May is a slow month for Aspen restaurants — those that remain open, that is. You wouldn’t know it at The Little Nell today, though, when Element 47 launches its summertime Guest Chef Dinner series with a much-anticipated return visit from Denver-based chef Biju Thomas of Biju’s Little Curry Shop. The event’s 120 seats sold out midweek.
The same thing happened in December, when Thomas kicked off the resort’s wintertime Guest Chef series: Staff expected about 65 guests, but ended up serving nearly 140. Aspenites just can’t seem to get enough of Thomas’ native South Indian cuisine.
Perhaps because it’s not the kind of fare served at most Indian restaurants in America, and which are underrepresented in the Roaring Fork Valley.
“We don’t have anything that is a traditional menu item, like chicken tikka or sag,” explains Thomas, chef-proprietor of three fast-casual eateries on the Front Range. “Flavors are focused and intense.”
Thomas’s three-course, prix-fixe menu at Element 47 — a benefit for the Aspen Homeless Shelter — will showcase “Colorado-style char-grilling with great spring vegetables and Indian flavors,” he said. The Little Nell kitchen team, led by executive chef Matthew Zubrod and newly named chef de cuisine Patrick Dunn, will assist Thomas in creating rustic, free-form dishes from Rocky Mountain ingredients combined with fiery Far East spices.
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A master of sauces, jams and chutneys ubiquitous in his homeland, Thomas plans to take advantage of regional stone fruit, crafting sweet-and-sour peach-tamarind glaze for Colorado lamb and an amped-up version of the biryani that anchors his restrained menu at Biju’s Little Curry Shop. A time-honored blend of rice with fruits, nuts and spices, Thomas’ biryani will boast a brilliant golden hue, thanks to peaches, apricots, mango, papaya and golden raisins sauteed into the rice.
“It’s sweet from the fruit, salty and super buttery from coconut oil — ridiculously good,” Thomas said.
He’ll also prepare ingredients that hark to the tropical jungle in which he was born: “A little cake made with ripe-plantain mash to go with the lamb,” and “roasted-coconut chutney, something we had growing up and in the restaurant,” Thomas said.
After sharing crispy appetizers including black-fennel papadum crackers and onion “vada” (similar to pakora), guests also may enjoy tandoori-spice-rubbed fish and Indian cheese in piquant red sauce, plus plenty of condiments, including blackberry chutney and ghost-pepper infused sea salt.
“Last time we brought stuff that was, like, painful,” Thomas said of locals’ craving for heat. “People couldn’t get enough!”
In addition to the prix-fixe, donations of any amount to support the Aspen Homeless Shelter are encouraged.
“The cause is important to The Nell, offering a helping hand to Aspen’s homeless community at a community-oriented event,” said senior public relations manager May Selby.
If you didn’t snag a reservation for tonight’s dinner, fear not. Thomas plans to return to The Little Nell for a third guest chef visit in September.
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