We were dining at Montagna at the Little Nell, the A-list restaurant in the A-list hotel in Aspen, Colo. If you want to see celebrities and rich people, this is the place. It has a Wine Spectator Grand Award for its cellar and a new chef, Ryan Hardy, who came to the Nell from another enclave of the rich, Martha's Vineyard in Massachusetts.
Looks can be deceiving.
Objectivity alert: I am friends with Montagna's sommelier, Richard Betts, who may be the world's most laid-back sommelier. He patrols the dining room, his shirt open at the collar, no jacket, his wavy hair drooping into his eyes, dispensing a Bollinger RD at this table, a Leflaive Bâtard-Montrachet at another, and a Jaboulet Hermitage over there. He never looks ruffled or rushed, even when he must personally decant 30 bottles a night, as he did when I was there recently. He just gets the job done, including a sommelier's most important one—helping a customer home in on a wine that will make everyone happy, whether your budget is $50, $100 or sky's-the-limit.
Looking around the room at the expensively clad clientele, my friend Phil asked Betts, "How often does a customer say to you, 'Bring me your best bottle'?"
Betts thought for a moment. "In the years I have been here, once," he replied. "I think people get really mellow here in Aspen. They just want something good."
Montagna's list of 1,700 wines hits the high notes of big-name Bordeaux and California Cabernets, but Betts likes to steer guests toward Rieslings, Pinot Noirs and Burgundies. And Australia. Betts now makes wine in Australia with Dennis Scholl, a wine collector he met in Montagna where he is a regular customer. But even before that, I liked to delve into the Oz wines here. I could find a great, food-friendly bottle like RBJ Theologicum for half what I would have to pay for a comparable Rhône red. Betts was ahead of the curve.
As for Montagna's food, Hardy's cooking style tends toward the sort of uncomplicated cuisine you find in Italy and southern France, which share a mountain range (the Alps). Fitting since Aspen is in the Rockies.
Hardy, 30, has worked with Mark Miller at Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, whom he cites as his chief influence, but you won't find the sort of chile-laced cuisine Miller is famous for on Hardy's menu. What he got from Miller is an appreciation for high-quality ingredients, building up relationships with local farmers to get the best stuff, and whenever possible, making items himself instead of buying them. As a visiting San Franciscan, that feels familiar and good to me. It's what drives the best chefs in my hometown, too.
So Hardy's menu at Montagna has his own salumi made from elk, agnolotti stuffed with rabbit, and lamb braised in milk--all from locally grown or raised ingredients. (Granted, the fresh bufalo mozzarella with which he stuffs squash blossoms is from Italy; Hardy is a cheesehound). It's all good, and the food pops with natural flavor.
Some of my favorite things on the menu look toward Italy, including those agnolotti, the housemade pinci (hand-rolled, thick, short strands of pasta) with braised wild boar, and a crudo appetizer of Hawaiian kampachi that the chef seasons with fennel pollen.
Needless to say, this is wine-friendly stuff, which is why Betts like to recommend Burgundies and southern French wines and their New World counterparts. Last month, some friends and I splurged on a Dujac Charmes-Chambertin 1993, which was mesmerizing by itself and sensational with the food, but the other night we did nicely with Betts & Scholl Grenache 2003 from Barossa Valley.
Although I can't have dinner at Montagna anonymously to review it, I did slip in for lunch on the day we arrived in Aspen, sat out in the patio as a summer rain fell unobtrusively past the overhang, and enjoyed perfectly cooked wild King salmon dressed with white anchovies and olive oil, new potatoes and a few crunchy green beans.
That was $16, which shows that prices are not out of line for the quality.
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