Alpine Tavern chef mixes world travels with mountain cuisine.
By Melanie Wong
It might take you a while to discover Alpine Tavern, but once you do, chances are you’ll be coming back again.
Tucked away at the clubhouse of the East Vail Racquet Club, it’s a popular neighborhood spot, and one of Vail’s hidden gems. The restaurant itself is a pleasant space, with spacious, high-beamed ceilings and huge windows that fill the place with light. The restaurant’s more casual bar is located upstairs in a large loft, where live music plays every weekend. Open since 2010, the place is popular among East Vail locals, but tourists and other valley residents have slowly been finding their way over as well.
At the helm of the restaurant’s kitchen is executive chef Paolo Busi.
Busi is part mad scientist, part eccentric chef, and part philosopher. With his wild hair, off-the-wall humor and creative talent in the kitchen, he’s hard to miss.
Busi was born and raised in the culinary Mecca of Florence, Italy, where he received his first culinary training at a local program and decided his passion was cooking. As he admits, wanderlust grabbed him at an early age, and he spent years roaming the globe. He worked on a cruise liner for a number of years, starting as a waiter, eventually earning his stripes in the kitchen and traveling from port to port – he even was on board for a few around-the-world trips.
After his cruise career, he landed in San Francisco, working in restaurants, and eventually moved to Santa Fe (for a change, he says), where he opened his own restaurant, Pastability. The restaurant had an 11-year run, and afterward he wandered a bit more, and then made a life-changing pilgrimage to India, where he taught at a private boarding school. The people, the spirit of the place and the tastes of Indian cuisine made a lasting impact on him. You taste Indian flair in some of his dishes, and he always has some kind of curry dish going. He still goes back yearly to visit.
“I’m still stuck in India,” he admits.
You’ll hear anything from flamenco to Italian opera blaring from his kitchen, and the dishes he produces are equally eclectic. On the menu you might find lamb shank in coconut curry, as well as a classic Italian lobster linguini served with spicy marinara, or maybe a veal chop with a Southwestern chili sauce. Some of his favorite influences include Thai and South American spices.
Imported from Italy
Of course, Busi draws from his Italian roots as well. The menu boasts an Italian section, and Busi is particular about these dishes. Some of Alpine Tavern’s best sellers are Italian-inspired. such as the osso buco, a northern Italian dish of sautéed and spiced veal shank. With matter-of-fact pride, he tells you that he’s been told his Bolognese sauce is the best that can be found.
Busi makes regular pilgrimages back to India and Italy, and he’s always sure to return with a new inspiration. But besides cooking, his other passion is yoga – he studied a meditative form called Kundalini while in India.
“I’m a yoga teacher… that’s actually what I’d like to be. But the cooking – that’s to pay the bills,” he jokes. “You can replace a steak if it’s not well done. But you can’t replace a breath.”
His philosophy is that as long as he’s balanced and passionate about what he does, guests at his restaurant might see that in his cooking.
“My goal in life is not to be the best chef in the valley, but to be a better person,” he says. “Pretty much whatever you do, you have to put some passion in it… and you have to break some rules, too. When you’re happy with what you’re doing, you can transmit that to other people.”
Join the regulars
With only two years under their belt, the staff at Alpine Tavern says they are happy to see the place grow in popularity.
“This winter is as busy as we’ve been,” says general manager Scott Kneeland.
Musicians are a constant presence in the bar area on weekends. A lineup of locals play as regulars, and Kneeland, who used to manage a Los Angeles nightclub, draws in West Coast artists playing a variety of music from reggae to bluegrass. This weekend, locally based band Skin the Rabbit takes the stage. The shows are always free.
At the bar, you can order more casual fare, such as burgers and sandwiches – not that those don’t come without Busi’s dramatic flair – try the “lamb-wich”, a roasted leg of lamb served with lingonberry mustard on house-made Italian bread.
“We have a fun staff. I’m behind the bar most nights and I know everyone’s name,” Kneeland says. “It’s a lot of fun. We all care a lot about the place.”
Where: East Vail Racquet Club
Specials: Sunday is “Italian Night” – four-course Italian meal for $49.
Try the Tuesday “5-course dinner special” – smaller, European-style fare for $39.
Be sure to try: Any of chef Busi’s curries. Also, the tiramisu practically floats in your mouth!