Reno Gazette Journal
Sunday, February 3, 2008
BY JOHNATHAN L. WRIGHT
If the towns of Lake Tahoe had symbols, a platinum pendant the size of a bread plate could represent Incline Village’s slightly flashy concentration of wealth. A pair of those grinning upright wooden bears, the goofy Alpine equivalent of stone lions, could signify the quieter affluence and kitsch aesthetic of parts of Tahoe City and the North Shore.
And until less than a decade ago, “two-fer” T-shirts would have symbolized the South Lake Tahoe area, in recognition of the tacky tourist shops and cheap motels flourishing between the forested flanks of the Sierra and the lake’s cerulean expanse.
But in the past five or so years, South Lake began reinventing itself with attractions such as Heavenly Mountain Resort’s base village and ski gondola, Marriott’s Timber Lodge and Grand Residence Club, and MontBleu Resort Casino & Spa.
Now, as I discovered during two recent weekends in South Lake, the area is continuing its makeover with more luxury lodging being planned, started or finished; new restaurants opening; and old favorites jazzing up their menus for an expected influx of food-minded folk. In the face of what some economists are already calling a recession, visitors and hospitality professionals said they remained upbeat about South Lake’s upscale potential. “Down here, we’ve been country cousins to Incline Village and the North Shore,” said Elaine Casteleyn, a longtime South Lake resident and a top Tahoe real estate broker. “We have waited such a long time for this new development and energy, and now it’s happening.” Country in the city South Lake’s ongoing real estate upgrade has been both quiet and spectacular. Sierra Shores represents the quiet aspect. This gated community just off Lake Tahoe Boulevard contains 16 three- and four-bedroom condos dotting a private beach. Sierra Shores lies only a few miles from Heavenly Village and adjacent Nevada casinos, “just six stoplights from the action,” as Casteleyn put it, but thanks to soaring pines and savvy architectural buffering, the spot feels like a remote bower.
The condos have single or multiple owners, and when they’re not using their homes, some owners rent them out. Friends invited me to stay for a weekend in a four-bedroom rental (for sale for $3.2 million) that seemed even more capacious than its 4,000-plus square feet. The bedrooms all had en suite bathrooms with steam showers faced in stone. A stocked open kitchen, breakfast bar, dining room and living room encompassed at least 800 square feet, by my estimate. Soaring picture windows framed views of the lake, and terraces stretched from the living room and master bedroom (the latter complete with wet bar). Flat-screen TVs hung as ubiquitously as freebie calendars. And in-home audio, video and wireless Internet merely awaited a click.
‘Inn-dulgence’ Sierra Shores also featured garages, ski lockers, heated pathways (no shoveling here!), a pool, whirlpool and gym, and, best of all, innkeepers Stan and Penny Gray. “You call them, tell them, ‘I’m gonna be up at 8 p.m. They go in, make sure the heat is on, the refrigerator is stocked, and they’ll greet you with a smile,’ ” said Ed Cosci of Reno, who owns a second home at Sierra Shores with his wife, Linda. The Coscis, a friendly, easygoing couple, invited my group for cocktails after the innkeepers introduced us. As we sipped chardonnay and Scotch, and as private chef Marcie Stetler prepared Stilton-crowned filets, we enjoyed a vermilion Tahoe sunset. “The lake, the view, the beach,” Linda Cosci said, a bit rhapsodic. “When you’re here, it’s like you’re away from everything.”
Fleabags no more! The Chateau at Heavenly Village embodies the spectacular side of South Lake’s real estate renaissance. This $420-million complex is rising across Lake Tahoe Boulevard from Heavenly Village, and when construction is finished, the Chateau should encompass condominium-hotels (with units from about $500,000), a conference and events center, a park, a 16,000-square-foot spa, a pool, valet and underground parking and shops and restaurants. “All of this on the former site of two obsolete fleabag motels with asbestos and plumbing issues,” said Jeff Cleeland, the Chateau’s director of sales, whose business card reads “Own the New Tahoe.” The Chateau is scheduled to open in spring 2009, and Cleeland said an important goal for the development is to attract both visitors and locals. “It is a hotel and condominium, but there will be an emphasis on a high level of hotel services like in Aspen or Vail. At the same time, there will be a public park and plaza, and the event and conference space is for the Chateau and for the community. We want the Chateau to be a core gathering place that helps South Lake become more pedestrian friendly.”
