by Amanda Rae

Prospect at Hotel Jerome

330 E. Main St., Aspen

970.920.1000 Christmas Eve prix-fixe

Christmas Day dinner buffet

Truffle Dinner, Dec. 28

New Year’s Eve prix-fixe

ONE YEAR AGO this week, the Hotel Jerome was wrapped up tight, like a holiday gift. Brown paper covered every window of the magnificent landmark, shielding curious passersby from glimpsing any sliver of the interior overhaul that had transformed the property since August. Days before unveiling their masterpiece, the design crew hauled furniture through the front doors: tufted leather sofas, Asian armoires, Lucite end tables, cowhide rugs. Nosy citizens took note, and, naturally, rumors flew.

“I got a few calls,” says general manager Tony DiLucia, mimicking the outraged voicemails: “‘I cant believe the Jerome is modern! I can’t believe you’re doing this! We trusted you!’ I didn’t know what people were looking at, except for the furniture that was coming off the truck.”

After the Jerome’s grand re-opening on Dec. 14, 2012, DiLucia, to his delight, was swarmed with praise. Consensus was clear: designer Todd-Avery Lenahan had masterfully blended modern and nostalgic elements to celebrate distinct decades of the hotel’s handsome history.

“We were so wrong, we apologize,” DiLucia recalls fans saying. “We knew you’d never let the Jerome turn into a W.”

That Aspenites cared so deeply about the redesign of a hotel —where vacationers rest their heads and do vacationer things that drive residents bananas — illustrates a crucial fact: the Hotel Jerome is not just any hotel. It’s Aspen’s original boarding house, and — thanks to time-burnished spots like the shady garden courtyard, storied library and beloved J-Bar — has forged its status since 1889 as the only Main Street hangout that matters.

“This is the locals’ hotel,” muses executive chef Rob Zack, who returned after a few years away to oversee menus for the J-Bar, the Living Room lounge, and Prospect Restaurant. “As my team evolved, and as I got comfortable with what Prospect was, I stopped listening to all the people who told me what I should be doing — especially the corporate guys. I wanted to stay true to myself, and what locals want.”

Yet despite the local love swell, Prospect — restored to the flagship restaurant’s original location, before it was replaced by a hallway to a north wing in 1987, and softened with 1930s mercury glass lamps, Roaring Twenties-era caramel leather-wrapped chairs, and nary a white tablecloth in sight — is only now finding its groove. (Meanwhile, The Living Room, refashioned in a nod to the famed gentleman’s smoking lounge, has been abuzz nearly nonstop, prompting DiLucia to order additional furniture this season to bump up much-needed seating.)

“It’s a challenge for sure,” Zack says of luring patrons into Prospect. “People don’t associate good food with a hotel restaurant, though that’s changing.”

Zack’s menus combine the area’s gold standard — American, local, seasonal cuisine — with Mediterranean influences and hints of his Italian upbringing. An instant hit in both Prospect and The Living Room has been a series of mini-Mason jars stuffed with simple, elevated preparations: lush burrata with roasted pumpkin, sage and pistachio pesto; chicken liver mousse with carrot marmellata; and olive-oil poached albacore tuna with peperonata jam. (Sets of three jars, $39 — a memorable holiday hostess gift, done! — are also available to order for takeaway after 3 p.m.)

“This is comfort redefined,” Zack says. See: appetizer boards, “an ode to my love of charcuterie and the meat we can get around here,” and small plates such as the luxe breakfast-for-dinner Foie & Oats with roasted apples, Calvados, and five-spice walnuts; tender, charred Spanish octopus with warm grapes, Castelvetrano olives, and shishito peppers; and impossibly silky tartare, ground-to-order from Colorado’s 7X beef (see “7X Marks the Spot,” opposite page) and topped with a soft egg and Parmesan cream.

Diners who enjoyed meals in the museum-like, Victorian-revival Century Room and Jacob’s Corner of yesteryear might be relieved to find a few ghosts of Jerome’s past floating around at Prospect.

“I’ve made hundreds of thousands of those (Colorado Ruby) trouts with orzo and basil” over the years, Zack says. “That’s never going away. Or the barbecue chicken salad and lobster Cobb. I use J-Bar, breakfast and lunch to keep those things intact, and dinner at Prospect to branch out a little more.”

Still, it’s approachable food: bowls feature handmade pastas and hearty braises (pillowy Avalanche chèvre gnocchi with béchamel bolognese; creamy polenta with veal-cheek ragù) and large plates showcase seared diver scallops, Taleggio-stuffed Amish chicken, and rotisserie prime rib, which returns as a Saturday-night special. Wine director Jill Zimorski, an Advanced Sommelier who came aboard in November 2012, offers perfect pairings for each.

Though restored to its former glory, the Hotel Jerome has been in the game long enough — once upon a time it was the only one in the game — to recognize that we’re eating differently than we did decades ago: smaller portions of lighter preparations served in more casual settings.

“Chefs tend to put food on the menu that they love: pork, bacon, you see it all over the place,” Zack says. “I love it, but it’s not a huge seller. It’s a little too much fat for people.”

So, instead of plopping a hunk of bone on a plate with a spoon and calling it a dish, Zack scoops out the marrow and chops it with parsley, lemon, and garlic to create a decadent gremolata that melts into the steak it garnishes.

“I want to create an emotional attachment to food,” Zack explains. “As a chef, I have an opportunity to create memories. When you nail it, that keeps people coming back.”

He should know. Zack, who began his career at the Jerome in 1994 and has left sporadically to pursue other ventures, most recently to the Viceroy Snowmass in 2009, returned during the 2012 redesign on the heels of DiLucia, himself a Jerome veteran of more than 20 years.

“Coming back to the Jerome, it’s like home to me. It’s what I grew up with in this town,” Zack says. “I wanted to be part of the change; that meant a lot more to me than being at a hotel in Snowmass. The Jerome has a story to it, a history, a reason for being.”

And with Prospect lighting the way, we have a reason to dine there once again.

On her first night as an Aspen local, Amanda Rae ate the J-Bar burger.

Aspen Times Weekly

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