Bullwinkle’s at Night
Each Saturday night after the lifts shut down, Bullwinkle’s Bistro transforms from a busy lunch spot to a romantic, candlelit restaurant. Bullwinkle’s at Night was devised by Jon Rollins, Sugarloaf’s food and beverage director, and general manager John Diller. They implemented the dinner series during the 1996-1997 ski season, and it has been a growing success ever since. It was the year of the National Tall Timber Classic, and the mountain purchased a Bombadier snowcat with a cabin big enough to transport a jury of up to 20 people to judge the race. Rollins and Diller saw this purchase as another opportunity—a chance to transport guests to the restaurant located at the top of the Bucksaw chairlift for an incredible dining adventure.
“One of the wonderful things about Bullwinkle’s at Night is that it’s pretty much guaranteed when people go, they’re going to have a great experience,” Rollins says. “We’re trying to provide this really unique mountain experience coupled with good food.”
Later that evening, I join 12 other guests waiting at the base of the mountain for the red Bombadier to take us to the restaurant. The energy grows as we see the lights of the snowcat approaching. I climb into the cabin and feel like I’m boarding a school bus for a field trip. The night is crisp, the stars are bright, and as we chug up the mountain over groomed corduroy snow, I’m reminded of a roller coaster pulling us to the top of a ride.
Ten minutes later and 3,000 feet up the mountain, we arrive at Bullwinkle’s. Inside, the space is completely transformed. Gone are the hordes of people rushing to eat a burger and get back on the slopes, and since most of the tables have been removed, the room is open, warm, and spacious. There’s soft background music and flickering candlelight. As my guest and I wait to be seated we sip a glass of sparkling wine and sample the smoked seafood platter filled with oysters, mussels, salmon, and scallops.
While everyone in the dining room is relaxed and at ease, inside the kitchen, chef Aaron Upham and his sous chef, Erik Schnackenberg, are busy preparing six-course meals for 60 guests. They thrive in this fast-paced environment and work well together. Upham is especially used to this type of service; he’s worked for the past 14 years at Bullwinkle’s at Night. He started out as a dishwasher and over the years worked his way up to executive chef. He now creates his own menus using regional and seasonal ingredients.
Looking over the menu, his creativity is apparent. The first course is a choice of wild mushroom lobster bisque or roasted pumpkin soup. The bisque is smooth and creamy and each spoonful reveals large pieces of lobster meat. Floating in the center of the bowl is a feathery white-capped bear’s head mushroom. It’s sautéed, but just barely, and it releases more of its earthy flavor as it rests in the broth. The roasted pumpkin soup made with pumpkin puree and apple smells of warm spices, like clove and cinnamon. It’s sweet, but small pieces of candied ginger impart a subtle heat, offering balance and brightness.
There aren’t many vegetarian items on the menu, but with advance notice Upham will accommodate any dietary restriction. He thickens his soups with rice flour, fruits, and vegetables, and uses ingenuity to please his guests. Although he didn’t attend culinary school—Upham received a degree in philosophy and literature from Unity College—he says he learned to cook through observation, trial and error, and by using his imagination.
“If you pay attention and have the ability to watch and learn, then you can succeed,” he says.
The ceviche appetizer is a bright and flavorful dish. Upham pairs citrus with three types of seafood: whitefish with tomato, jalapeno, and avocado; calamari with blood orange and jicama; and lobster with grapefruit, sweet onion, and mango. Each bite offers a different combination of flavors and textures that range from tart and acidic to chewy and creamy. The dish has me yearning for spring dishes while the veal Wellington appetizer wrapped in phyllo dough reminds me winter hasn’t quite released its grip. Although the portion is small, the Wellington, stuffed with smoked Gouda cheese, morel mushrooms, and spinach, is more than filling.
The timing of each course is leisurely and relaxed. Our server is personable and fits the vibe of the room to a tee. The beauty of this experience is that while the food is elevated and the room is transformed, the service is casual and comfortable. There’s no pretense and the service is genuine.
For dinner I opt for the roasted monkfish, but the duck breast and butter-poached lobster are tempting choices as well. Monkfish is hearty, and with a thin slice of salty prosciutto draped over the top, the fish takes on a meat-like flavor and consistency. The potatoes and artichokes add to the ruggedness of the dish, and I feel satisfied.
Upham says a dinner at Bullwinkle’s at Night makes people feel special, like part of the Sugarloaf family. After the cat ride and the three-hour, six-course meal, I agree. I feel like I’m part of a community of people who have enjoyed an indulgent and special dining experience.
“A lot of people who come to Sugarloaf are looking for the Bullwinkle’s experience with the Sugarloaf experience. The Sugarloaf experience is that you’re local, you’re a friend, and everyone gets along,” Upham says. “It’s about having a good time. It’s more of a family up here than anything; whether or not you’re here every day or just two days out of the year.”
We finish the meal with a bite of housemade chocolate truffles and vanilla bean gelato and a taste of warm bread pudding with Maine blueberries. It’s nearly midnight, and we’re the last guests waiting to ride back down the mountain. After we leave the crew will clean up and then set the room for a busy Sunday morning.
Between Rollins’s lifetime of experience in the food service industry and Upham’s raw talent, these two are part of a team of people who provide guests with a distinctly Sugarloaf dining experience.
“We want to build on what we have now,” Rollins says. “We hope to keep a lot of bright, young talent, people who will be here after I retire, who will help carry on established traditions and maybe even help to build new ones. I don’t see this ever going away. It’s part of the fabric of Sugarloaf at this point.”
Bullwinkles | Carrabassett Valley | 1.800.843.5623 | sugarloaf.com