Loving “Confused Fine-Dining” at The Lake House

By Rae and Troy Matthews

Date Night is rare for busy people, and we at Elevation Eats are no exception. It’s so rare that we must choose our restaurants wisely. Recently, we were fortunate enough to have a wonderful date night experience at the The Lake House, a new addition to the Tahoe food scene. The Lake House now stands in the location where Passaretti’s Italian restaurant was for 33 years. One day Passaretti’s was out and there stood The Lake House. We had received scattered reports that The Lake House was worth a visit and that it was quietly taking over South Lake Tahoe fine-dining, so we decided to check it out.

What we found was nothing short of transcendent. No other restaurant in Tahoe has décor like this place. From teardrop crystal chandeliers to gold-framed mirrors, The Lake House could fit right in with the hottest date night restaurant in Los Angeles, and yet, at no point inside do you ever leave Tahoe. Wood paneling, panoramic shots of the Lake, and even a concrete floor maintain the rugged sensibilities of restaurant owners who have called Lake Tahoe home for two decades.

For owners Jeff and Misty Sparrow, General Manager Ellie Mabe, and Executive Chefs Jimi Nakamatsu and Martín Franco, opening The Lake House was a labor of love. “We had a nine month remodel,” Jeff explains. “I frequently use the analogy of pregnancy and having a baby. It was a lot like that – it was very painful. Spent way more money than we intended to. The vision changed multiple times.”

The Sparrows have been a fixture in the South Lake Tahoe business community for many years. Their previous endeavors span everything from Whisky Dicks and The Buttermuffin, to the Lake Tahoe Catering Company out of the Tahoe Seasons Resort. In opening The Lake House, the Sparrows sought a location where they could continue their catering operations. But inspiration took hold as they went. In renovating the old Passaretti’s, the Sparrows gave birth to a wholly unique concept that even took them by surprise.

With his daughter sitting on his lap, Jeff describes how their fine-dining concept grew out of the renovation and how great the place started to look. “As the place got kind of cooler and cooler and nicer and nicer, we started changing to, ‘let’s do something more upscale.’ But I had an aversion to the term ‘fine-dining,’ because I find it to be pretentious sometimes. We decided to try to keep the perspective of the common man.” Jeff describes his concept as “confused fine-dining,” upscale food and décor that never forgets where it’s from.

Not long into the renovation, local chef Jimi Nakamatsu wandered in looking for a job. “One of the most interesting conversations I think we had with [Jimi] at the beginning was when I was explaining to him that we didn’t want to be fine-dining, but we wanted food that could be confused with fine-dining,” Jeff says, “and [Jimi] looked at me and said, ‘Just so you know, that’s what I do is fine-dining. So if you don’t want fine-dining, I’m the wrong guy.’”

But he was the right guy. The Sparrows designed the menu and ran it through Jimi and their long-time chef partner, Martín Franco, where it got the chef treatment, “Some of the stuff that Jimi and Martín ‘tweaked’ is almost unrecognizable,” Says Jeff, laughing.

The chefs also create regularly rotating specials, Jeff explains. “That’s where our chefs have the most fun, I think, and do the stuff that’s the most innovative and different. I walked in the kitchen the other day, and there was octopus arm sticking out of a pot.”

Our date night began with appetizers. We tried the Hamache Civiche, and the Parsnip Soup. The soup is creamy and rich and perfect to warm the soul in a Tahoe winter. As civiche lovers we had high expectations and Chef Nakamatsu did not let us down. In their nod to confused fine-dining, the civiche is essentially upscale chips and guac, but the fresh, silky, melt-in-your-mouth yellowtail makes it decadent.

To keep the place down to earth, there is no dress code and all the servers wear t-shirts, a fact that irked some early customers who were expecting to be served by tuxedos. Jeff explains, “That’s there for a reason. It’s to tell you that we’re not ‘that place…’ we’re trying not to be ‘those people.’”

When it came time for entrees, we chose the lamp chops, which has become a local’s favorite, and the trout, which Misty loves and recommends. The lamp chops were cooked perfectly in a pinot noir reduction and served with mint pesto, spinach, herbed Greek yogurt, and fingerling potatoes. Mouthwatering and hearty, the lamp chops are beautifully presented in a sizable portion that will satisfy the hungriest red meat lover. The trout is mind blowing. Unbelievably fresh and exploding with flavor, the chefs leave the skin on, something rare for restaurants to do, and fry it to a flavorful crisp that is nothing short of addicting.

“We do a lot of classical stuff.” Jeff explains. “I think a Filet Mignon with a peppercorn cream sauce you know is one of the most basic fine-dining meals that there is. It’s one of those things that pairs so perfectly with a cabernet sauvignon. And it’s comfort food…Meat and potatoes.”

For dessert we ordered Death by Chocolate, essentially a giant gooey brownie topped with chocolate sauce and chocolate hazelnut gelato, and we washed it down with a tawny port, a rare treat and acquired taste. The decadence of the dessert and the port taken with the whole meal together achieved what every fine-dining experience is supposed to do: provide a euphoric blast that transforms the diner to another world, however briefly, and reminds them of just how beautiful good food and the dining out experience can be. This is the type of meal that will make your eyes close.

After the meal, the check is presented in a notebook where the Sparrows invite their guests to leave a message for the restaurant and for future diners. Quickly reading through the thoughts of previous customers reveals what we knew by the end of the evening: The Lake House is not a restaurant, it’s an experience.

We feel lucky to have spent a brief time with the Sparrows, Ellie Mabe, and Chef Nakamatsu. Like the best restaurants in Tahoe, they have created not just an eatery, but a family. It’s a vibe that will draw you in and keep you coming back. On date night, or any other night, The Lake House is a treat not to be missed. As always, we’ll see you there.

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