| AspenTimes.com

Five drives for finding fall colors around Aspen

1. Ask anyone in the know about where to go for fall colors in the Aspen area and the first thing you're mostly likely to hear is: "Check out the Castle Creek Valley." And this is good for everyone because Castle Creek, located just outside town on the west side of Aspen Mountain, is good for walking, hiking, biking and riding in the car.

To get there, follow Highway 82 west out of town until you hit the roundabout, then follow the signs. Note that you'll pass the entrance to the Maroon Creek Valley on your way. We'll come back to the treasures contained therein.

The Castle Creek Valley's winding, two-lane blacktop ensures your driver won't log much gawking time, but passengers will reap the benefits of the approximately 12 miles to the ghost town of Ashcroft. As the road climbs deeper into the hills, every turn yields new and changing views of hillsides painted yellow and orange.

The ghost town of Ashcroft is a good place to stop and stretch your legs while on your leaf-peeping excursion.

2. The Maroon Creek Valley — home to the famous Maroon Bells, reportedly the most photographed place in all of Colorado — is next door to the Castle Creek Valley and well worth braving the crowds to visit. There's never a bad time to look at the Bells, though fall may be the best.

The road to the Bells is equally as ridable as Castle Creek, but not as drivable. The Bells' popularity means you must park at Aspen Highlands and take a shuttle, though you can drive up early in the morning or after the last shuttle in the evening.

3. For another beautiful fall drive or ride, head up Highway 82 toward Independence Pass. If the dramatic twisting, two-lane road doesn't make you gasp, the colors that line the highway and the sweeping few of the Rocky Mountain landscape from the top will definitely do the trick. As you head up the Pass, keep an eye to the right just before the narrow turns for one of the area's most explosive stands of Aspen trees.

4. Closer to town, a drive up Red Mountain is a good colors bet for soaking in the blanket of color on the valley floor. (You can also hike Sunnyside Trail or Smugger and trek through Hunter Creek Valley for a different vantage point).

5. And don't forget Snowmass Village. Just winding your way up Owl Creek Road and on to the top of the Villlage offers views of Snowmass ski area and the surrounding hills — all of which are spectacular in fall. The town also offers many hiking and mountain biking trails that put you underneath the glittering trees.

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Ashcroft’s Pine Creek Cookhouse

There's no cell service here in the middle of the Elk Mountains, and that's only part of the beauty of dining at Pine Creek Cookhouse. When you step off your bike, or out of your hiking shoes or waders, stop and listen to the sound of silence — the lovely sound of nature, where not even a cellphone ring can interrupt it.

But there is one thing that can enhance the experience: a leisurely lunch or dinner on the Pine Creek patio. Begin with a starter such as the butcher and cheese plate, follow it with the gold-standard Cookhouse salad and then an entree from the diverse menu. Top it all off with good wine and a great dessert.

"We decided it would be great to up our dessert game this summer," says chef Chris Keating. "Just think about how lovely it would be to sit here for an hour with a Prosecco or coffee enjoying a decadent dessert."

On the menu are such offerings as a traditional trifle, a s'mores bread pudding, apple crisp and more.

One thing you won't find at Pine Creek Cookhouse is foam on your plate. When things started turning molecular in upscale kitchens across the country and in Aspen, Keating knew he needed to move to a place where he could cook simply. At Pine Creek Cookhouse, you'll find delicious food without a lot of fuss.

Sherpas from Nepal who used to work in the Everest base camps have been members of Pine Creek Cookhouse's kitchen for decades. Their influences are scattered throughout the menu, but one of the most popular items going 30 years strong are the wild game momos, Nepalese dumplings made with buffalo, herbs and spices.

Pine Creek Cookhouse is one of the area's oldest restaurants for good reason — there just doesn't seem to be anything they're doing wrong here.

So go ahead, ditch your cell service for a few hours and enjoy a blissful day or evening of hiking, biking or fishing, or a simple road trip through the Castle Creek Valley, followed by awesome alpine cuisine in the heart of the Elk Mountains.

"When you're surrounded by Mother Nature, everything else drops off."

 

Casa Tua

What was once a private club is now a popular gathering place for locals and visitors alike.

