Let me begin by proclaiming a truth. My hairstylist knows EVERYTHING. I could live for another decade in Alaska and still wouldn’t know everything there is to know about this state, but she would be the one to educate me. Thank you Liza.
It was only three years ago that Liza told me about a restaurant off the parks highway that she once stumbled upon while driving back to Fairbanks from Anchorage, and it was an experience that she would forever deem as life changer. She’s told me about other restaurants as well, but this one is perhaps the best. I’ll get to that in a minute.
This week of the midnight sun and solstice is the first week ever where our home does not include one of our children, and as I mentioned in the trip to Denver–the husband and I are filling our days with activities as if preparing our selves when such living situation becomes permanent.
Aside from the fact that it’s solstice week, and Fairbanks has jam packed itself with the yearly festivities, my husband was able to secure a reservation at the sought after 229 Parks Restaurant. The drive from Fairbanks to Denali is about two hours, and to make part of the day worth the drive, we also decided to walk the Denali strip filled with shops. Last year, when the oldest came home with his girlfriend (who had never been to Alaska), we all took a trip to Denali, hiked a trail, and ate at 49th State Restaurant.
This year, however, hiking was out of the question since the real goal was to have dinner at Chef Laura Cole’s 229 Parks Restaurant. Chef Laura is a James Beard nominee–she was nominated with Fire Island Rustic Bake Shop Head Baker Carlyle Watt. She also received a cold call from the folks of Top Chef. She competed, and mingled with the likes of Padma Lashkmi, and Chef Tom Colicchio. I was rooting for Chef Laura during that season.
As we sat there at our table, the husband wanted to see if we can take a photo with her because he has no shame (we once, accidentally, came across the stars of the Gold Rush at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere Colorado–and he approached Todd Hoffman, who was kind enough to take the husband back to their camp). “Should we ask our waitress if we can go and meet the Chef?” he asked. Hell no, have you gone cray-cray?!? was what I wanted to reply. But instead, I calmly told him (like I would when speaking to our sons) that it was a full house, and to ask to take a photo with Chef Laura would be just downright rude. He bought my practical reasoning, which gave me some relief–because if not put in check, the man will be determined.
First, a brief history. The husband and I first ate dinner at 229 Parks about three years ago on the advice of my hairstylist. We were staying in Denali for the weekend, and without any dinner plans, we decided to take our chances and attempt to eat at 229. Their tables were all sold out on that Saturday night. However, the hostess took pity on the both of us and gave us seats at the bar–extremely grateful at that point (we would have sat outside in the rain for all we cared as long as we got to try her food).
When the plates arrived in front of our pathetic faces stinging from the Denali cold, he and I were forever altered from then on.
Fast forward to this past Saturday. We get there at 5 after walking the strip, and the husband was giddy like a 5-year old who was told that he can get whatever the hell he wants at a Toys R’ Us (rest in peace to Toys R’ Us–by the way).
The meal did not disappoint. It was our first dinner as temporary empty nesters, and we’re still quite young–so, we felt that it was only fitting that we ordered ice cream at the end.
The menu changes on a daily basis, and it all depends on the seasonal offerings for the day. We decided to order two starters and share (side note: the husband has difficult sharing, but will consider exceptions to the rule–i.e. avoiding any possible eye roll from me). He ordered his favorite, the parsnips chips with herbed garlic aioli. And, I decided to try the pea shoots, micro radish with plum on a bed of a nicely crisped lumpia wrapper.
On a side note for the main course, Alaskans or those who have migrated to Alaska are known to be salmon snobs. Not all, but those who know–know. I first became aware of the term from a good friend who was raised in Juneau. We were on a business trip, and I tried to order salmon out of season. She told me, “Oh, Jen–you can’t order salmon during the winter time in a restaurant! It’s not in season. You’ll learn how to be a salmon snob one day.” I, being an avid student of life, nodded–and years later, I only order salmon when it is in season.
Therefore with that disciplined behavior, I decided to go for the king salmon with herbs, quinoa, fresh vegetables, and parsley aioli. The king salmon was cooked to perfection, and the flavors of the aioli and the vegetables were co-stars allowing the salmon to shine–as it should for the season. The husband also went for fish–in his case, the halibut dish served with soba noodles, micro greens, bok choy, and an unagi glaze. I took a bite of the halibut, and it too, was cooked masterfully–the Japanese inspired flavors provided just enough acidity and umami to a fish that welcomes additional seasonings to enhance its structure.
We ate every single item on our plates with no regrets.
Dessert was whimsical–which has been Chef Laura’s trademark. Her sorbets and ice cream variations are a local’s favorite. I say whimsical since there were pearlized candy in my ice cream glass, while the husband had a chocolate/vanilla stick that reminded of a french tuile cookie.
And, while my husband did not get a photo taken with Chef Laura, he did however, shamelessly wrote on our receipt “you are our Top Chef!”
That right there, folks, is a compromise.
Of course… we were thinking of the kids as we sat there… So much so that I feel compelled to include a photo of our 2017 Denali trip last summer in case should any of them serve us a heaping plate of guilt trips.
..and remember how I mentioned the husband has no shame? See below for evidence:
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