Saturday, April 22, 2006

trail food

Last weekend was the first backpacking trip of the year, my favorite marker of returning spring/ summer. Will and I cruised down south Friday afternoon for a 2-day, 20-miler up the Gulch to Lamanite Arch, one of the few easy hikes in the massive Escalante area (for the first trip out, you may as well take it easy). The location was selected in part because of length and ease, but primarily because of its proximity to Hell's Backbone Grill, a tiny restaurant in a tiny town that I adore. Hell's Backbone closes from November to mid-March, so I have been anxiously awaiting it's spring reopening. Hell's Backbone is divine. Boulder, UT, a town that barely registers on the map, sits at the edge of one of the most stunning and formidable wilderness areas in the country. The food is carefully prepared--fresh and refined, but not fussy at all. The owners try to buy locally as much as possible and pay attention to seasonal and sustainable foods.

We decided that a dinner at Hell's Backbone would taste better after two days on the trail, but I insisted that we at least stop by on Friday night for dessert. Will indulged me, so we shared a chocolate chili cream pot, and chocolate black pepper bread pudding with whiskey sauce before heading down the Burr Trail for a night of very windy car camping.

We lingered at camp late into the morning and finally strapped on our packs and headed down the trail at about 11 am. The day was lovely for hiking, the canyon still green and full of water in the early spring--but the setting is another matter altogether; what we care about is the food. Sadly, trail food is not quite as marvelous as dessert at Hell's Backbone, but the memory of our desserts and the anticipation of our dinner got me through two days of energy bars and nuts. We did have a reasonable dinner of couscous with shallots, carrots, and cashews.

On Sunday, as we made our way back to the trailhead, we barely ate at all because we wanted to save room for dinner. We hiked like mad and got back to the car with an hour to spare before our 5:30 reservation, just enough time to down a cold beer. And then dinner.

Luckily, no one cares what you dress like (or smell like) at Hell's Backbone--the real beauty of Southern Utah dining. The restaurant is small--a circular dining room encircled by wide windows which look onto Tibetan prayer flags, an organic garden, a long horizon of hills and cliffs. Every dinner at the restaurant begins with black powder biscuits and sage butter. Then we indulged in a local goat cheese fondue served with black pepper crackers and a variety of dried and fresh fruits.

For the entree, I had the blue cornmeal and pecan encrusted trout (the meal I've been waiting all winter for) and Will had lamb with orange-blossom brandy sauce (the Easter special)--of course, both the trout and the lamb were local. We shared bites and Will scraped up every bit of flesh on the trout.

Even though we had already indulged in dessert Friday night, we couldn't resist: another round of the chocolate whiskey bread pudding and an apple crumb cake with butterscotch sauce. The apple crumb cake was almost entirely butter and sugar and both made us want to lick the dishes clean (I will admit to running my finger along the bottom of the dish several times). And, of course, we filled up on coffee to keep us alert for our long drive home (including the near miss of a very large doe). Here is Will, delighted by his bread pudding:

Hell's Backbone is the perfect sort of restaurant--delicious food propelled to the transcendent by an ideal setting. The only worry I have about the place is that it will become too well-known for its own good. It gets a lot of attention and is frequently featured in a wide range of travel, lifestyle, and food magazines. I worry that one day they will care what I'm wearing and they won't take the time to care about their relationship to the local community and landscape. They deserve the attention they are getting, but I hope that they'll resist it all--just a little.


Blogger Lisa B. said...

I met some of those kids from Hell's Backbone at a poetry reading/happening that I took part in, engineered by Alex Caldiero, at Goblin Valley. I've always wanted to make it to Boulder. Maybe I'll figure out how to make that happen sometime in the next few months.

Even though I've never been there, I'm still hoping that it's remoteness will help keep it true.

1:02 PM  
Blogger TBTAM said...

Wow - mkaes me want to hop a plane out there and repeat your weekend for myself. Thanks for a great post!

9:45 AM  
Blogger Sarah said...

If you ever decide to lead another Utah hiking and camping trip like the one we had during spring break in grad school, can we please come to this restaurant? Pretty please?

9:10 AM  
Blogger tara said...

I am so making that chocolate chili cream pot. Thanks for linking to the recipe.

11:03 AM  
Blogger lis said...

sarah, any time you want to do another Utah hiking/ camping trip, just tell me some dates.

7:45 AM  

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