In fact, Casa Tua, located caddy-corner to Paradise Bakery on the Cooper Avenue Mall, is one of summer's hidden treasures with a large outdoor patio in front (perfect for people-watching), a sleek but welcoming indoor space, and quaint backyard patio; the private club remains in business upstairs.

"In Europe, when you have someone come into your restaurant, it's like they are coming into your home," says Benoit Defransciso, general manager of Casa Tua Aspen. "This is who we are and what Casa Tua is all about."

At the root of this philosophy is Casa Tua owners Miky and Leticia Grendene, who modeled their mountain restaurant after their Casa Tua Miami — all the while staying true to their belief that, "more than just a restaurant or a private club, Casa Tua is a total experience – of unparalleled cuisines, fine art, impeccable service, and of course, amazing company."

And while the company at Casa Tua is always convivial, the menu speaks for itself.

Begin with an authentic Pio Tosinin Proscuitto, Mozzeral di Bufala antipasta, followed by a Penne alla Puttanesca Gaeta with olives, capers and tomato. At dinner, all entrees aim to please, from hearty meat dishes to summer selections such as seared Colorado striped bass and Colorado herb-crusted lamp chops. And, of course, the bar menu and dessert offerings are worth more than just a cursory glance.

Also worth noting are the various ways the Grendenes have made Casa Tua accessible to those looking for unique dining experiences: there is a Friends' Table for intimate dinners, and the Members Club and downstairs spaces can be rented out for any type of special occasion.

"This is a passion of Miky's," explains Defrancisco. "As such, we always have the right food, the right wine and the right attitude."

Chefs Club

Chefs Club has always done things right. And this summer, they're raising the culinary bar yet again by rolling out a new chef residency program with San Francisco-based Matthew Accarrino leading the way.

Accarrino, of Michelin-starred SPQR, is serving up a menu that showcases his creative, seasonal, and ingredient-driven cooking — a perfect fit for Aspen guests.

"Matthew will be here regularly through the summer, changing the menu and pairings," says Marco Cingolani, general manager of Chefs Club Aspen. "Once we get in full stride, things could change constantly, with daily features."

Formatted as a multi-course prix fixe, the menu will feature locally sourced ingredients "with a creative and welcoming approach to a seasonal menu and convivial dining experience."

Begin with an Aperitivi, meant for sharing, such as zucchini and runner bean salad with sheep's cheese and senise pepper, followed by a second course – Primi – featuring pasta dishes like burnt flour pasta with asparagus, lamb, fresh ricotta and mint. Main courses – or Secondi -– options include sea bass with charred vegetable sauce and blistered peppers, or Wagyu skirt steak topped with a zesty ramp salsa verde. The meal is rounded out with a selection of Contorni, or side dishes, served center of the table, and ends (as every meal should) with each diner choosing their own individual dessert.

And while the menu is true Italian (a nod to Accarrino's Italian roots), it pays homage – more than anything else – to the local landscape.

"Everything is designed around local farmers and locally-sourced meats," Cingolani says. "A lot of focus and attention will be spent around that type of cuisine."

Similarly, Chefs Club keeps the standard going with high-end service in a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere; even the art on the walls screams good vibes and good times.

"We're serving up true summer food, in a great summer environment," Cingolani says. "Adding Matthew and his menu to Chefs Club just brings that home even more.”

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Cooking School of Aspen/The Cottage Aspen

Rob Ittner isn't afraid to take a risk. But opening The Cottage Aspen in the historic building nestled in front of his Rustique Bistro and above his Cooking School of Aspen venue seemed like a no-brainer.

"It's a marquis space; the perfect cornerstone to what we do here," Ittner says.

In fact, the Cottage concept will meld perfectly with his two other culinary ventures as it serves as a venue for small parties (think rehearsal dinners), special events (wine tastings, anyone?) and other creative pursuits (a pop-up creperie is one possibility).

Of course, the Cottage itself is worth a visit. A vintage building, Ittner's team has updated it to include stunning pieces of art (that will rotate seasonally), a small but workable kitchen space for food prep and demo classes, and a seating plan that can be modified to fit any need — and with the outdoor patio just outside the door (and shared with Rustique) — the vibe flows perfectly. It's kind of like a French villa.

"We love the idea of all of these place complementing each other," Ittner says. "There is really something for every type of event."

