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Haute Cuisine 

Braving more than the bouillabaisse at the Cliff House Restaurant

Next in the "Alpine Epicurean Adventures" is "Pacific Rim at 4,395 Feet" this Friday, January 23. To learn more about this series and the "Stop at the Top Mountain Tapas," log on to http://www.stowe.com or call 253-3000. For the dinners, groups of eight are encouraged, except on Valentine's Day, when individual couples are welcomed as well.

Reservations require a $50 per person deposit, refundable 72 hours in advance and non-refundable after. The price ($100 per person) includes the roundtrip gondola ride, champagne and hors d'oeuvres, four-course dinner, tax and tip. Wine is available by the bottle and the glass.

When the Cliff House proprietors devised their "Alpine Epicurean Adventure" series, they planned on offering a variety of theme dinners and a stunning view from the top of Mt. Mansfield. Adding to the "adventure": The restaurant is accessible only by gondola. As it happened, the first evening took the idea of eating out to, well, new heights.

When my husband and I arrived Friday, January 9, at the Stowe Resort, we were greeted by cheerful, GoreTex-swathed employees who handed us fleece blankets and cups of hot cider and sent us hurtling up the mountain in the freezing darkness. OK, "hurtling" is probably not the right word; the gondola never exceeds a speed of about 14 mph. But the temperature was well below zero, and high winds set our gondola -- holding only the two of us -- rocking steadily. Below us, a lone snowboarder carved esses down the mountain. Snow swirled on the glistening trails and the frosted evergreens swayed. I silently applauded my foresight at including longjohns and Turtle Fur in my evening's ensemble.

The eight-minute ride came to an end, and soon we were inside the restaurant and greeted by that most welcome sight: a waiter bearing glasses of champagne. Our fortitude, it seemed, was not to go unrewarded.

Applying the same reasoning as I would to any kind of "adventure" dining venue -- in a revolving restaurant, on a harbor tour or a train -- I figured the point of the evening was the gondola trip and the dramatic setting, not the meal itself. My logic proved to be faulty. The food was exceptional.

The theme on this particular night -- the first of six such events at the Cliff House this winter -- was "An Evening in Provence." We started by grazing at a linen-draped table dotted with plates of creamy goat cheese bathed in warm olive oil, briny olives, crostini spread with tapenade and savory flatbreads. As the last stragglers arrived, we were called to our tables and presented with menus. Each course had three selections, including one vegetarian. I chose bouillabaisse, to be followed by a gorgonzola-and-green-apple salad as my second, and filet of beef with a Bordeaux demi-glace as my entree.

The first course arrived: a bowl crammed with fish and shellfish cooked in a broth that was subtly seasoned and delightfully hot. The steak arrived perfectly cooked to order and paired with a wine sauce that provided a robust complement to the tender meat. Dessert was a lightly crusted chocolate souffle served with a warm, deep chocolate sauce. The service was friendly, informed and professional. I like to think it was not gluttony that caused me to clean each plate, but rather knowing I had to fortify myself for the return gondola trip.

The Cliff House itself is a rather mundane piece of boxy, late-1960s architecture, and the dining room, despite the warm glow of candlelight, was a bit chilly -- once again I blessed my longjohns. Dinners were regularly served there through the mid-'90s but were discontinued when, according to a resort spokesman, the high cancellation rate ate into profits.

The themed dinners are an effort to draw people back to the Cliff House; the idea is that "expedition teams" of eight friends will be more committed to the "adventure" aspect of the meal, and less likely to cancel because of bad weather or skiing-induced exhaustion. Meals are scheduled for Friday, leaving Saturday as a backup in case of bad weather. The Cliff House is also serving a selection of tapas -- the "small dishes" popular in Spanish and Mediterranean cultures -- in the late afternoons on Fridays and Saturdays.

I suspect I wasn't the only one feeling happily full and a bit smug -- we had braved the mountain, after all -- when a tall man in full winter regalia clomped in to tell us that our doom was at hand. Not that he put it that way. An employee of the Stowe Resort, he'd arrived to explain calmly and even humorously that high winds had forced the resort to close the gondola, and we -- diners, cooks, waitstaff and all -- had 10 minutes to get aboard. I resisted the urge to sing the theme from Titanic, although I do recall joking, "Women and children first!"

I climbed into the gondola with my husband and six strangers and snuggled under a neighbor's fleece blankets. But, tempted as I am to embellish this story, the ride down was a piece of cake. Having eight people in the gondola provided body heat and ballast; the temperature was bearable and the car chugged steadily downhill. A full moon revealed the peaceful beauty of the mountain at night. My fellow travelers, clearly dedicated "foodies," wiled away the time discussing the merits of the sweet-potato-and-duck-confit pancake versus those of the bouillabaisse and the dried-tomato-and-spinach tartlet.

There's something about facing a cold winter night, even while seated and wrapped in fleece, that makes you feel like you've "earned" your dinner. The meal served at the Cliff House was a just reward.

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