Food Matters: You Might Get More Than You Realize From A Delicious Meal

by Amanda Rae
Salmon Achiote Ponzu with mushrooms and pea shoots at a recent tasting dinner at Toro Kitchen & Lounge, Viceroy Snowmass.
Photo by Amanda Rae


Toro Kitchen & Lounge Viceroy Snowmass

130 Wood Road, Snowmass Village

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BY THE TIME the fourth course was set before us, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I was optimistic, even though it starred my all-time least-favorite ingredient: salmon.

The pairing dinner, held at the new Toro Kitchen & Lounge in the Viceroy Snowmass earlier this month had thus far been series of slam-dunks. First we received a tasting trio showcasing celebrity chef Richard Sandoval’s classic Latin flavors: Colorado bass ceviche, soaked in citrusy Peruvian leche de tigre; a spoonful of tuna in the mashup style of Peruvian ceviche and Japanese sashimi known as Nikkei; a slice of crisp toast topped with beef tartare, black garlic, and arugula.

After that, an elevated taco-margarita pairing featured miniature corn tortillas topped with 48-hour-braised and sesame-sautéed short-rib, sliced avocado, cilantro, and tomatillo salsa alongside a frothy mezcal-green chartreuse-Luxardo concoction.

The third course was my current favorite—a pair of fat scallops encrusted with Parmesan and coffee adobo, perched on a cloud of a rum-butter emulsion with a shower of crunchy, pale-green pea shoots. Guests were later gifted a small tin of the adobo rub—a blend of 15 Mexican spices—along with a recipe for Sandoval’s seared tuna with traditional mole verde.

Research has shown that our bodies absorb more nutrients from foods we enjoy.

Now, the “Salmon Achiote Ponzu” was set before us. Usually I shudder at this moment, since salmon dishes I truly enjoy are very, very rare. In fact, only two stand out from recent years: chef Shawn Lawrence’s whiskey-marinated masterpiece at a Jack Daniel’s dinner at the Sky Hotel (“Game Changer,” March 19, 2015) and my friend and now Tanuki ToGo chef Adam Norwig’s tartare of Verlasso salmon with coconut sorbet and wildflowers at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen Grand Tasting tent for the Caribou Club.

This looked like a plump filet of salmon, under a deeply golden crust of achiote and chipotle chile, lounging in a pool of fragrant broth. A tangle of mushrooms, pea tendrils, and wilted kale tumbled over top and beneath it like a little forest scene. It smelled faintly like salmon; I hesitated. But approving murmurs around the table offered easy motivation to dig right in.

To my delight, the dish was sweet and salty, crispy and juicy, with chewy, earthy vegetables and a faint tongue tingle from the chiles. The saltiness of the broth cut through the fish—Ōra King salmon, we learned, from Toro executive chef Herb Wilson.

“It’s a Richard Sandoval dish,” Wilson demurs, when I ask about the creation. “Salmon is a really fatty fish; you can season it aggressively. Achiote chile to season and ponzu broth to give it some saline—both cut the fattiness.”

He swears there’s no butter or miso on the plate, but I tasted a certain sweetness in the salmon. That might be attributed to this particular species, sustainably ocean-farmed in New Zealand and the first of its kind to earn a Green/Best Choice rating from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program.

Wilson mentions that he’s working on a new summer menu for Toro, which opened earlier this winter as part of the Viceroy’s tony $4 million revamp. New dishes will mostly be Wilson’s original creations in the same vein—“Latin steakhouse, with Mexican and Spanish influences,” he says, using locally sourced ingredients.

Still, “We might keep this one,” Wilson says of the Salmon Achiote Ponzu. “It sells well…salmon is one of those fishes identifiable to everyone.”

Not only was the salmon at Toro one of the most enjoyable fish dishes in recent memory, I think, but it may have also been one of the most nourishing. Research has shown that our bodies absorb more nutrients from foods we enjoy. The link between pleasure and food is clear—the French are among the thinnest humans, and they consume some of the richest foods (albeit in smaller portions) without guilt.

Dishes that are relished, then, may provide greater health benefits than those we eat begrudgingly. Junk food—devoid of nutrition and full of empty calories—is often inhaled mindlessly at a rapid rate. I might claim to adore Cheetos “crunchy cheese-flavored snacks”…but enjoyment typically fades fast after the first few fistfuls. Any sense of joy vanishes completely once the bag is empty.

So maybe finding this salmon dish represents one step closer to appreciating this specific fish. I’ve often thought of what I’m missing by skipping what is widely considered the most healthful fish on the market—essential omega-3 fatty acids! Protein! Potassium, selenium, vitamin B12, oh my! I never order salmon in a restaurant, and I definitely don’t cook it at home. It’s only when I’m encouraged to consume it (ahem, tasting dinners) that I get the opportunity.

All of this ties into eating more mindfully—a practice we may be losing in the digital era, when discipline to eat a meal without tapping on or gazing at a screen is disappearing along with table manners. My single-focus salmon experience at Toro serves as a personal reminder to savor dinner, even if it involves a food that, for me, has historically been disappointing.Each dish is a new dish.

After the dessert course was cleared at Toro, the restaurant’s sommelier Jim Callen returned to show us an epic party trick. He claimed that the Riedel Vinum XL Cabernet wine glasses on the table were large enough to hold an entire bottle of wine. Sure, the bowls of the glasses were shaped like oblong balloons, but large enough for 750ml, really? Prove it!

So he did. Callen poured an entire bottle of rosé into my dining companion’s glass. We hooted and hollered. Here was a grand display of sweet excess, and we would relish in the pure pleasure of passing the massive glass back and forth, drinking it dry.

Alas, it only took one whiff for Callen to realize that the wine was corked. Drats! Considering how much we enjoyed everything else throughout the evening, though, it may have been for the best.; @amandaraewashere