Second Helpings

Higher and Higher

The server didn't bat an eye when a member of our party asked for a Bud Light.

The sommelier did. "Hey, maybe you have some in your car," he joked, poking our server in the ribs. The server thought for a moment, then shook his head. "I think we do have Coors, ma'am," he offered politely.

Instead, she let him talk her into a sweet Belgian wheat beer, which the server brought in a super-fancy champagne flute. By then, the rest of us were well into a bottle of 1998 Paul Hobbs pinot noir -- far superior to the 1997, as our sommelier pointed out -- and a Duckhorn merlot, not quite as stunning but very drinkable. The bottom line: If you can't find a wine you like in the award-winning, 20,000-plus-bottles cellar of the Flagstaff House, you're either a Bud drinker or an idiot.

Whatever your taste, the Flagstaff's staff won't make you feel anything but wonderful. One of the true measures of a fine dining establishment is how well it treats its guests, and the Flagstaff does quite well on all counts.

When I last visited this local institution ("Summit of the Ate," December 25, 1997), it was suffering through some troublesome service and kitchen problems such as staffers who conducted their personal business in the walkways between tables, lengthy waits between courses, and burned food. But those bumps now seem like mere burps in the Flagstaff's nearly three-decades-long history. Our meal this time was exquisite, a stellar experience from beginning to end, marred by not so much as a hiccup. The staff, which works as a team on each table (some of the more elaborate maneuvers resembled chorus-line choreography), outdid itself, never missing a step, fading into the background when we weren't ready to move on, and bantering with us in the most professional manner that they could muster while still trying to help us have fun.

We were six women -- five of us moms, two of us divorced, one of us a devout beer drinker -- out for the night on a biannual get-together. Needless to say, we were ready for action. Okay -- we were terrified that we might actually be confronted by some action, but we were definitely looking to flirt (a few servers complied most charmingly) and let our hair down as much as we could in this fancy-schmancy setting. Although not my favorite dining room in the area -- the magazine-shoot-quality decor is beautiful, but the tables are too close together, and the space somehow lacks the warmth you'd expect in a special-occasion place -- at 6,000 feet it has That View, a stunning vista that unfolds right outside the floor-to-ceiling glass walls.

Don Monette and his sons -- Scott, the general manager, and Mark, the chef -- have owned the Flagstaff since 1971. They took over what had been a cabin (circa 1927), and later a movie set and casual restaurant; it was in such bad shape that they had to extensively remodel. They remodeled again in 1998. The dining room still has that creamy, custardy glow, but it's no longer topped by billowy clouds of fabric; instead, the ceiling has sections open to the sky, which augments the restaurant's in-the-clouds atmosphere. They also added a stunning mahogany bar and a fireplace, making the Flagstaff's lounge an excellent destination for appetizers or desserts -- and that view.

But the appetizers look just fine on their own, too. The signature sea urchin shell filled with a ragout of creamy Red Sea urchin and lump crabmeat elicited oohs and aahs from our table. While the brass rabbits holding trays of toast points that came with a starter selection of specialty meats were good for a laugh, the smooth terrine of foie gras, the sweet duck liver pâté and the tender smoked duck breast were seriously delicious. And the ahi tuna tartare was prepared tableside, which gave us a chance to tease the server some more while he combined rich, oily tuna with red onion, wasabi and tobiko, the eggs of the flying fish.

Chef Mark Monette trained in France but also worked at restaurants in several Asian countries, and this background is reflected on the menu. The Japanese-style venison dumplings were a marvel, their plush, spicy meat filling enhanced by a bell-pepper-sweetened, ginger-infused broth. The venison provided a Continental base note, while the Asian ingredients benefited from classical French preparation. The pork tenderloin entree was impressive for the same reason. The large, evenly cooked hunk of pig had been carefully wrapped in crispy noodles that gave a nice crunch against the velvety meat; a long, thick shard of lobster meat in its shell was a sweet side. Other accompaniments included Yukon gold potatoes and haricots verts, and the sauce that tied these unlikely parts together -- and tied them together well -- featured shiitakes and sesame seeds as its main flavors. No con-fusion here.

The vegetarian lasagne sounded simple, but was far from it: Homemade noodles, oh-so-soft and pliant, had been layered with porcini, chanterelle and tree oyster mushrooms, as well as leeks, rich goat cheese and a reduction of tomatoes and red wine that had the flavor of an upscale Italian gravy and the consistency of the finest French sauces. The pepper-seared filet mignon boasted a pinot noir sauce that also took the traditional approach; the meat came with a simple golden- and sweet-potato gratin.

The Flagstaff knows when to leave well enough alone. Even with such disparate elements as ahi tuna, soft-shell crab, potato purée and bok choy in one dish, the kitchen was smart enough to stick to unfussy preparations. And so the tuna got nothing more than an herbal treatment, the crab a straightforward pan-frying, the potato a touch of cream and the bok choy, wisely chosen in its baby form, a sound sautéing that left it slightly crunchy. A sweet-and-sour broth balanced with lemongrass and roasted red peppers was ideal to pull the ingredients together: light enough to keep from overpowering the delicate crab, lemony enough to counteract the oiliness of the tuna, thin enough to serve as a sort of gravy for the fragile potatoes and sweet enough to hold its own against the bitter cabbage.

Fabulous as all these dishes were, marvelous as the service was, the hot liquid Valrhona chocolate cake alone would have been worth the windy drive up Flagstaff Mountain. One bite, and we didn't care about the waiters anymore. The cake was equal to every orgasmic, exclamatory, to-die-for adjective we could come up with -- and we still weren't able to do complete verbal justice to the moist rich confection and its molten chocolate ganache center.

One of the servers knew what what was going on, and he smiled a wicked smile. "Are you enjoying yourselves, ladies?" he asked mischievously. After we were done cackling, he asked if we were at the Flagstaff to celebrate something.

No, we replied. We just wanted to be in a place where a Bud Light kind of gal could feel like Dom Perignon.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner