Mountaintop Dining at Sugarloaf
By Nancy Heiser
Photographed by Mark Fleming
Sugarloaf Mountain Resort, Carrabassett Valley
It’s early evening, and a few après-skiers cluster by the windows inside the base lodge at Sugarloaf, waiting for their ride to arrive. With contained excitement, they chat about the coming occasion, wondering if they’re properly dressed. They’re expecting not just any shuttle. They await a bona fide snow cat, an off-road vehicle that can navigate the mountain in all weather. It will take these guests to a gourmet meal at Bullwinkle’s, a ski lodge three quarters of the way up Maine’s second highest peak.
Soon the bright red Bombardier rumbles across the snow. The driver helps the diners up the metal ladder into the cab, clamps the door. The sky is clear, daylight is almost gone, and the moon turns the snow blue-white. As the transport slowly rolls up the slope, passengers murmur their appreciation for the shadowy view. These fifteen people are the only ones, aside from grooming crew, on the mountain at this late hour. They’re hungry, too, but won’t be for long, for an ambitious and abundant meal awaits them.
In the 1994-95 ski season, John Diller, president of Sugarloaf, and John Rollins, director of food service, traveled out West to learn how various ski resorts ran their food operations. They returned to Sugarloaf with an idea they’d seen in action — to provide a small number of guests with an elegant and remote dinner on the mountain after the slopes had closed. Sugarloaf had an obvious choice: Bullwinkle’s, its lodge perched at three thousand feet.
Sugarloaf’s mountain dinners started the next ski season and have evolved over the years, says Jaime Caron, the resort’s food and beverage manager. At first, they used an eight- to ten-person snow cat to transport. Now an eighteen-seat Bombardier, a.k.a. the “house cat,” makes three or four trips each Saturday to Bullwinkle’s, which was expanded with a new, half-million dollar kitchen five years ago. During the quarter-hour voyage, passengers sit on spit-clean, school bus-style seats, high off the ground and surrounded by windows.
A thousand skiers can pass through Bullwinkle’s on a Saturday, says Caron, and it’s his job to see that this rough-hewn chalet is transformed into a quiet, softly lit and romantic refuge. “It’s a lot of work in a short amount of time. We really have only an hour and a half to flip the whole room. The staff have it down to a science,” he says.
Dining room manager Katie Quinn stores linens, higher end dishware, oil lamps, and candles in several totes, which are rapidly unpacked. Tables are set ahead of time and rarely used twice in the same evening. “We always know how many people are coming,” says Caron. At the end of the night, they tear it all down to prepare for Sunday lunch.
After coats are taken and flutes of champagne offered, nighttime guests settle into the spacious dining area, dwarfed by the two-story cathedral ceiling and massive supporting timbers. The head of a bull moose keeps a glass eye on things from above the bar.
“We try to give customers a dining experience they can’t get anywhere else in this part of Maine,” says chef Aaron Upham, who worked twelve years as sous chef under John Reed and took on the role of head chef with the 2011-12 season.
Last year, Upham started guests off with their choice of a rich and warming corn and crab bisque with roasted poblano peppers or charred fennel soup with lemongrass, pearl barley, and dill. For a second course, he offered lobster-stuffed tempura rolls with a creamy Gorgonzola sauce or a spicy-sweet dish of chipotle-mango pork, beet slaw, and caramelized apples over a cornmeal cake.
Porcini-dusted tenderloin, Cornish game hen stuffed with walnut couscous, lobster ravioli, and rainbow trout were among the entrees. The tender meat of an apricot and beer-braised lamb shank came with a minted demi-glace; the arctic char was lacquered with a sweet brown sauce of pineapple, honey, and soy.
Bullwinkle’s includes refined tableside service, an intriguing cocktail and wine list, and dessert choices too tempting to pass up, such as ancho chili chocolate soufflé and lavender custard enveloped in a crepe.
At ninety-nine dollars per person — this includes the six-course meal and transportation, but not gratuity and liquor — the price tag may seem steep. “In the ten years I’ve managed, I’ve never heard anyone say it wasn’t worth the money,” says Caron. “It’s a novelty. We want people to have a three-hour experience they can’t get at every ski area.”
Indeed, it feels pleasantly incongruous, even otherworldly, to dine at night in this transformed setting so far from the rest of the world.
As the house cat returns to the main lodge, its passengers brace against the downhill pitch. The lights of Carrabassett Valley twinkle below. The Bombardier levels out, the driver cuts the engine, and dinner guests return to earth, their boots hitting the firm and snowy ground.
Nancy Heiser is an independent writer and editor based near Portland, Maine.