Just Talkin’ ’Bout Shaft 

Wining and dining with Alta-tude at 9,000 feet.

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Just seven years after the first silver claim was staked in Alta in 1865, the town swelled to 8,000 residents and 180 buildings. Twenty-six of them were saloons. But, by 1930, Alta had become a ghost town with only six registered voters.

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Today, of course, Alta is known for its world-class ski terrain and abundant powder as well as for bare-bones amenities. It’s not exactly Deer Valley, but if you know where to look in Alta, you’ll discover dining that is as fine as the Champagne powder that falls almost endlessly in winter.

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I missed out on the Garling era at Alta’s Shallow Shaft restaurant. For 16 years, Kathy and Tim Garling operated the Shallow Shaft, and I’d heard very positive accounts of the food there. But, for some reason, I never managed to make my way to the restaurant before the Garlings left Alta to open their Jackalope Grill in Bend, Ore. My bad. So when I began hearing favorable murmurings about current Shallow Shaft chef Kurtis Krause, I pointed my roadster uphill and cruised up Little Cottonwood Canyon to Alta'a gorgeous drive in summertime, by the way.

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I’m probably not the first person to wonder if I was in the right place when approaching the Shallow Shaft. There’s roadside parking in front of the restaurant (don’t expect a valet); venturing up to the entrance, you’re faced with a short wooden gangplank of sorts, which serves as a bridge over a small trench out front. If you’re wearing high heels, look out for the metal grate just beyond the gangplank! Arrive in early evening as we did and the lights leading up the dark stairway might not have been turned on yet. I half-expected a Halloween house-of-horrors skeleton to greet me at the top of the stairs with a nerve-shattering “Boo!â€nn

Ah, but then you enter the cozy restaurant with its stunning views of Alta Ski Area and plentiful hanging potted plants, and any worries just wash away. With luck, you’ll win the services of Willie at the Shallow Shaft. He’s the former manager of Snowbird’s Steak Pit and a very fun server to spend the evening with: professional and knowledgeable in a So-Cal surfer sort of way.

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The wine list Willie handed us upon being seated absolutely floored me. In addition to a vast selection of liquor and liqueurs, the Shallow Shaft offers a dozen or more interesting imported and domestic beers, like Brother David’s Double from Anderson Valley Brewing Co. But the real surprise was the wine selection at this diminutively sized eatery: 30 or so wines by the glass ranging from Hidalgo Amontillado to Elderton Botrytis Semillon. The Shallow Shaft wine list offers 30-plus Chardonnay selections alone, with great choices from the United States, Australia, South Africa, France and Italy. The New York State Salmon Run Chardonnay 2003 we selected was something I’ve never seen on any other wine list before, including New York City restaurants. And yet Willie apologized for the wine selection: “The list gets lots bigger in wintertime!” he said.

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Of course, you’ll want food to go with that wine. “Feel free to share the appetizers,” Willie said instructively, “They’re pretty big.” He wasn’t kidding. The trout starter ($12) was three hockey-puck-size Utah trout cakes topped with apple-horseradish crème Fraiche, fresh greens, a lemon slice, a sprig of fresh thyme, minced chives and orange pearls of salmon caviar. It was spectacular. For a slightly lighter appetizer, opt for the roasted-veggie bruschetta ($8) with fresh tomato, mushrooms, pine nuts and basil. In keeping with the laid-back Alta-tude which is so prevalent at approximately 9,000 feet, dinner at the Shallow Shaft is an unrushed affair. Willie gave us plenty of time before delivering our entrées to linger and enjoy the gorgeous sunset, as natural sunlight gave way to candles and soft lighting in the restaurant.

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I’m always hesitant to order pork chops in restaurants, since they generally arrive tough and overcooked. But at the Shallow Shaft, I took a chance and was rewarded with chef Krause’s soft touch. The thick, double-cut 9-ounce chop ($23) was cooked to perfection, medium rare just as I’d requested, with light grill marks on the exterior. The pork chop was nestled into a bed of Yukon gold mashed potatoes and beautifully presented with al dente carrots and grilled asparagus, all bathed in a scrumptious balsamic-cider reduction. But maybe the biggest surprise was the thinly sliced pickled cherry onions that served as a yummy sweet and tart relish for the pork. It reminded me of an outstanding onion accoutrement I was served years ago in Strasbourg to eat with foie gras.

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A dish of homemade pappardelle pasta ($23) was equally memorable, served with chunks of smoked tomatoes, large tender shrimp, an abundance of shredded Alaskan King crab and finished with a fresh, slightly sweet-tasting tarragon butter sauce and a rosemary garnish. It’s a rich dish that paired wonderfully with Robert Sinskey’s Sonoma “Abraxas” 2004, named after Santana’s Abraxas album from 1970'to which, of course, both Willie and I could relate.

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By now, we could see billions of twinkling stars overhead, so why not share a dessert and sip Yalumba Museum Muscat or a seductively sweet Domaine le Peu de le Moriette Vouvray Moelleux 1995? Or hell, just kick out the jams with a half-bottle of Chateau d’Yquem 1997? That’s what I call being Shallow Shafted.

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SHALLOW SHAFT RESTAURANT
n10199 East Hwy. 210
nLittle Cottonwood Canyon
nAlta
n742-2177
nDinner served Thursday-Sunday

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