Worshippers of sun and snow find a thriving dining scene in the mountains to our east
It used to be that dining in Tahoe was an afterthought: a stop at the grocery store for some pasta or an uninspired dinner out. But times have changed. These days, a big-city dining scene has indisputably hit North Lake Tahoe and Truckee, including a number of places so intriguing you might even venture to them during a blizzard. To survey the scene, we traveled through sleet, snow, and summer sun to check out the new places and visit our old haunts. The result? Diablo’s comprehensive list of innovative, inspirational, and purely delectable Best Places to Eat in North Tahoe.
Dragonfly, 10118 Donner Pass Rd., Truckee, (530) 587-0557, www.dragonflycuisine.com
The melding of California ingredients and Asian flavors on the ever-changing menu at Dragonfly—a relative newcomer that opened in 2001—is a smashing success. The satay, for example, is as good as any you’ll find in a Thai restaurant; its deep grilled flavor belies the moist tenderness of the meat, and its peanut sauce is alive with fresh green onion and red chili flakes. The Maple Leaf duck breast almost evokes Thanksgiving turkey with its berry sauce, but even here there’s a twist: a ginger-citrus marinade gives the succulent meat some bright, spicy flavors of its own. Indulge in the banana chocolate wontons, their soft centers surrounded by a crust that is delicately blistered.
Moody’s Bistro & Lounge, 10007 Bridge St., Truckee, (530) 587-8688, www.moodysbistro.com
If you pay close attention to the seasons in Truckee, chances are you’re a skier, not a chef. One exception is the team of Mark Estee and J.J. Morgan, who brought a Chez Panisse sensibility to the mountains when they opened Moody’s in 2002. Estee’s French-influenced menu is focused on whatever’s fresh: Wild mushroom and fennel soup might give way to seared foie gras with pineapple relish or steak frites. The restaurant, in the historic Truckee Hotel, walks a line between elegant and easygoing. The sound of live jazz fills its formal dining room and a leather booth–filled lounge four nights a week. It’s a flexible setting for a chef whose cooking can be hearty in winter or light and bright in the flush of spring.
Fireside Pizza, 1985 Squaw Valley Rd., Ste. 25, Olympic Valley, (530) 584-6150, www.firesidepizza.com
This family pizza joint, decorated with a moose motif, snowshoes, and fishing tackle, offers a standout pear and Gorgonzola pizza—one that could hold its own in some of the temples of food snobbery right here in the East Bay. The crust is on the thin side, with fresh-bread flavor and just a bit of elasticity. Ripe pear and wisps of roasted red onion lie beneath a crumble of almost-pungent Gorgonzola; the lightly browned pizza is then topped with a tangle of arugula tossed with a balsamic vinaigrette that makes all the flavors of the dish sing. With a glass of wine, it’s a perfect meal. Also try the surprisingly wholesome and satisfying grilled chicken salad with greens, roasted peppers and onions, and goat cheese.
PlumpJack Cafe, 1920 Squaw Valley Rd., Olympic Valley, (530) 583-1578, www.plumpjack.com
This comfortable, upscale venue—opened in 1995—offers soft, upholstered chairs and banquettes for you to sink into after a long day on the slopes while you are lovingly lavished with good food. Ahi tuna cones with ponzu, pickled ginger, avocado, wasabi, tobiko, and sesame seeds are a chorus of soprano voices, the different flavors bright and distinct. Perfectly pan-seared scallops come wrapped in strips of lightly browned pancetta, although the spicy beet sprouts thrown on top didn’t seem to jibe—nor did the accompanying sweet pea puree and fennel salad. An entrée of black cod was crisp-skinned and meltingly tender inside. A New York steak was also perfectly cooked, and its risotto side was nicely seasoned and not overly rich. The Plumpjack empire is as much about wine as food, and that shows in the wine list here. Desserts are creative, luscious, and more seasonal than the other courses.
Christy Hill, 115 Grove St., Tahoe City, (530) 583-8551, www.christyhill.com
Something of a Tahoe institution, this clapboard house with a stunning lake view has been serving California cuisine for two decades. On an end-of-summer visit, ripe peach, a flurry of Gorgonzola, candied pecans, and a subtle champagne vinaigrette enlivened an inventive mix of pristine greens. A rich and succulent, if somewhat unadorned, rack of lamb was accompanied by golden potato gratin with just the right cheese sharpness. The specialty of the house, smoked chicken–stuffed chiles rellenos in a delicate egg-batter crust and roasty tomato sauce, were shockingly delicious. The wine list includes exciting half bottles and bottles, and house-made desserts add to the fun at this welcoming spot.
Sol y Lago, 760 N. Lake Blvd., Tahoe City, (530) 583-0358, www.solylago.com
This Nuevo Latino supper club showcases chef Johnny Alamilla, from San Francisco’s much-missed Alma, who brought his brilliant mambo moves to ski country in December 2005. The result is as exciting as a ski trip to Bariloche. Never before have Tahoe ski-heads been treated to such dishes as ceviche caliente: delicately fried black bass, fresh and bright from a quick swim in lime and orange juice, set off by a tart, spicy, sweet smoked-jalapeño tartar sauce. Special wine flights served on Wednesdays allow you to taste from a wine list whose bottles hail from Chile, Argentina, and Spain. Service can be shaky, but just sit back and enjoy the five-star lake view and the low-light drama of the restaurant, as well as the high-end salsa music and pan-Latin pop.
Wolfdale’s, 640 N. Lake Blvd., Tahoe City, (530) 583-5700, www.wolfdales.com
Douglas Dale opened Wolfdale’s 28 years ago, and he’s still at the stoves every night applying his studied, attentive approach. A plate of "teasers" includes earthy, sharp Asian-style red beets, seared scallops paired with divine house-made mayonnaise, and smoked trout whose flavor evokes the freshness of Tahoe’s waters. Japanese touches, such as toasted sesame seeds and wasabi, season but never overpower the seafood. Dale serves pheasant breast, which he pan-sears to a heavenly crispness, atop a bed of silky black lentils. Cocktails are well made, the wine list offers only hits, and eager waitstaff work the softly lit dining room. Dale even makes his own desserts, such as a crisp-crusted apple pie bursting with firm-fleshed Fujis and the right hint of cinnamon.
West Shore Café & Inn, 5160 W. Lake Blvd., Homewood, (530) 525-5200
The West Shore Café, a restaurant where every table has a lake view, was reborn in June after four years of dormancy. The new establishment, which includes several elegant guest rooms upstairs, is breathtaking: Light glimmers off the copper-topped roof, and the gentleman’s parlor–style interior boasts flagstone floors, Persian rugs, and a lounge with a huge hearth. A chestnut soup arrives bearing a decadent cube of kurabata bacon and a subtle waft of cardamom. Foie gras is roasted to perfection and served with a trio of precisely prepared apple accompaniments. Chef Bret Pafford, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, came from San Francisco, and his cooking shows city finesse.