Along those lines, the Cooking School of Aspen continues to sizzle this summer.

"The big message we want to share, which tends to be overshadowed a little by some of the TV celebrity stuff about cooking schools — is that cooking schools can be a lot of different things," says Ittner.

In fact, the Cooking School of Aspen is much a special event venue as it is a cooking school in the traditional sense. Which is perfect in a town like Aspen, where it can be hard to find the perfect sized venue for certain special events.

"What we offer is a culinarily driven, unique venue for a party or group size that is not available," he explains. "Elsewhere you might be able to find something for a group of 50 to 120, but in Aspen, that's too much of an awkward size to buy out a restaurant and too small to take a banquet room or ballroom …

"And who wants to be in ballroom when could have chefs in front of you preparing during the dinner. We're far more memorable."

Prices: Varies

Ambience: Sleek demonstration kitchen, lively crowds, professional chefs and service in the Cooking School; bright, airy and modern event space in a historic building at the Cottage Aspen

Signature dishes: depends on course/event

Not to Miss: The Mindful Vine dinner series at the Cottage; Exhibiting fine art photographer Guadalupe Laiz at the Cottage through September; Any pop-up event at  the Cottage (possibilities include weekend crepes, evening wine tastings, art shows and more)

 

Jimmy’s Bodega

Something special happens when you settle in to your table at Jimmy's Bodega and begin to peruse the extensive menu, scan the fresh offerings at the raw bar and order a bottle off the carefully crafted wine list.

In short, you are transported — Jimmy's Bodega is one of few restaurants in Aspen that seamlessly blends our Rocky Mountain setting with an East Coast sensibility.

"The bottom line is, you're going to be treated to the freshest food there is in my restaurants," says proprietor (and namesake) Jimmy Yeager, whose popular Jimmy's –
An American Restaurant & Bar (located upstairs at the corner of Mill Street and Hopkins Avenue) has been a staple of the local restaurant scene for more than two decades. "I don't want it to be good; I want it to be great. This is the care we put into our menus; it's very personal."

Indeed, the Bodega experiences is something not to be missed — and something that chef Mario Hernadez and his brother/sous chef Roberto Hernandez take very seriously.

In fact, the pair begin conjuring up new dishes by drawing them; the intricate, colorful sketches line the walls of the Bodega office.

"We visualize what we want our guests to experience and then begin to think about how best to deliver that," Mario says.

Begin with one of the restaurant's signature — and picture-perfect — Seafood Plateaus paired with a glass — or bottle — of Billecart-Salom Brut Reserve for an exquisite and refreshing end to your day.

Other great starters, or something just right for sharing: Tuna tartare with sesame ginger vinaigrette, green onion, red tobiko and the tasty wonton chips around from the Raw Bar menu; crispy rock shrimp and calamari from the appetizer selections; or a fresh, locally sourced Paonia apple and spinach salad with celery root, red onion, grana cheese, walnuts and warm apple vinaigrette.

Then, moving into the entrée part of your experience, the selections — all made with the freshest ingredients and greatest care — are sure to convince you that Bodega has taken a queue from its more established sister restaurant Jimmy's.

Note the organic salmon and new Red Bird all-natural roasted chicken; or, mix your proteins with a surf & turf dinner featuring a 6-ounce filet mignon and choice of either Alaskan king crab legs or Jimmy's crab cake.

Follow this lead and you'll see why a stop at Jimmy's Bodega is an experience in and of itself.

Jimmy’s — An American Restaurant

In a town where restaurants come and go, Jimmy's – An American Restaurant & Bar, has stood the test of time … and for good reason.

Located in an upstairs spot overlooking Aspen's Restaurant Row, Jimmy's is king. Proprietor (and namesake) Jimmy Yeager, who also owns Jimmy's Bodega on the Mill Street Mall, says the key to success is good food.

"We've changed the menu over the years, but we've never changed our commitment to serving the freshest food, prepared in the best way, to our guests," he says.

This summer, the chef Mario Hernandez — who has been on the Jimmy's team at Bodega for years — is tasked with this job: "I like to stay true to our menu, but also make the changes we need to keep it fresh,"
he says.

