Jaw-dropping. That’s how I’d describe my reaction upon entering the all-new Aerie Restaurant atop Snowbird’s Cliff Lodge and getting a look at its major remodel—the first since it opened in 1986. Simply put, the place is eye-poppingly gorgeous. And it should be, at a cost rumored to be in the vicinity of a couple million bucks.
You might remember The Aerie from an earlier era: a combination of art deco with lots of black surfaces and owner Dick Bass’ extensive collection of oriental art and furnishings—rugs, vases, robes and the like. It was a dark interior that never had a very warm feel and, in recent years, was beginning to look very retro-’80s, and not in a good way. So, Snowbird brought in designer Louis Ulrich and his team from Lu’na Design Studio to completely—and I mean completely—revamp the restaurant. About all that remains from the old Aerie are the kitchen, the floor-to-ceiling windows and the cylindrical cement columns that hold the place together—but even those have been hidden behind clever column coverings.
Ulrich—who also designed restaurants like Vinto and Squatters—says it was the carpet that presented his biggest challenge. To me, the carpet sort of looks like Champagne bubbles. It sets a festive tone for the restaurant, the look of which has been made contemporary, but also softened, via the use of comfy couches in the lounge, booths equipped with private flat-screen TVs, the use of blond woods and what I think of as “mellow yellow” color shades and lighting. Even the menus have a new, spiffy look, as does the beautiful new bar/lounge area.
So, The Aerie looks spectacular. But what about the food? Well, I’m happy to report that the restaurant’s cuisine has also been upgraded, as has the service staff. There’s a new chef, Ken Ohlinger—most recently of Devil’s Thumb Ranch in Winter Park, Colo.—as well as a new general manager, Lucette Barbier, who has worked in Michelin-starred restaurants in her native France and, more recently, managed Snowbird’s private Seven Summits Club. The improvement of the service, which has gone from largely lackadaisical to very professional, is quite noticeable.
Despite all the money that’s been pumped into The Aerie, I’m told the average meal price has actually come down. That’s because the menu is now more family-friendly, including items such as hand-pressed Niman Ranch burgers ($14), an elk cheesesteak ($15) and penne & cheese ($15) made with local Beehive cheese, butternut-squash fettuccine ($19), maple-cured salmon filet ($26) and pan-fried chicken with cornflake-pistachio crust and tarragon creamed corn ($22). The upscale comfort food direction The Aerie menu has taken should go over well with both visitors and locals looking for an evening out with food that is accessible and prices not too intimidating.
The sushi bar at The Aerie is still intact, run now by a very skilled chef, Yasu Kanegai. To get the full experience of the all-new Aerie, I recommend enjoying a cocktail in the attractive lounge, along with some select sushi before heading into the Aerie dining room. We tried that formula recently and it was a success, kicking off with a signature Aerie cocktail called Krak it! (Kraken black spiced rum, St. Germain elderflower liqueur, fresh lime, strawberry, lemon, orange and a cinnamon stick). We put ourselves in chef Kanegai’s expert hands and nibbled on a sashimi platter that included fresh-shucked oysters on the half-shell, delicious house-cured saba (mackerel), ocean trout, top-grade maguro (tuna), ankimo (monkfish liver) and more. I need to return to try the appealing-sounding Alta roll: maguro, albacore, hamachi, avocado and a shiso leaf wrap.
Settling into one of the private booths that line a wall of The Aerie, we began dinner with an appetizer of Snake River Farms bourbon-braised pork cheeks—melt-in-the-mouth pork cheek served with diced, sesame-spiked sweet potatoes and topped with braised collard greens with kimchi ($9). I can’t say I was crazy about the kimchi collards, but I loved everything else about the dish. And, the sensational simplicity of a foie gras torchon is undeniable: The chilled round of foie gras terrine served with toasted brioche and raspberry-Cabernet “jelly” was a slam-dunk winner.
I was very tempted by the cheeseburger— hand-pressed and made with a Niman Ranch Kobe-Angus beef blend—because it was so damned good when I’d tried it earlier in the day at the on-mountain Mid-Gad restaurant. I could’ve easily eaten another for dinner. But I was there to eat and report, so eat I did. One of the best dishes I’ve encountered this year is chef Ohlinger’s “pork & beans.” It’s extra-tender roasted and shredded pork shoulder in a stack with white-bean ragout and crisp pork belly with sweet & sour collard greens ($22). This is not your daddy’s pork & beans, but rather something you might find simmering on a fire in a rustic French farmhouse; it’s real food and I loved every last morsel.
Without a lot of fanfare, The Aerie’s wine list has become one of Utah’s best, under the careful supervision of Snowbird assistant food & beverage director, Frédéric Barbier. There are currently more than 950 selections on the list—which was awarded the 2011 Best of Award of Excellence by Wine Spectator—with a recent beefing up of the Bordeaux, Burgundy, Cabernet and Meritage collections. And there are even bargains to be found for the intrepid wine detective. A new wine case near the restaurant’s entrance displaying some of the many vintages is certainly enticing.
In my many years of reviewing restaurants, I’ve never witnessed a makeover as all-encompassing as this one. The Aerie hasn’t merely been remodeled; it’s been reborn.
THE AERIE RESTAURANT
Highway 210, Little Cottonwood Canyon
Cliff Lodge, Snowbird Ski & Summer Resort