When the Krabloonik restaurant in Snowmass Village, Colo., opened in 1982, owner Dan MacEachen wanted to create "something very different." So MacEachen, who already had an enormous kennel on the property, where he bred huskies for his dogsled operation, decided that the restaurant should have a taste of the wild in every bite. He featured game on the menu, figuring a few adventurous souls might thus be lured to his inn. The 65-seat restaurant has plenty of rustic atmosphere and was built with its own electric generator and water-treatment facility so the only line coming in from the outside world is for the phone. And it never stops ringing.
"The demand for a table here is something wild." says general manager Bill Dinsmore. "It's a long way to come for a meal, there are 260 dogs in the backyard, it has a strange name, and we serve strange food. We broke all the rules because we wanted to make it special. We figured if you're going to come this far, no sense having a hamburger."
Anyone who has ever tasted the piquant wild boar cutlet with salsa verde or the hearty moose steak bordelaise at Krabloonik may find it a little difficult to believe that the restaurant was never much more than a glorified-and as it turned out, glorious-afterthought to MacEachen. "I didn't necessarily even want the restaurant." he says, "but the dogs aren't self-supporting, so it became a necessity." Krabloonik is really all about the dogs, some 260 of them and counting, and the dogsled operation that the huskies literally carry through the winter months "But with eight months off those dogs eat up a hell of a lot of profit," says Dinsmore. "The idea here was always to make the restaurant support the dogs."
MacEachen, 39, moved lo Aspen from New Jersey in 1969 and got a job the following summer as a kennel boy at a dogsled operation called Toklat. In 1974, Toklat owner Stuart Mace, who recognized in MacEachen a kindred spirit, made him a gift of 55 dogs. MacEachen look the name Krabloonik from the first lead dog he had raised at Toklat. It means "big eyebrows." which is an Eskimo term for "white man." a bit of lore that is sometimes lost on power diners from New York and the Coast who have been known to demand a table by insisting they are personal friends of Mr. Krabloonik's.
Since the restaurant opened, Krabloonik has been a popular luncheon stop for skiers at Snowmass, who can ski in from the slopes for a bowl of wild mushroom soup. Visitors looking for a little adventure with their meals can pay $80 for a dogsled ride and a light lunch. Before or after the meal, they are led down to the kennel area, where the dogs are harnessed to sleds. This procedure sets off an unearthly howl that makes one recall Jack London because it is unmistakably the call of the wild.
Each Krabloonik musher must train for nearly three months before MacEachen will entrust him with a team of dogs, and a driver is then required to work six days a week in the kennel to build a rapport with the dogs. "I'm real concerned with doing things the right way." says MacEachen. "You need consistency. That's what the dogs give, so that's what they deserve in return." MacEachen feels the weight of being one of the few mushers outside Alaska who is still carrying on Eskimo tradition.
And the huskies can be a handful. As our sled wound through meadows covered with fresh snow on a recent visit, the dogs spent their time alternately straining at the harness and trying to eat snow to quench their thirst. "It's kind of like having a fourth-grade remedial ed class." says musher Matt Pierce, who controls the dogs with just his voice. "Every day, every single dog will test you somewhere along the way." Perhaps that's because they can smell the delicate aroma of wild boar simmering in pesto wafting down the hill from the restaurant's kitchen.
For dinner (average price: $45 per person) that evening we tried the boar, as well as a sampling of moose in a morel sauce (flavorful but a little tough) and noisettes of caribou served in an herb sauce with mushrooms. The meat at Krabloonik rarely tastes gamy, thanks to a judicious use of sauces and the fact that the game is semidomesticated. The caribou, which is Krabloonik's most popular dish, had a very dramatic flavor, but the North Country P‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¢tè and the wild boar tasted surprisingly tame. But that's the way it is with wild boar, always full of surprises. That's the way it is with Krabloonik, too.
The restaurant (telephone: 303-923-3953) is open nine months of the year and accepts credit cards.
Puttin' on the dog is just one way to get around at this eatery.