On the appetizer and soups/salads menu, for example, Jimmy's Famous Crab Cake and the Roasted Corn Soup — longtime favorites — are listed side-by-side with new offerings such as the fresh heirloom tomato and burrata salad.

Moving to the entrees, you can never go wrong with staples like Roasted Colorado Lamb Loin, Rocky Mountain Ruby Red Trout or one of several steak offerings (our recommendations: The Colorado Tomahak, or pair a Blackened Petite Filet with a broiled New England lobster tail for a surf & turf like no other in town).

Of course chef Hernandez is never satisfied. On this summer's menu are items including a pan-roasted wild Alaskan king salmon, vegan mushroom and tempeh bolognaise and sides like vegetables a la plancha that he has tweaked to perfection.

"The way I work, I just keep trying new things as I get an idea," he says. "Sometimes they are inspired by something I've tried, but often it's the result of what's freshest, what's unique, what can we bring to the menu to create new experiences."

Want more experiences? Any of Jimmy's sides — mac & cheese, creamed spinach, mashed sweet potatoes — are hearty and complement any dish; for dessert, go big with a Volcano Cake or Cookie Jar for the Table.

And don't forget to sample Jimmy's wide selection of wine and cocktails. For many locals, this is what brings them to Jimmy's…and combined with the food, is what makes them keep coming back — more than two decades later!

JUS

The juice bar trend has finally caught on in Aspen, but Jus Aspen's owners are motivated by something far more significant than a trend.

At Jus Aspen, the level of passion and thought that goes into every creation is from the heart because co-owners Landon Goldstone and Tamara Petit — who are brother and sister — got into juicing over a life-or-death medical condition. Goldstone nearly died — twice — and his sister devoted her time to discovering ways to improve his overall nutrition and ultimately save his life. Her research led her to juicing.

When that's the driver behind creating healthy juices, it's no wonder the people of Aspen have responded with loyalty and enthusiasm. The stream of customers coming into the hard-to-find storefront is constant, and when you taste their juices, as well as their breakfast and lunch offerings, the authenticity is apparent.

The things that sound unusual, such as the charcoal lemonade or beef broth served in a juice bottle, aren't gimmicks — they're purposeful concoctions meant to elevate nutrition and health.

Goldstone and Petit inspect every bit of produce to make sure there's no mold. They triple-wash everything in ice water to get it cold and crisp, ensuring the nutrients and active enzymes remain alive, then grind and press the fruits and veggies with 10,000 pounds of pressure.

They're even working with a team of nutritionists from Denver to come up with the healthiest and most nutritionally beneficial recipes possible. So while Jus Aspen isn't a health store per se, many of the juices sold here have as many health benefits as anything you could find in a pharmacy or traditional health store, Goldstone says.

Back to that charcoal lemonade, for example, made from coconut husk — the fine fiber you find after you break open the coconut becomes activated once burned, making a charcoal powder that clings to the toxins in your body, Goldstone says. He highly recommends it for hangovers.

"Sundays this summer became 'charcoal lemonade day' because of Saturday night's debauchery in Aspen," he says.

Another seemingly miracle product is the rose water made in-house. One man over the summer started buying his wife two bottles per day because he swore it made the woman's sweat smell like roses. The woman's tennis partners agreed, Goldstone says.

Or for those simply looking for a bottle packed with a day's serving of fruits and vegetables, there's plenty of options — carrot juice, ginger and greens, the 'road runner' featuring almonds, espresso, wildflower honey and sea salt, or beef broth packed with protein and veggies. Fruit juices are even creative, such as the "mojito" with mint, pineapple, apple and lemon.

For those who don't want to drink their meals or would like a little more substance with their juices, the breakfast menu offers things like yogurt parfaits, burritos and smoked salmon bagels, while lunchtime selections include a variety of sandwiches and salads. top: A variety of freshly pressed juices including the green "mojito," left, the "Bugs Bunny," a carrot juice, and "Charcoal Lemonade," right. middle: Smoked salmon with herbed cream cheese, caper relish and red onion marmalade served on a bagel. bottom: Arugula salad with fresh goat cheese and lemon vinaigrette.

Mawa’s Kitchen

With a mix of cultures influencing its cuisine, Mawa's Kitchen is a bright and beautiful display of fresh, tasty food without a lot of frills.

