A decade ago, Aspen was a small ski town, and its restaurants had names to match: Guido's Swiss Inn, Hickory House, Jolly Jester and Paddy Bugatti's. But recently, this home to 6,000 year-round residents high in the Colorado Rockies has attracted globe-trotting tourists who expect Aspen to provide the elevated level of food and wine they'd find in, say, St. Moritz and Zermatt, Switzerland. Restaurateurs have adjusted, and today Aspen boasts some of the best restaurants and wine lists in the West.
Visitors will find fine examples of every kind of contemporary dining, from the superb cuisine chef Todd Slossberg is doing at the Century Room at the historic Hotel Jerome to a mountainside restaurant named Krabloonik where guests can go on a dogsled ride then feast exclusively on game.
There's excellent sushi at both Takah Sushi and Kenichi, fine seafood at Pacifica, good steaks at Jimmy's, great bread at Grana Bread Co. in nearby Basalt, and an amazing number of stellar wine lists, eight of which have Wine Spectator awards. If you're starved for a real Italian panino, you'll find none better than those served at the tiny café on the premises of Valbruna, the chic Italian sportswear store. There are the requisite coffee shops serving 20 kinds of coffee, scrumptious muffins and pastries at Paradise Bakery & Café, juicy burgers at Boogie's Diner and a first-rate cheese shop set within the Cooking School of Aspen. And, thanks to the city fathers, fast-food chains such as McDonald's and KFC are kept out of town, probably forever. The closest thing to chain restaurants are Matsuhisa (Nobu Matsuhisa's Japanese restaurants) and an Olives branch at The St. Regis Aspen hotel. Oddly enough, no one in town seems to know how to make even a halfway-decent pizza.
The most popular restaurants at the moment tend to be either French bistros, such as the beloved Cache Cache and the new Rustique, or Italian trattorias such as the foot-of-the-mountain Ajax Tavern and the hip new Gusto. Rustique is a paean by chef-owner Charles Dale (who also runs the sophisticated Renaissance) to the kind of hearty French fare you crave after a winter's day on the slopes or a summer's trek through the mountains -- authoritative steak frites, steaming cassoulet, lusty navarin of lamb, braised short ribs pot-au-feu and what he calls the "Weird Dish of the Night" (always $20), which might be sweetbreads with chanterelle mushrooms, veal tongue with a tangy sauce gribiche, or maybe skate with beets in brown butter. For dessert, the profiteroles in chocolate sauce are not weird, just nonpareil.
Rustique's 200-label wine list is strongest in French regional bottlings, with plenty less than $30. Big-bodied reds such as Cornas, Gigondas, Vacqueyras and Corbières are aligned with sturdy offerings from the Haut-Médoc and St.-Emilion, while the whites from the Côtes du Lubéron and Alsace go splendidly with seafood such as Dale's fillet of rainbow trout in hazelnut butter.
The best new restaurant in high-above-sea-level Aspen is below ground level. This is Mogador, whose chef-owner C. Barclay Dodge has tried what no one else in Aspen has dared -- a completely innovative cuisine based primarily on the flavors of North Africa and the Mediterranean, with dishes such as a tagine of chicken with lemon, olives and a vinaigrette made from eggs and leeks. I have tasted no better dish this year than Dodge's braised pork belly with Medjool dates, a chestnut puree and creamy white beans in a shallot broth.
But the best way to appreciate the talents of this chef -- who cooked in the kitchen of Ferran Adrià, of El Bulli in Rosas, Spain, where 20-course degustations are the rule -- is to avail yourself of the "chef's table." There you'll be served an amazing array of small morsels that he calls "creative tapas," such as a spoonful of poached quail egg in a brittle cage of caramel, an escabèche of Tasmanian sea trout with saffron and a "clock" of 12 fish roes, chopped eggs, onions and other condiments arranged around a plate's circumference.
