ASPEN - You can't ask for much more from Cloud Nine. The restaurant on Aspen Highlands has killer views, exceptional Alpine-inspired cuisine and an atmosphere that defines Old World coziness.
Which means, naturally, that the place attracts crowds. Even on a recent midweek afternoon, when lift lines were nonexistent, Cloud Nine was slammed with people lazing over multicourse, multihour, multibeverage lunches.
Which leads us to that one more thing you could ask of Cloud Nine: more room. The confines are tight for diners and merciless for the waitstaff.
Still, the Cloud Nine team, including Chef Michael Johnston, and Jim Butchart, executive chef, mountain division for the Aspen Skiing Co., got it into their heads that Cloud Nine had to offer a pig roast. Not just a few slabs of shoulder and belly but going literally whole hog.
Enter the magic box, which, despite being also known as the china box, is of Cuban origin. The magic box is simplicity itself - a wooden box lined inside with aluminum sheeting; plop the pig in, and cook with the coals above. The device solves the space problem; the portable, compact box is easily plopped down on Cloud Nine's deck. But it has other advantages: In a test run, a 25-pound pig was cooked in a few hours.
"That's why it's magic," Butchart said. "If you cook it in a pit, like they do in Hawaii, that would take overnight."
Cloud Nine is offering its pig roast for parties of eight or more, with reservations required a week in advance. To ensure that the end product was worthy, and that the logistics would work, a bunch of concierges, Skico employees and journalists squeezed into a long, sun-baked table to sample the goods. Lunch began with cheese fondue and pickled veggies, followed by a choice of soup or salad, all of which would have been fantastic at sea level but were heavenly at 10,000 or so feet.
And on to the hog. Butchart might have been mistaken; it could be that the magic box got its name not for its efficiency but for the pork it turns out. The meat was perfect; the skin crackling good. The pork was accompanied by three dipping sauces and sides of bread pudding, Brussels sprouts and roasted, herbed carrots. Magnums of delicious Pinot, the wine of choice for pork, completed the meal. Wait, I spoke too soon: After a moment of personal panic, in which I thought dessert had been overlooked, plates of apple strudel with cream and raspberry sauce appeared.
I didn't pig out to maximum capacity; something about a tight space reminds you that adding a few pounds in the course of a lunch is a bad idea. And as I emerged from the two-hour meal to face those big, hard bumps of Scarlett's run, I was grateful that I passed on that fourth serving of pork.