Amid the luxury condos and vacation rentals of the village on Big Mountain sits Kandahar Lodge, a place that looks the part of a boutique hotel. Its open lobby features touristy brochures, couches, a few tables with an internet terminal, and a large fireplace. But in a little hovel off to the side, so inconspicuous that some guests may not notice it, is the tiny bar called Snug. Five or six people can pack the place, standing amid the two or three tables and the decades-old black and white pictures on the walls of people skiing Big Mountain with primitive wooden equipment.
On the day in question, seven of us gathered on the lobby couches just outside Snug. I ordered a gimlet–vodka and lime juice. This deceptive simplicity throws off many bartenders, tempting them to make the drink too sweet. Sweetness drifts too far from the gimlet’s origins as a method for incentivizing enlisted men in the British Navy to ingest lime juice as a preventative against scurvy. It should be a tart and boozy cocktail, not for the faint of heart. Luckily, Snug is the sort of place where the bartenders know more about your favorite drink than you do. They served my gimlet up, martini-like, slightly chilled but not cold. In a word, perfect. But on this occasion, we had little time to linger. The chef’s table awaited.
At the far end of the lobby, past even the vending machines, lucky diners find the entrance to Cafe Kandahar. There, Chef Andy Blanton serves his thoughtfully constructed cuisine from a kitchen the size of a walk-in closet. Through the dining room and past that kitchen, next to sommelier Dennis Hertrich’s impressive and immaculately organized fiefdom of different wine glasses, sits the chef’s table, private from the other diners in the restaurant, but right in the middle of the action from a back-of-the-house point of view.
Seven people fit easily into the table, and the Chef presented us with customized menus for the seven course meal, each dish paired with a particular wine. Perhaps the most fortunate aspect of the menus happened by chance–because Alison is a vegetarian, her menu allowed us to glimpse, if not taste, an entirely different meal concept. For instance, grilled asparagus with kale, parmigiano-reggiano, tomato oil, and pressed balsamic in place of our scallops with lardo.
As sommelier, Dennis acted as a host of sorts for us, explaining something of the origins of each wine and its characteristics. Every so often, one of us at a time would stand in an extremely small but out-of-the-way space near the pass and watch Chef Blanton and his new sous chef operate with impressive efficiency in tight quarters. They wasted no movement, and seemed to combine tasks for multiple dishes at every possible opportunity.
Between wines and courses, John discussed his daily paradox of being an avid outdoorsman and hunter whilst married to a vegetarian, and Marisa used her Scotty’s Table street cred to talk a bit about the differences between that kitchen and Cafe Kandahar’s.
The Oregon truffle risotto, with winter chanterelles, tomato confit, and grana padano, paired with an Oregon pinot noir from Balcombe Vineyard, stood out as even more exceptional than the rest. The earthy tones of the truffle and chanterelles tied the plate’s flavors seamlessly to the wine, and following the meal, Justin tells me that he has been on a risotto making craze, an impossible quest to recreate the high level bite we had at the chef’s table. As exceptional as the risotto seemed, however, it comprised only one small part of the whole experience. The seven courses together, each a small plate with a taste of wine, provide an ideal amount of food and variety, and take up enough of the evening to foster a better than normal experience for conversation and merry-making.
It’s all the rage these days to poo-poo fine dining as overpriced and pretentious, to gravitate instead to the rustic pizza place with handmade dough and the local microbrewery. People want to know the farmer who grows their kale, and they like simple food prepared in trendy ways. But establishments like Kandahar demonstrate why fine dining is still such an important part of American cuisine. While humble food and well-made beer are certainly no less pleasurable, having an experienced chef and sommelier take you on a multi-course journey through elegant and diverse flavor profiles is an entirely different experience than biting into that crispy slice. Why not appreciate both experiences mightily, each in its own moment?
After the the kitchen calmed down from the rush of dinner and the sous chef produced a few last desserts, Chef Blanton came back to ask what we thought of the meal. He looked the same as he had before we sat down, a true pro from whom putting out that kind of meal for us along with whatever the busier-than-expected dining room had ordered, with only four hands and very few square feet to work with, did not elicit so much as a decent sweat. If you ever visit Whitefish during a season when Kandahar is open, or if you live here and somehow still haven’t made the drive up the mountain for dinner, go and see this man and eat his food. Just watch out for deer on that dark, windy descent down Big Mountain Road back into town after your pre-dinner cocktail and seven tastings of wine.