Dodge adapted a breakfast he enjoyed every day when he was in Africa -- eggs and calamari cooked on a griddle, with squid ink-colored rice and a puree of piquillo peppers. There is a wonderful selection of perfectly ripe cheeses, and desserts are as refined as any in an haute cuisine French restaurant, right down to the exquisite petits fours and chocolates.
Dodge has assembled a wine list that goes splendidly with the flavors on his menu. Impressive names for around $100 to $200 include Baron de la Charrière Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru '99, Paul Hobbs Chardonnay Richard Dinner Vineyard '00, Turley Zinfandel Dogtown Vineyard '00 and Sean H. Thackrey Orion Old Vines California '99. His "Interesting Reds and Whites" list is where you'll find unfamiliar treasures that really stack up to his food, with dozens of selections by the glass -- ideal for the tasting menu. There are also delightful bottles for less than $50, such as Pazo de Señorans Albariño Rias Baixas '01, Aveleda Alvarinho Vinho Verde '00 and Bodegas Muga Rioja Reserva Unfiltered '98. The marvelous Clos Erasmus Priorat '99 is available at $160.
Ajax Tavern, which has had a string of high-profile chefs (including Nick Morfogen and Michael Chiarello), is now home to chef Dena Marino, who grew up watching her southern Italian parents make their own sausage, pasta and mozzarella -- traditions she carries on today at this extremely popular, very cozy restaurant adjacent to the Silver Queen gondola at Aspen Mountain. People come tramping into the bustling little dining room in their ski boots and parkas or sit outside on the deck to soak up the warm Colorado sun, even when the temperature is in the 30s.
Marino's fans get teary thinking about her pan-fried gnocchi, which are sometimes cuddled in a lusty, braised oxtail ragù, or her fresh tagliatelle served with a Bolognese-style sauce of venison, pork and porcini mushrooms foraged from the Rockies. Her spaghetti di mare arrabbiata is tossed in an "angry sea" of tomato sauce dotted with chiles. She barbecues baby back ribs and serves them with a Tuscan coleslaw, and trout is treated like saltimbocca, with sage and ham, accompanied by a timbale of risotto and a lemon caper sauce. But no one sits down at Ajax without ordering the truffle and Parmesan fried potatoes, which could carbo-load a downhill racer for a week. Some regulars call ahead to find out when Marino's mozzarella will be finished so that they can enjoy it while it's still warm.
Ajax's wine list, with a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence, is rich in Italian and California bottlings. Hearty reds such as Rocking Horse Zinfandel Napa Valley '97, Giacomo Conterno's Dolcetto d'Alba '96 and Rhône Rangers such as Bonny Doon's Le Cigare Volant '97 highly complement Ajax's food, as do bold whites such as Adler Fels Fumé Blanc '96.
The big hit of the past year has been Gusto, a more casual offshoot of the already very casual Campo de Fiori. Gusto's bare tables, open kitchen and enthusiastic manager Sergio Acampora keep guests in an ebullient mood, so that the restaurant's name applies as much to the atmosphere of good cheer as it does to the good taste of the food. It's perfect for people watching, family dinners and late-night espressos and digestivi.
The menu is fairly broad, with antipasti such as grilled calamari and chorizo sausage tossed with arugula and grilled tomatoes, thinly sliced whitefish marinated in a lemon-soy vinaigrette, finished with crispy ginger and chives and a carpaccio of superb Colorado lamb with shaved pecorino cheese. The thick lentil soup is wonderfully flavored with cumin, the pumpkin soup is sprinkled with pumpkin seeds, and a salad of organic greens is topped with smoked sturgeon, Gaeta olives and sweet oranges.
Every pasta I sampled is worth ordering, from a lush ravioli of butternut squash dressed simply in brown butter and sage to a big bowl of spaghetti teeming with Mediterranean clams, mussels and spiced tomato pulp. Skip the anemic pizzas here, but don't miss the puffy hot focaccias, the perfect, crisply roasted baby free-range chicken with preserved lemon and olives or the grilled fish of the day with a gloss of olive oil and lemon.
