The Taste Of Jazz At Syzygy
February 3, 2004
The whole “food as art” movement has always been difficult for me. Some places, of course, pull it off with some eclectic meshing of presentation and preparation, but all too often it seems like an excuse to put odd sprig-like plants atop poorly sculpted mashed potatoes and inflate prices about 20 percent.
Having gone on about this at some length to my friends and, from time to time, in the public prints, it is only honest to eat my words. The good folks at Syzygy in Aspen have not only gone beyond mere food, but they’ve also earned a right to be compared to jazz.
Jazz. There. I’ve said it and I’m glad, because Syzygy is also an elegant music venue, giving many big-time local bands their start.
The culinary theme at Syzygy is not exactly a full-on melding of flavors, but a combination that lets each flavor run around the palate for a bit, making a riff or two before settling into the mix and awaiting another taste’s solo. And, in the case of a recent investigative dining extravaganza involving the Syzygy tasting menu, the flavors did this time and again.
Officially, the Syzygy cuisine mixes European and Asian dishes with a contemporary American presentation. The extensive wine list – more than 300 French, Italian, and American wines – is non-elitist with a wide price range (we strongly recommend wine discussion with your server, first because they know how to match wines with food and secondly you can even discuss price with them and they don’t mock you).
We should pause to discuss atmosphere here. Syzygy is one of the Aspen icon restaurants usually named in the “best in the nation” category. That’s usually a good list, depending on whose making it, but not always a sure thing. Syzygy is one of those that deserves the honor.
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In this league, details matter. Like the fresh lily on the table looking like a Georgia O’Keef still life. Like the perfectly chilled Champaign. Like the unexpected arrival of rosemary bread and some goat cheese on potato crisps — a little treat from the chef. Like music at the perfect volume blending with the sound of flowing water from glass-enclosed waterfalls that are a Syzygy trademark.
We promised ourselves to make some decisions here, not just list everything as “the best,” although you really can’t go wrong. We agree with the Syzygy staff that a little discussion about culinary mood will help you target the right meal.
But we took the shotgun approach, starting with a truffled mushroom ravioli with potobello, shiitake, chanterelle mushrooms and a lemon zest/Riesling sauce. It got the coveted “oh my god” rating. The Syzygy salad was a must-try, are most a signature dishes.
It’s mixed field greens with basil, raspberries, edible flowers, champagne poppyseed dressing with beet chips. And it’s perfect.
Good bets are the elk tenderloin, which arrived as tender as tuna (we’ll get to the tuna in a second), the “Colorado lamb loin,” which is a hazelnut-crusted lamb loin with a panzanella salad, grilled asparagus, red bell pepper aloli and a thyme glaze. Another of those details: the salad arrived in a potato cylinder that was quite tasty.
Now, the tuna. It’s the most exotic of the Syzygy dishes, actually a seared sushimi. The yellow fin tuna is wrapped in a spring roll with coconut rice cakes, wasabi puree and a lime-based sauce. And it’s even better than it sounds. Another strong fish offering is the wild king salmon, which is a generous serving that totally avoids the dryness that can come with salmon.
For the beef lovers, the Black Angus Bone-In Filet has a nearby table of Texans reduced to animal noises and moans of praise.
Even the desert offers multiple dancing flavors. A creme brule, served with fresh fruit and cookies, is a treat even for those who might think their meal ended with the entree.
It’s worth noting that Syzygy not only defies the odds of serving a Texan a steak up to strict Dallas quality perceptions, but has also defied the Aspen odds on restaurant longevity by recently celebrating its 10th anniversary. The cunning chef at Syzygy, Martin Oswald, has worked with world-renowned food maestros as Wolfgang Puck of Postrio in San Francisco. During off seasons, Oswald learns more by visiting other chefs and volunteering in their kitchens. He was named “Wild Game Chef” No. 1 by the Aspen Chapter of Ducks Unlimited in February, and is considered one of the innovators in fine cuisine. He credits his Austrian roots for his ability to make the humble potato part of the Syzygy mix, with the tuber showing up mashed, crisped, fried and any other way you might think of and a half-dozen ways you’d never think of.
It may not surprise you that this doesn’t exactly come cheap. The tasting menu is $65; the beef tenderloin is $33, the mushroom raviolis is $11. You probably don’t head to one of Aspen’s better restaurants looking for low-cost options, but the free-range chicken is a good deal at $22, coming with an egg roll, stir-fried veggies and red curry sauce. When the meal is over, you might even find that the music is a good way to top off the evening.
Well-known acts that got their start at Syzygy include Jessica Cox, Suzanne Paris, Ty Ver, Jason Perrin, Little Blue, and Friends of Your Mother.
Syzygy is closing Oct. 4 for the off season, set to re-open just before Thanksgiving. Until then, there’s jazz on Friday and Saturday nights.
Of the music tradition, bartender Sean Grover, one of Syzygy’s original staff members, says, “We started with solo acts, which evolved to duos, then to blues, and now jazz. We’ve found our niche with jazz – it seems to work the best with the dinner crowd.”
Yeah. That’s because it matches the food.