An adventure in fine dining

Yosemite chef plans menu to attract tourists as much as the park does

April 17, 2002|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK, Calif. - Confectioners' sugar ices the valley rim. Fog hugs the pine-scented air, like steam from a sizzling meat platter. Half Dome's peak rises in the distance, a huge, half-eaten scoop of granite ice cream.

All right. So maybe food images don't come to mind when visitors first lay eyes on Yosemite, quite possibly our best national park. But a new chef at the park's historic lodge, the Ahwahnee, is out to make the park a year-round destination not just for great vistas and outdoor fun but also for superb food and service.

"Prime rib with au jus is off the menu. No more veggie of the day," says Jim Anile, the new executive chef. "That's not where the Ahwahnee is going."

In time for its 75th birthday celebration this year, the hotel is undergoing a culinary make-over. The old glassware has been replaced with Spiegelau crystal from Germany. Longtime servers and cooks are being retrained. A new menu, unveiled recently, features a more adventurous style of cooking - and few of the old standbys.

Anile, a native of Allentown, Pa., is bent on shaking up an American institution, which was built in the 1920s to draw an upper-crust clientele into the park.

"We're still doing the same thing we've been doing for 20 years," he says. Meantime, Americans have become much more discerning, and demanding, about what they eat.

"People don't want to be intimidated," he says. "They want to be wowed."

The hotel, one of the finest in the national park system, has long been a popular hangout for old-money Californians and tourists on a splurge. Its immense dining room seats 350 under a vaulted ceiling trussed with rustic timbers. For an American chef, there may be no more spectacular stage.

By day, tall windows offer generous views of the valley's sheer rock cliffs. After dark, flickering candles turn the dining hall into a surprisingly intimate, and romantic, spot.

Wine tastings and chefs' holidays draw thousands to the lodge each fall and winter. At Christmastime, winners of a lottery for dinner reservations celebrate in laid-back baronial style (Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston were among those tucking into the annual seven-course feast in December).

But for the most part, those stopping by to eat at the lodge in recent years were better off staring at the Ansel Adams scenes outside or a familiar face across the table than the unimpressive food on their plate.

Anile is determined to change that.

Since arriving in late summer from the swanky Bacara Resort and Spa on the California coast near Santa Barbara, he has overseen the action in the hotel's vast food-preparation area, which covers 6,500 square feet of floor space and has 23-foot ceilings. "The gym," he calls it.

The kitchen has its own pastry shop and a bread shop that dates to the Navy's takeover of the lodge during World War II. There are walk-in refrigerators from an era when ice blocks quarried in winter from a nearby pond kept food fresh during the summer. (Wooden hatch covers on the iceboxes are still there.)

Unusually large for a 123-room hotel, the kitchen was never downsized after architects scaled back the original number of lodgings by more than two-thirds. That is fortunate, because the kitchen staff of 52 prepares as many as 1,500 meals a day during busy spring and summer months.

"Everything we can, we make from scratch," Anile says. "As far as I care, the ket- chup can be made by us. But less is more. Whatever we do, it must be perfect."

Anile learned his way around food preparation at his family's Italian restaurants in north Texas. Though he lacks formal training, he was a top chef in Dallas, where the restaurant scene is once again attracting national attention. He has spent time in Thailand, and Asian flavorings are among the clearest influences in his cooking.

His recent dinner for a group of Northern California food mavens started with an appetizer of spicy lobster Rangoon with a wild blackberry sweet-and-sour sauce, followed by steamed black bass in banana leaf. The main course of roasted lamb sirloin was accompanied by wilted Chinese broccoli in a fermented black-bean sauce.

"There's nothing subtle about my food," Anile says.

He believes that what makes one dish better than another are "the little garnishes, things that put it over the top, the infused oils, the infused creams. It's those little things that you didn't expect."

A delicate butter-lettuce salad is served on a bed of crunchy, briny sea beans from the Southern California coast. A main course of filet mignon is freshened with a house-made steak sauce and zesty grape tomatoes marinated in champagne vinegar.

At 31, Anile couples youthful enthusiasm with an edgy ambition to compete with the best restaurants in Northern California, one of the country's top food regions.

That isn't always easy in this remote mountain location, where delivery of fresh ingredients can be difficult. Park service regulations further tie his hands. (The government must approve the menu and its pricing.)

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