TAHOE CITY, Calif. - Many people know Tahoe as a world-class ski destination, but the place truly blooms in the summer, when food and the rest of the outdoors come into focus. The Thursday farmers market at Tahoe City's Watermelon Patch shouldn't be missed, and you can always get excellent home-style fare at local spots such as Rosie's, Fire Sign Cafe, and Hacienda del Lago, which serves up spicy salmon fajitas, three varieties of chimichangas, and other tasty Mexican dishes.
Other restaurant settings range from the unique - a dinner and dancing cruise on the glass-bottom paddle-wheeler Tahoe Queen, for example - to the upscale, and Christy Hill is a veritable institution when it comes to inventive California cuisine and classy lakefront presentation.
The restaurant is 100 feet above the lakeshore, with an outdoor deck lined with flowering window boxes that is open for summer guests. The dining room inside is an intimate space; just a dozen tables fill the main area, with an additional six tables for bar seating near the front door. White walls and clean lines clear the way for the food to assume the starring role. Despite its longtime status as the benchmark for fine dining on Lake Tahoe's north shore, Christy Hill retains a modern freshness due to the ever-changing seasonal menu and the restaurant's large floor-to-ceiling plate-glass windows, which illuminate and enliven the small interior.
Accompanied by an award-winning wine list strong in California cabernets and chardonnays, the French-influenced menu includes impeccably prepared seafood (the Hawaiian white sea bass is just right broiled with tomatoes and delicate flavors of garlic, ginger, and soy, topped with cilantro and scallions and a touch of sesame) and meat dishes (top choices include pork medallions sauteed with capers and shiitake mushrooms in a lemon garlic beurre blanc).
The entrees are strong, but the appetizer creations shine. You could certainly make a meal of the small plates alone, and we are careful to sample the lot of them. Specials such as warm amaranthus salad - the waiter describes the young green as a spinachlike leaf - arrive topped with pine nuts, red onions, shiitake mushrooms, yellow cherry tomatoes, and dusted with Parmesan cheese. The dish is superbly flavorful and hard to top, but the chef makes a first-class effort with the grilled fish tacos, which are delicate, flaky, and lightly spicy. And the ahi sashimi plate is arranged beautifully, the red slices of tuna tender to the point of melting in your mouth.
"We get berries, tomatoes, lettuces, as much as we can from the Thursday farmers market in season,'' said owner Debbie Macrorie, describing the bounty of fresh food available. "Things have changed dramatically in the last 20 years. ... We get meat and seafood shipped three times a week from the Bay Area.''
Mirrors behind the bar seating make the space seem larger, providing some breathing room for customers awaiting tables. Softly lighted wall sconces add to the mood, and an attentive, competent young staff rounds out the experience. With the stellar lake view from the dining room, the kitchen has to work hard to compete for its customers' attention. But Christy Hill's continually novel and flavorful cuisine gives Tahoe a run for its money.
Christy Hill, 115 Grove St., Tahoe City. 530-583-8551. Open Tuesday-Sunday 5:30-10 p.m. Entrees $20-$39.