attention to detail,” said Liken. "He's a very, very talented sauté and fish chef. I think he’ll retire and become a sushi chef someday. And Justin, he’s a visionary — very, very creative."
Wine is an important element to the Kelly Liken experience. They boast more than 100 choices on the wine list for those who want to commit themselves to a full bottle. But I wholly recommend taking advantage of the extensive by-the-glass menu, which runs the gamut from a 2002 Renwood zin ($7) to a 1992 Burgess cab ($27), with 28 wines (and price points) between the two. Simply put yourself in the staff's capable hands, and let them do the rest.