Mawa McQueen, the chef and owner, likes to note that there's nothing "foo foo" about her menu. She takes pride in using fresh, nutritious ingredients.

"No foam and all that," she says. "No fuss with the ingredients."

The results are creative and packed with flavor — with prices that won't break the bank.

McQueen was born in Ivory Coast of West Africa and grew up in Paris. Her cuisine melds together African, French and American influences. She takes seemingly simple ideas like tartines — French, open-faced sandwiches on fresh, rustic bread — and elevates them beautifully. The avocado version, for example, packs a hint of curry flavor with cilantro, pomegranate and lime. A hummus version comes with roasted red peppers, capers and olives.

McQueen is firm in her dedication to quality. For privately catered events such as weddings or private dinners, she caps the number of people at about 100 because anything beyond that hurts the quality of the food, she says.

She started her catering business in 2006 and expanded to private dinners in 2014. She remodeled her commercial kitchen space in the Aspen Business Center to include a dining room in November 2015. It's a cozy space with an open kitchen that guests walk through as they enter the restaurant.

Mawa's is now offering a weekend brunch, featuring classic dishes with her own twist. Her smoothie bowl ($12) is a delightful blend of avocado, kale, a little honey and almond milk or rice milk. She tops it with chia seeds, granola, banana, kiwi and raspberry. Another smoothie bowl features almond milk, peanut butter, dark cocoa powder and avocado, blended and topped with banana, dates and honey crisp puff cereal — a protein-rich meal with good fats, she notes. It tastes like creamy chocolate peanut butter pudding.

Gluten-free breads — all made in-house — are available for dine-in or takeout, and she offers gluten-free desserts, too — don't miss her delicious carrot cake.

In a hurry? Order takeout sandwiches, salads (salmon Nicoise, quinoa and arugula, and others) or her popular lunch box. And orders over $100 get free delivery around Aspen and Snowmass.

"Food is not complicated," she says. "I'm not fancy. I like good, healthy food."

top to bottom: Mawa's Benedict with Maine smoked salmon, served on potato latkes with sauteed spinach and classic hollandaise sauce; Farmer's Market crudite with hummus and jalapeno ranch dip; famous French toast with gluten-free bread, berries and Vermont maple syrup.

Maru

Maru might just have a few years under its belt, but the guys behind the sushi bar and in the kitchen have been around Aspen's sushi scene for decades.

Sit down at the sushi bar while head sushi chef and Maru co-owner Taylor Hale is there and you'll see true passion going in to every knife stroke. You might even learn a little something, too.

Hale's on a mission this summer to get what no one else is getting. He's especially excited about what's called a Japan fish box — essentially an order that comes in from his fish supplier that features some of the lesser-known fish swimming in the Sea of Japan.

"It's completely seasonal,  random, wild Japanese fish," Hale says. "It's wildly diverse. They're catching everything."

A typical box has nine different fish, giving Hale the opportunity to create what's basically a completely separate menu of seasonal fish with a lot of sashimi-based specials.

"Japan is not a culture of wastefulness," he says.

In the kitchen, co-owner and chef Peter Coyne is using some of the fish box ingredients alongside fresh, local produce like wild asparagus and chanterelle mushrooms. They're running specials that offer cooked and raw versions of some fish, too.

Talk to Coyne and Hale about something on the menu and you're also likely to get the backstory — as in the ancient history of that food. When discussing a ramen noodle dish, Coyne started talking about the noodles' origin in ancient Mongolia and "master broths" that traveling merchants used to bring from town to town in China.

Hale will tell you about ancient sushi techniques or why things are prepared a certain way.

"The history of food is fun," he says. "It takes respect and discipline to have your classics down. There's purpose to everything."

It's this kind of passion that shines through in everything they create. And they're plating is some of the prettiest anywhere in town.

Go for some of the sashimi specials and try what's in that seasonal fish box. On a recent visit, delicate slices of madai, a red seabream fish that's silky and flavorful, were accompanied by isaki, aji and renkodai.

Never heard of these fish? All the more reason to visit Maru. These chefs will open your eyes to Japanese fish that you won't find on every American sushi restaurant menu. Step away from the Hamachi, salmon and tuna and try something outside the box. It's an adventure for any sushi lover.