Dining in Tahoe: High expectations | TahoeDailyTribune.com

Dining in Tahoe: High expectations

Simone Grandmain
Tahoe Magazine

Submitted to aedgett@sierrasun.com

LAKE TAHOE – One of the great things about a resort town is that with everybody vying to be the best of the best you are left with, well, the best. Visitors who have traveled for hours to reach their destination will not keep paying to ski at a substandard hill – so the slopes are groomed, the lifts are running and the employees are friendly and knowledgeable. Hotels will not book rooms if the accommodations are below par. Retail shops better have trendy, unique to the area and useful inventory. And the restaurants, ahhhh … the restaurants. Here the competition really weeds out the men from the boys. Not only do Tahoe restaurants have to go head-to-head with each other – they are competing with dining memories and expectations firmly established in visitors’ cosmopolitan hometowns.

Face it, the Bay Area might not have Squaw or Heavenly, but they do have a surplus of great restaurants. Our Tahoe restaurateurs need to go the extra mile to impress. Resort crowds are a hard gig, the ultimate taste test. The good news? The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. Lake Tahoe is a Mecca for world-class travelers, which means it is also a Mecca for world-class dining.

Some of our most famous local chefs first sharpened their knives in swank flatland eateries before setting up shop in the Sierra. Sam Okamoto, executive chef and co-owner of Drunken Monkey Sushi, Tapas and Sake Lounge in Truckee (www.drunkenmonkeysushi.com) is a 28-year veteran of the culinary arts. Born in Japan and trained as both a French chef and in the fine art of sushi, Okamoto gave up the lucrative drama-filled life of a corporate chef in Seattle to accept a master chef position in Truckee. He then ventured out on his own, opening a restaurant where he “would want to eat.” His dining standards have set new ones in the community. Drunken Monkey’s answer to Sushi in the Sierra? Fresh, seasonal fish delivered six days a week. Chefs trained by the man himself. A menu with weather-appropriate, daily specials that may or may not become a part of the permanent menu – depending on appeal. Or, in Sam’s case, raves. Mere geography has not held him back: The 120 sauces he created rely on fresh ingredients that stand up and give notice.

Likewise, Moody’s Bistro and Lounge in the 19th century old Truckee Hotel (www.moodysbistro.com) does not find Tahoe too remote to score first-class, fresh off-the-farm product. They turn to Sierra Valley Farms for produce and California Olive Ranch in Oroville for olive oil. The tomatoes come from Watanabe’s in Sacramento. Fresh fish arrives daily via FedEx. Says co-owner JJ Morgan, “The seasonality is tricky. We have three different customers bases: the full-time residents, the visitors and the second homeowners. We have to offer value and a memorable dining experience. We change about 30 percent of our menu daily to keep it interesting, creative and seasonal. It’s a challenge.” Why accept it? “I like I here. I’m raising my son here.”

Tahoe likes them here too. Moody’s executive chef and co-owner Mark Estee left his east coast roots and prestigious posts at New York’s Pot au Feu, Cafe Luigi and James Beard House when Hyatt Hotels in Boston offered him a position in Lake Tahoe. Their loss is out gain. Even Sir Paul McCartney, who has played in Moody’s lounge on several occasions, hunts down Estee’s culinary wizardry when he comes to town.

Melodie Ulman, owner of Freshies Restaurant & Bar in South Lake Tahoe concedes doing business in the High Sierra can be daunting, “Give us a sidewalk and we’ll really be world class!” she says. But lack of pedestrian foot-traffic hasn’t slowed the restaurant down. They do the right thing, the next right thing and then the next, and word of mouth fills them to capacity. (Of course the talents of “genius chef” Erik Ulman might have something to do with this.) Much of what the Freshies does is behind the scenes. They take care of their employees first and that respect is reflected in the front of the house. The service, like the food, is first rate. They even have a web-cam overlooking their massive outdoor, lakefront deck so customers can check out the crowd before deciding if they want to join the party.

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And face it: One of the reasons people come to Tahoe is to party. It is, again, a resort area. It is celebratory, not industrial. Our industry is recreation. Enter the food festivals. For those of you mixing culinary tourism in with outdoor activities, you’re in luck. The summer and fall months in Tahoe host several, impressive dining extravaganzas (people book rooms around them) and a few charming ones in between. s