Aspen Times Weekly: Pondering Plato’s |

Aspen Times Weekly: Pondering Plato’s

by Amanda Rae

Plato’s Restaurant

Aspen Meadows Resort

845 Meadows Rd.

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FLYING BACK FROM the East Coast last year, I found myself stuck with an eleven-hour layover in Cleveland. Not one to throw up a white flag and skulk around a Midwest airport until 6 a.m., I decided to funnel my frustration into an all-night adventure. So I hopped onto a sketchy subway and ended up fifteen miles away at the Greenhouse Tavern, one of those restaurants that food obsessees talk about and blog about but then realize they’d have to plan a trip to the Cleve to visit. I’d met Jonathan Sawyer, a 2010 Food & Wine Best New Chef at Chefs Club at the St. Regis in Aspen a few months prior, so I thought I’d stop in, say hello, and have dinner, on his turf this time. He wasn’t in the kitchen that night, but when I slid up to the bar I noticed something so ironic I laughed out loud: Groundhog Day was playing on the big screen.

The contrast of exploring uncharted territory while the wry banality of Bill The Man Murray echoed overhead stuck with me. I think about that night often, especially when choosing restaurants. Here in the Aspen snow globe, it’s too easy to get stuck in a rut. We all have our favorite bar menus, depending on mood and cravings, and dishes we can’t seem to skip. How many times will I order the crispy chicken sandwich at the little white house on the corner of Hopkins? Every time. Now, with the real-life Groundhog Day approaching on Sunday, I propose a bold notion: take a risk, go somewhere new, and break the cycle already!

Fate shook up my restaurant routine last week when I attended a dinner at Plato’s Restaurant at the Aspen Meadows. The six-course meal, paired with lush sips from Michael David Winery in Lodi, Calif., was such a cool culinary journey that I deeply questioned why I hadn’t returned to the funky Bauhaus dining room since attending the Aspen Writers’ Foundation Summer Words Conference, oh, last June.

As evidenced by the evening’s tasting menu, executive chef Jason Thompson (JT), who took the helm recently when Todd Slossberg departed to Chefs Club, and sous chef Paul Rose are clearly having some fun in the kitchen. Their food is modern at times, comforting at others. We began with deconstructed tiger prawn scampi, then lamb cassoulet with creamy sweet potato and dried-cherry Irish soda bread; rabbit leg confit with pancetta and pistachio; tea-smoked duck with goat cheese arancini; a mouth-melting venison chop drizzled with a hunter sauce. The finale: chocolate truffle cake drizzled with warm ganache, poached cherry pearls, and shortbread crumbs, paired impeccably with Michael David Winery 2011 Lust Zinfandel.

“The most common term is that we’re a ‘gem buried in the West End of Aspen,’” says Aspen Meadows director of food and beverage Ashley Lynch. (See “Hidden Treasure, Easy Access,” opposite page.) To that I smile and nod: Why aren’t more people talking about Plato’s? The place has been open since 2005.

“People think it’s a private club, others are quietly talking about it,” Lynch continues. “We have a great back of house; they are super inspired about the food. There’s a lot of excitement among the staff right now.”

Surrounded by sweeping views that stretch for more than 40 acres — which have long inspired dialogue, hence its name honoring the Greek philosopher — Plato’s Restaurant is most popular in the summer, thanks to its proximity to the Music Tent at the Aspen Music Festival and various conferences hosted by the Aspen Institute. But even in winter it has a serene, breezy atmosphere thanks to sleek furnishings, floor-to-ceiling windows, and those magnificent panoramas of snow-frosted mountains. Dinner always tastes better with a view.

“Plato’s cuisine is creative and interesting, but at root we all love comfort food,” says assistant food and beverage manager Chris Becker. “From our aged cheddar pierogi to the new seafood cassoulet, every dish walks the line between providing guests with delicious new experiences and the classical dishes they have always loved.”

The current winter menu includes oxtail agnolotti with Avalanche blue cheese, amaretto cream, and toasted almond gremolata; bourbon-maple glazed duck with butternut squash empanadas and toasted pecan sauce; chicken under a brick with wild mushrooms, bread pudding, and charred broccoli; and sole schnitzel with winter greens, crispy capers, and lemon-brown butter nage. (And freekeh — when was the last time you spotted that ancient grain on a menu?) There are daily preparations of oysters and 7X beef, plus a seasonal salad bowl of the freshest greens, veggies, fruits, and grains. In the summer, a backyard garden grows leafy greens — kale ahoy! — and herbs.

“JT also does some foraging on the property.” Lynch says. “We roll out a new menu each season, but by the end of the summer, 60 to 75 percent of the menu has changed. There’s always something new.”

The warm, hip Hefner Lounge serves casual fare all day, from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.: Colorado elk chili; twice-cooked chicken wings; ale-braised short ribs with cheesy heirloom grits; and hand cut pappardelle pasta with vegetable Bolognese. A Meadows Burger Bar invites diners to build the ultimate sandwich with a variety of toppings including fried eggs, applewood-smoked bacon, roasted green chile, and five kinds of cheese.

Lynch and Becker are in the process of revamping Plato’s beverage list to include more craft beers, and a special March dinner with a Colorado brewery is in the works. Wine dinners will resume in the summer, following the restaurant’s annual brief closure for offseason.

“Plato’s has a lot of room to grow,” Lynch says. “And we have the greatest patio in Aspen.”

Plan to catch a sunset, savor a meal, and roast s’mores in the outdoor fire pit afterward — and like me, make it a goal to go more than once a year.

Amanda Rae hopes Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow. Don’t you want six more weeks of winter, too?