November 3, 2005
What’s the best restaurant in Aspen? That’s a subjective question that depends upon the tastes (no pun intended), palate and budget of the reviewer. Some like the Mexican fare at Blue Maize, some are sushi-holics and swear by Kenichi, Takah, or Nobu. Others prefer the Mediterranean specialties at Mogador. Just the process of making a list of potential restaurants for a “best of” category reminds one of the plethora of great dining choices we have in Aspen. But just about everyone’s best-of list would reserve a place for Montagna at The Little Nell – the go-to place for big-time eats and social events since it opened (albeit as simply The Restaurant at The Little Nell) under the legendary hand of Chef George Mahaffey some 15 years ago. Food critics, wine aficionados and those in the culinary know have made it the one must-do dining experience when visiting Aspen. During the Food & Wine Magazine Classic at Aspen, the room is perpetually packed with food professionals who come to catch up with each other and dine on what they consider to be one of the best meals in Aspen. And the good news is that Montagna is about to get a whole lot better. This summer, The Nell’s general manager, Eric Calderon, and his staff set about replacing departing chef Paul Wade with a familiar face. Ryan Hardy, all of 30 years old, but seasoned by stints at Aspen’s Renaissance and Rustique, Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe and The Coach House in Martha’s Vineyard, has taken over the kitchen and brought a fresh spirit to the room. Hardy, whose cooking style has been categorized as “Farmhouse Cooking,” is preparing comfort food using local product. Grass-fed beef comes from a ranch in Carbondale, pears from Palisade and peaches from Paonia. He makes his own cheese and is of the new school of young chefs who emulate the great Alice Waters in her mantra that fresh is everything and local is good. For locals, the good news is that Montagna is giving everyone a chance to try Ryan’s food at reduced prices through the offseason. Everything on the new dinner menu is 25 percent off until Dec. 15. In addition, on Wednesday nights they offer two bottles for the price of one on wines from one of the country’s great lists. The combination has made Wednesday locals’ night at The Nell, filling tables and banquettes with familiar faces, all of whom on a recent visit had satisfied smiles. Give it a go while it’s still offseason. Montagna may well make the top rung of your list.Give it a go while it’s still offseason. Montagna may well make the top rung of your list.