Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Dinner 1,900 feet above Ketchum

Roundhouse offers evening dining for first time since 1940s


By TREVON MILLIARD
Express Staff Writer

Guests enjoy dinner at Sun Valley Resortís Roundhouse restaurant Thursday, Dec. 9, something that hasnít happened in nearly 70 years. Express photo by Trevon Milliard

Excluding the steel cable vibrating in a slight hum overhead, the ride is completely quiet. Bald Mountain's snowy slopes are empty and elusive 100 feet below due to a dark sky lit by the slightest sliver of the moon.

The only clear indicator of the landscape below are Ketchum and Sun Valley's lights steadily becoming smaller as the gondola seemingly floats upward 1,900 feet in elevation. Above, not a light is visible except for the few distant pearls of white traversing the slopes to the south—the groomers.

After six minutes, the end comes into sight—the Roundhouse and its windowpanes glowing in yellow light. Just about everyone who has skied Baldy's slopes knows of the Roundhouse, a cozy building perched about halfway up Baldy at 7,700 feet elevation. The building has sat on the slope since 1939, but it stopped serving dinner in the 1940s.

That changed Thursday, Dec. 9, when the Roundhouse served its first dinner guests in nearly 70 years. The night was a soft opening for the Roundhouse—now offering dinner from 6-9 p.m. on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays by reservation only—and provided a long awaited meal for Wally Huffman, Sun Valley Co.'s director of resort development.

"I've waited 40 years for this," said Huffman while holding a glass of wine and standing in the entryway to the Roundhouse's circular-shaped dining area Thursday, welcoming the first guests.

A four-sided wood fireplace extends upward from the center of the circular building. Combined with the surrounding antler chandeliers, the firelight bathes the Roundhouse's interior in warm yellow light, reminiscent of several sepia-toned photographs from the 1930s and '40s adorning its walls.

Huffman had to wait four decades for this night because of safety concerns that couldn't have been alleviated until recently. Roundhouse Manager Michael McCormack is a walking historian of the building and tells of its life, starting at how it came to be and why dinners had to stop. He said the Union Pacific Railroad, creator of Sun Valley Resort, built the Roundhouse in 1939 with $20,000 left over after constructing chairlifts up Baldy. At that time, it took two lifts to get to the Roundhouse, starting on the other side of the Big Wood River. Skiers would sit on a solitary chair.

"By the time they got here, they were freezing," McCormack said, adding that the Roundhouse served as a warming hut where skiers could get a bowl of chili and cup of hot cocoa before hitting the slopes.

He said the problem of cold was obviously exacerbated during nighttime chairlift travel, and liability issues became apparent concerning how to evacuate dinner guests in the event of an emergency. He said they used to ski down the dark mountain after eating, which obviously couldn't continue. The resort needed a safe alternative.

The gondola—open for its second winter—solved the problem by establishing the first direct route to the Roundhouse, and in an enclosed cabin. Better yet, the gondola ride doesn't cost extra but is included in the price of dinner.

Entrees range from $23 to $36.

Huffman said the gondola helped "convince" the U.S. Forest Service—which leases the mountain to Sun Valley Resort—that safety issues could be resolved. He said the Forest Service also wanted a handicap-accessible bathroom to be built, which was done.

However, Huffman said, the resort quickly realized other changes were needed, including redoing the electrical system and doubling the kitchen's size. He said the electrical system was "maxed out."

"We literally couldn't have added one more light," he said.

And the Roundhouse was low on lights because it didn't need them when it only served breakfast and lunch. He said the building also needed heating improvements.

Even with the kitchen doubled, the Roundhouse is still unable to serve its capacity of 155 people—including those in Averell's Bar overlooking Ketchum—at one time and must stagger the reservation times. Don Wise, the Roundhouse's chef de cuisine, meaning he oversees all of the cooking, said Thursday was a chance for the 12-person kitchen crew to have a trial run and "get in the groove" for the busy nights to come. Wise said the Roundhouse is almost entirely booked through January.

"We decided years ago to give it the feel of Swiss/Austrian cuisine. It is authentic," he said while standing outside the kitchen, arms crossed, watching the first hungry guests arriving. "We've worked hard to bring it up to this level. We're very excited."

The Roundhouse offers eight starters to choose from, ranging from $6 for tossed baby lettuces with herbed crostinis and lemon vinaigrette to $25 for classic cheese fondue for two. Some other starters are strudel of forest mushrooms, lobster popover with lemon-herb sour cream and golden caviar, and roasted roma tomato and cognac soup with puff-pastry fleurons.

Entrees range from $23 for the napoleon of roasted vegetables with a tomato and root vegetable nage to $38 for a double-rib domestic lamb rack with gratin of two potatoes and sauce nicoise. Some other entrees are filet mignon of prime beef, medallions of elk loin and sautéed stuffed breast of pheasant.

Desserts range from $6 for ice cream or sorbet to $10 for chocolate fondue with fresh berries, frangipani and dried fruit. The Roundhouse also offers flourless double-chocolate cake among other sweets.

Call 622-2012 to make a reservation.

Trevon Milliard: tmilliard@mtexpress.com




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