For a place with such a drop-in ambience, the wine list at Gusto has remarkable depth -- more than 200 labels, including three vintages of Solaia ('90, '97 and '98), more than 25 super Tuscans, 25 large-format bottles (with an 18-liter Fattoria Fontodi Flaccianello della Pieve '97 at $6,000), the sumptuous Dessilani Laio '96 dessert wine and a daunting 43 half-bottles such as Jarvis Chardonnay '99 and Gaja Barbaresco '93.
One of the toughest things to do in Aspen restaurants is to keep a good chef from succumbing to the lure of bigger cities or to the cabin fever common in such a small town. No venue has lost more chefs than Aspen's finest hotel, The Little Nell, whose restaurant -- now called Montagna -- has seen half a dozen chefs come and go in as many years, including George Mahaffey (now at Conundrum in Aspen), Keith Luce (owner of Merenda in San Francisco) and Brian Moscatello (now at the red-hot Adega in Denver).
Chef Paul Wade, whose high-altitude cuisine is designed to appeal to the gourmet tourist and the Aspen local, is the current resident at Montagna. Wade came aboard during the 2000 renovation, which rid the restaurant of its previous formality; its bar is now set with rattan bistro chairs, linen walls and white marble tables, and the dining room has yellow- glazed walls, polished wood and tables topped with Frette linens. There is also a beautiful wine room for private dining, with a splendid fireplace and walls of wine bottles from a list bearing a Wine Spectator Grand Award. Sommelier Richard Betts, who seems to be the only man in town who owns a suit and tie, took over a formidable list two years ago and broadened it, adding strong Burgundy and New World segments to make up a cellar with more than 15,000 bottles and 1,000 selections. "This is not a chophouse," says Betts, "but the food is also not overly refined. And I find that at least 60 to 70 percent of the guests want to consult with me on their choice of wines, and that is very gratifying."
Throughout the 60-page list you'll find breadth and depth: seven vintages of Krug Champagne, six Puligny-Montrachets from Michel Colin-Deléger et Fils, seven selections of Corton-Charlemagne, dozens of wines from the Côte de Nuits, an amazing 28 grands crus from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, every premier cru from Bordeaux in various vintages (including 13 Cheval-Blancs), more than a dozen Priorats from Álvaro Palacios, eight Pinot Noirs from Williams Selyem, six vintages of Shafer Hillside Select, a slew of Clarendon Hills varietals from Australia, 16 Vintage Ports and half-bottles of Araujo Eisele Vineyard '98 and Cháteau Haut-Brion in two vintages, including '61. Prices are not generally cheap, but there is a daily, single- page list offering plenty of excellent selections for less than $50.
Montagna's menu features the kind of dishes that give the restaurant its name, such as roasted red deer loin with chestnut salt and onion-red currant jam. But wherever Wade finds the best products, he brings them in and marries them to big flavors -- California caviar with house-cured salmon, fennel pollen and crème fraîche, Sonoma foie gras with a caramelized babà rum cake and banana spring roll, and Rosen Ranch lamb rib-eye with Meyer lemon jam and a toasted pine nut crust.
One can, of course, find tofu and Caesar salads all over Aspen, and people seem to gulp down Fiji water by the gallon. But at the end of a perfect Colorado day, they want to eat heartily and they want to drink good wine. On all counts Aspen delivers both, with a sure dose of international chic and a bonhomie that is still distinctly western.
John Mariani's most recent book, co-authored with his wife, Galina, is The Italian-American Cookbook (Harvard Common Press).
685 E. Durant Ave.
Lunch and dinner, daily
All major Award of Excellence
415 E. Main St.
Lunch and dinner, daily
430 E. Hyman Ave.
Entrées $21-$35; chef's table 10-course menu $125
The Little Nell, 675 E. Durant Ave.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner, daily
All major Grand Award
216 S. Monarch St.
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