In keeping with that green effort, the Chateau will seek Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification when it’s completed, Cleeland said, and construction run-off is being collected and filtered so it doesn’t foul Lake Tahoe. Cleeland said that inquiries about Chateau condo ownership have come from expected markets such as Nevada and California, but also from Missouri, Texas, New Jersey, New York and Hong Kong. Elegantly authentic Asian visitors, in fact, “are very important to the continued growth of our business and Lake Tahoe as a destination,” said Steven Wong, the manager of Gi Fu Loh (“gathering of luck”). During my visit, this new, stylish, deeply authentic Cantonese restaurant in Harrah’s Lake Tahoe demonstrated the refinement and complexity of true Chinese cooking. A vibrant mosaic medallion of a battling dragon and phoenix marked the entrance to the restaurant. Poems printed on rice paper scrolls lined the ceiling; seen from below, they appeared in reverse, as if “the god are reading them from above,” Wong said. Chinese lions atop stone plinths garnished the dining room. Good luck koi swam in a giant curving fish tank. The kitchen contained tanks of Dungeness crab, spiky-shelled king crab, hulking five-pound lobsters and live grouper flown in from Hong Kong. Chinese folks like their seafood fresh. Gi Fu Loh also offered a bijou drinks bar, a swinging noodle bar right off the kitchen and many rare teas. At dinner, Chef Hung Wong sent out a spicy snarl of cold jellyfish, light yet rich potstickers that were perfectly pleated, shark’s fin soup (so good for cold joints), filet mignon with Beijing sauce, and a wonderful toss of abalone, sea cucumber, fish maw and mushrooms. These ingredients soaked up the flavors of a savory brown sauce and offered the textural experience of food that Chinese diners prize. For dessert, I broke through a baked pastry lid to spoon up delicate almond broth sheltering lotus seeds and dates. The menu also listed a $100 version made with “superior bird’s nest.”
Better food, everywhere Culinary upgrades were occurring across South Lake, I discovered. Heavenly announced “Appetite for Life,” a program in which its seven on-mountain restaurants would begin serving naturally raised, hormone-free meat and poultry during the 2007 to 2008 ski season. In the next few years, Heavenly will also begin building three new restaurants, including Powderbowl Lodge, a 1,000-seat, indoor-outdoor spread with natural meats, organic dairy and local produce on the menu. The days of intestine-busting ski grub are passing. “Our customers are health conscious,” said Steve Turner, Heavenly’s director of food and beverage, as we rode the gondola to the observation deck 9,100 ridiculously beautiful feet above South Lake. “It made sense to have offerings that were as healthy as they could be.”
Over at MontBleu, which seems to have realized that targeting 25-year-old tequila fiends doesn’t always fill restaurants, Ciera Steak + Chophouse has introduced “Classic Pairings,” a wine dinner series in which meals feature the wines of several producers, not just one. “We are definitely seeing a different kind of clientele up here in South Lake; there is a transformation going on,” said Corinna Osborne, MontBleu’s food and beverage director. “Those clientele love food and wine, and Ciera is a venue that we are using to try to reach them. Ciera, which features draped private dining alcoves, received a AAA Four Diamond Award for 2008.
At beloved Riva Grill, executive chef Peter Brinckerhoff has begun balancing a typical Tahoe line-up of steaks and chops with dishes like uramaki (an inside-out sushi roll), halibut brightened with pomegranate syrup and, my favorite the other weekend, Maple Leaf Farms duck paired with a potato basket brimming with truffled polenta. And at Edgewood Tahoe, traditionally mobbed by brides and golfers in warm weather, the restaurant opened for the first time in November 2007. Executive chef Frank Stagnaro has introduced monthly prix fixe menus, highlights: duck confit and ponzu Hawaiian snapper, and more food forward dishes such as ostrich medallions and ahi wakamae Napoleons.
Planning and design have also begun for a high-end, 200-room lodge with restaurant, said Bobby King, Edgewood’s manager. “We want to change the misconceptions that we’re a private club open only in the winter. The whole momentum of South Lake is shifting. There will be all these people on our doorstep, and we want to be ready.”
In the new South Lake, it seems, real estate development and culinary improvement are two sides of the same upscale coin. Heated stone walkways meander among capacious condos at Sierra Shores, a quiet lakeside development just off the main drag in South Lake Tahoe. The restaurant at Edgewood, the popular South Lake golf and wedding venue, is spiffing up its menu with dishes such as an ahi wakame Napoleon. The noodle bar at Gi Fu Loh, a new Cantonese restaurant in Harrah’s Lake Tahoe, serves fresh-from-the-wok dishes. This rendering shows the rear elevation of the Chateau at Heavenly Village, a $420 million condo, hotel and events center complex rising in South Lake’s commercial center along the Nevada-California border. Opening is scheduled for spring 2009. Units are expected to be priced from $500,000.
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