Food Matters: An end-of-season free-for-all
I KNOW I’M NOT ALONE in thinking that April heralds a grand junction into spring, a time we might also call the Season of Not Giving AF. We wear ridiculous costumes on the hill, settle into après-ski after only a few slush runs, and stay out in snow pants far longer than is socially acceptable. Shots at 10 a.m.? Sure! Edibles before noon? Why not? Keg at the Buckhorn Cabin chased by Champagne showers at Cloud 9? Highlands, here we come!
No matter how hard we pray for just one more powder day, reality begins to sink in: Winter 2016/17 is almost over. These final weeks also signal the last hurrah for chefs and restaurateurs so ready already to shut down for a spell during offseason. Perhaps in solidarity but probably because we’ve stopped giving AF, many of us eaters throw caution to the wind and consume everything in sight. Indeed, for me that began in earnest last weekend.
On Friday, I met a friend for lunch at Meat & Cheese. There we bid adieu to executive chef David Wang, who celebrated the end of an era with a decadent special inspired by chef Sean Brock of Husk in Nashville (Bon Appétit magazine’s Best New Restaurant in America, 2011): Miso pork cooked sous vide with farro risotto, leek ash, and a sauce of green garlic plucked from the warming soils of Hotchkiss.
“Being here three years, it feels like five,” Wang told us. “Not owning a place…you have to keep moving.” Best of luck, Dave!
I schlepped off for an afternoon shred sesh before meeting up with another friend for Aspen après. Town was quiet, though, so she found me perched in front of the massive stone fireplace at the Little Nell, scrolling through the Grub Street Diet on my iPhone. New York Magazine’s weekly online food diary, which chronicles the edible obsessions and eccentricities of actors, musicians, writers, designers, and other creative folks, is a surefire appetite-stoker. By the time I’d salivated through writer Rachel Khong’s detailed preparation of Turkish çilbir, featured in her new cookbook, “All About Eggs,” I was ravenous.
Despite being 4:30 p.m., Chair 9 was desolate — the season is ending, officially! — so we crossed town to La Crêperie du Village. There we found Marseillais co-owner Raphael Derly popping bottles of Château d’Esclans Whispering Angel and Rock Angel rosé to celebrate a visit from noted wine strategist Chuck Taylor. As usual we squeezed onto stools facing the seven-seat bar — the chef’s table, overlooking what might be the tiniest kitchen in town — to chat with French chef Sebastien Chamaret. First he served us house-smoked duck, sliced thinly over a pile of baby arugula, haricots verts, and candied walnuts with creamy black truffle vinaigrette. A signature for sure.
In carbo-loading mode — to fuel up for my first Aspen Snowmass Banked Slalom competition the next day — I ordered gnocchi-flette, the traditional French casserole of fluffy potato pillows drenched in creamy Reblochon cheese with caramelized onion and bacon. We begged for extra bread to scrape every morsel of molten cheese from the miniature cast-iron pan — but not before devouring a lobster-stuffed crêpe for good measure. (Ladies: try these decadent dishes alongside free-flowing Corsican rosé during La Crêperie’s weekly “Pardon My French” parties, Mondays from 5 to 6:30 p.m.)
The next morning before heading to Snowmass, I guzzled two cups of coffee and choked down a few bites of banana. Race-day nerves always get in the way.
Later, after a physically exhausting and emotionally defeating two runs on a gnarly, icy, rutted-out course through Garrett Gulch, my hunger returned, victorious. I cruised over to Gwyn’s, but the cafeteria was drained of its legendary chicken chowder — at 1:30 p.m.; must be the end of the season! I continued a traverse to Elk Camp Restaurant, home to some of the tastiest pizza the valley. No exaggeration: Elk Camp uses a hundred-plus-year-old sourdough starter imported from Alaska in its artisanal recipe. (Details are written on a chalkboard sign, ostensibly for home cooks to scale down at home. See opposite page).
Feeling the heat of the pizza oven blasting forth, I watched a cook scatter fresh mozzarella, peppers, and onions onto a personal pie and sling it onto the hearth. When the masterpiece emerged, he showered it with fresh basil chiffonade. I carried my prize to a table outdoors. I inhaled every crumb.
Outside of Base Camp Bar & Grill, pre-awards announcement, I stopped by a pop-up tent proffering samples of Aussie-style, Colorado-made Noosa Yoghurt. I tucked a few cartons (blueberry, apple, strawberry-rhubarb) into my bag, but the friendly attendant encouraged me to grab more. “Really,” he said, “Take all of ’em. We have a whole van full of yogurt.” I tipped another armful into my bag.
I encountered this guy again on Sunday after a fitting grand finale to the weekend’s food crawl: Buttermilk Closing Day aka Bacon Appreciation Day. If this annual extravaganza of crispy, salty pork doesn’t capture Aspen’s collective carefree attitude running rampant at this time of year, I don’t know what does. At least one shuttle driver agreed. “Bacon,” he quipped with authority, “should be appreciated!”
The soft, slushy slopes of Buttermilk were an auditory swirl of hoots and hollers. “Happy Bacon Day!” shouted lifties, including two employees downloading the Summit Express lift with a megaphone. “Bacon, Bacon, Bacon!” exclaimed ski patrollers, doling out bacon-wrapped scallops drenched in umami-tinged hibachi sauce. We missed bacon waffles at the Cliffhouse, but there were treats aplenty elsewhere: jalapeño bacon, Canadian bacon, applewood-smoked bacon, oh my!
At the base we accepted paper towels topped with portions of not one, not two, not three, but five strips of peppered bacon. We picked through the chewy tangles and traded greasy cardiologist jokes with smiling strangers.
Home Team BBQ’s free BLT sliders disappeared within minutes — or so we heard — so we moseyed inside to order bacon-topped cocktails instead. Home Team’s bloody mary is blended from smoked, puréed tomatoes; spicy smoked salt lines the rim. We completed the pairing with pulled pork sliders, smoked chicken tacos, and chicken skin cracklins dipped in blue cheese. Fewer than three weeks of ski season remain — why not gorge?
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