Probably the biggest rush a foodie ever gets is the personal discovery of a great new chef. Long before I was a food writer and way before they’d become household names, I remember the immense satisfaction of eating in little known New York City restaurants like Miracle Grill in the East Village where Bobby Flay worked as executive chef, or Mario Batali’s little Po restaurant on Cornelia Street. I dined three times at my favorite neighborhood bistro'Tony Bourdain’s Les Halles on Park Avenue in Midtown Manhattan'the very week it opened and many more after that.
But the good luck of finding such restaurants and chefs puts the food writer in a pickle: Should you share your good fortune with the rest of the world or keep your most delectable discoveries to yourself? There’s always the risk of overhyping a restaurant, which can hurt more than help. Then there’s the crowd factor: Do I really want my favorite restaurants diminished by their own popularity?
In this case, I’m not too worried. I have indeed discovered a top-notch chef in our midst, but he’s far enough off the beaten path that I don’t fret long lines waiting for his tables. The kitchen master I speak of is Elio Scanu, executive chef at Snowbasin resort. Toiling at Snowbasin puts him far enough off the culinary map that probably only the most deranged foodies will bother to seek him out. On the other hand, I suspect that many of the regulars at Snowbasin don’t even realize the knowledge, technique and talent behind the sensational food they enjoy there.
Originally from Asti'near Torino in Italy'Scanu grew up and worked in Europe, the United States and South America. His father was an Italian pilot who met his Venezuelan wife on a Caracas run, and Chef Scanu has worked at the acclaimed Intermezzo Restaurant in Merida, Venezuela, as well as at Roberto Donna’s prestigious Washington, D.C., restaurant, Galileo. When oil billionaire and resort/hotel owner Earl Holding (Sun Valley, Snowbasin, Grand America, Little America, etc.) decided to upgrade the lodges and dining facilities at Snowbasin, he had the wisdom to hire a world-class chef in Scanu. Grand America is commonly thought to be Holding’s most glistening gem, but I think Scanu is Earl’s pearl.
As at most modern ski resorts, dining at Snowbasin runs the gamut from the upscale cafeteria-style food stations at Earl’s Lodge to fine dining in Earl’s Lounge. The lodge features highest quality pizzas from a wood-fire oven, along with tamale, sandwich, grill and potato stations where skiers can chow on gourmet items like smoked shrimp and lobster or poblano pork and pineapple tamales. Up at the 8,900-foot John Paul Lodge, downhillers will discover the wonders of Snowbasin’s incredible burgers: One-third pound of certified organic corn-fed Brawley chuck ($8.50), grilled up exactly the way you like it and served with crisp shoestring potatoes and a choice of cheeses. At the elegant Needles Lodge and its glassed-in heated patio with unsurpassed vistas, you’ll find Austrian and German-influenced specials ($11) such as sauerbraten, beef Stroganoff and German sausages with spaetzle, sauerkraut, veggies and a home-baked roll.
Indeed, the food throughout Snowbasin resort is exceptional. But it’s at Earl’s Lounge and weekend lunch/brunch in the Huntington Room where Scanu really struts his stuff. I enjoyed a couple of lunches there recently'the lounge is open until 5 p.m.'that simply knocked my socks off. It’d take another entire column to describe in-depth Scanu’s amazing feasts, so I’ll just give you an enticing snapshot of last week’s Snowbasin lunch at Earl’s Lounge. It all began with a bowl of steamed Littleneck and Manila clams served in a green curry and Riesling broth atop Blue Point and Pacific oysters. The next course was a stunningly tender Chilean sea bass filet perched on top of homemade ravioli stuffed with purÃ©ed fava beans and minced white fat from imported prosciutto. Accompanying the bass was freshly made squid-ink and sea-salt linguine and a rich, remarkable “glace de viande.” I don’t know that I’ve ever enjoyed a dish more than this one.
But we were only halfway through lunch. As my out-of-town East Coast visitors became more and more enthusiastic about Utah cooking, we worked our way through an “intermezzo” of tuna tartar served in a rectangular cucumber “cup” followed by an artfully presented trio of perfectly (small) portioned Scanu creations: A lamb “lollipop” with a Port and cranberry-reduction sauce over Sicilian caponatina; a chicken saltimbocca “sphereâ€; and a fork-tender Brawley Beef tenderloin served over potato mousseline with white-truffle oil. Not that we had an iota of room left for dessert, but how could we possibly pass on a fresh berry “soup” with Grand Marnier, pepper, lavender honey, Point Reyes chevre and little wild-rice pops that look like worms!
Terrific service from friendly gals like Nikole and Nicole just make dining at Snowbasin all that much more enjoyable. My only complaint about eating there is that the food and drink is so delightful at Snowbasin, you’ll find yourself lingering longer and longer at lunch, thereby sacrificing some of the more tantalizing skiable terrain on the planet. So my advice might be to head up to Snowbasin on a day when you don’t plan to ski'for lunch or brunch in one of its remarkable restaurants. There, you’ll discover a chef named Elio Scanu, before he gets too well known to stick around Utah.