Food Matters: Offseason silver linings

Amanda Rae

Offseason plans? Depending on who’s asking, the simple question can evince genuine curiosity, borderline-hostile envy, and everything in between. Considering that my work isn’t exactly seasonal, though, I’m sick of it.

I know it’s been a long, wild winter, and y’all are fried alive from nonstop shredding, skinning, merrimaking, and dodging gaper tourists swinging their skis around all wrong, but why are we expected to skip town once the lifts stop spinning? Sure, I’ve got wanderlust. But there’s something undeniably peaceful about the Quiet Month of May — even if the weather is uncooperative while our social media feeds blow up with saucy images of white-sand beaches and street food from far-flung cities.

Town is distilled to its essence. Time seems to pass more slowly. Call me selfish, lame, or a loner: Spring is when I swoon for Aspen all over again because I get more of her to myself. Without the constant distraction of powder days, media events, festivals, races, guest-chef prix-fixe dinners, wine tastings, après-ski, sold-out shows, and bevies of imported beefcake, personal productivity soars. A pause can be exhilarating, if only you embrace it.

So, instead of asking me where I’m heading this offseason (Denver, definitely; a weekend in California, maybe; at least one road trip with an unknown destination), a better question is: What are you eating this offseason?

Instead of asking me where I’m heading this offseason, a better question is: What are you eating this offseason? Many restaurants may be closed, but food surprises are out there….

Despite the obvious fact that most favorite haunts are locked up solid, food surprises are out there. One must summon a traveler’s spirit of adventure, ask questions in anticipation of thoughtful answers, and open mouth and mind to spontaneity.

Restaurants that stick it out along with us non-service industry, -retail, or -on-mountain employees are rewarded: bars packed with grateful diners grubbing on special menus, drunk off this only-in-springtime atmosphere. Patrons reap benefits, too. Rustique Bistro rewards us with Fried Chicken Thursdays (three courses, $27). Justice Snow’s has a $15, two-course lunch ($25 dinner) and $4 local beer.

This week Home Team BBQ launches a $5 happy hour menu (five menu items, and drinks). Mezzaluna offers $12 pizza and pasta at lunch; two-for-one dinner entrées Monday to Wednesday; and a $30 prix-fixe Thursday through Saturday. Meat & Cheese, White House Tavern, CP Burger, Hops Culture, the Red Onion and Ryno’s are all open, check the specials. And Mi Chola, home to a bar-menu tamale special that redefines what’s achievable in a lowly “side salad,” has picked up the comedy gigs once held at the Sky Hotel (RIP).

“The flan is excellent,” Denver headliner Deacon Gray told me last Saturday night, minutes before he took the mic. I giggled, and he clarified that the comment was not meant as an ironic joke after all. I haven’t tried the flan yet, but Gray crushed it, and he’s not the kind of guy who looks like he digs into dessert very often. Stay curious!

Those who breeze into Over Easy on a weekend will enjoy a small though satisfying luxury: a choice of table, indoors or out, and likely a seat at the juice bar. You might not be stuck on the corner stool next to that mesmerizing, citrus-pressing, Rube Goldberg machine, either.

Riding my bike the wrong way down every street in the core last Sunday, I passed a friend on foot. We stopped in the middle of a crosswalk to talk about what we aren’t doing during offseason. Not a vehicle interrupted us the entire time. Had he eaten anything notable recently?

“Yeah!” he exclaimed. His eyes grew wide as he detailed a chance discovery at L’Hostaria’s bar: filetti di sogliola. Drenched in champagne butter with wilted spinach, cherry tomatoes, and a green-bean potato cake, sole became his new favorite fish. Though a seafood enthusiast, he’d always ignored sole. I get that — it sounds as appetizing as the bottom of a shoe. That night, though, his whim was rewarded.

“Damn, that was a good piece of fish!” he told me. “And only sixteen dollars!” To enjoy a nice piece of fish — and as a creatively composed dish — in Aspen for less than 20 bucks is a treat, indeed. Offseason is a good time to explore new foods, whether you venture out or cook at home.

On the subject of taking chances, I shared an uncharacteristic brunch selection at Over Easy, a spur-of-the-moment departure from the standard two or three items I typically choose. It’s risky: few things ruin a meal faster than pining for the familiar plate you didn’t order under the auspices of branching out.

It was lunchtime, technically, so I made a bold move toward the “Munchi Burger,” which I hadn’t noticed in four years. It’s grass-fed beef, a crispy hash-brown patty, ample bacon, an egg how you like it (over medium, please!), lettuce, tomato, red onion, and pickles, all sandwiched between a maple syrup-glazed bun fresh from Louis Swiss Pastry and served, if you feel me, with Southern cheese grits for a single bill more. With our 20 percent locals’ discount, the succulent stack — easily split with a friend yet still satisfying — tallied $11.20. Really!

Offseason is when creativity comes out to play, too. Chefs still stuck in the kitchen are dreaming and testing; they barter homemade condiments and share strange ingredients — the professional cooking equivalent of back alley drug deals. Ask what they’re up to.

A Facebook post about my own sourdough kitchen experiments developed into a fast-unspooling comment chain 90-plus deep among a half-dozen chefs about grains. It led two of us to visit chef Christopher Randall only an hour later at the Limelight Hotel. He baked blue cornbread that turned out lilac, using an heirloom variety grown in North Carolina. He served us a fat wedge over an impromptu three-bean and pork belly stew dotted with smoky, house-made hot sauce.

Before that, he cut up his last Fuji apple from Paonia’s fall harvest, then slid forth a crock of Southern-style pimento cheese made using Rocking W block cheddar from Olathe, Colo. (Both pictured, right.)

“It’s still squeaky, the cheese is so fresh,” says Randall, who doused the spread with roasted red pepper sauce and fresh oregano in a Mediterranean twist. We slathered it on grilled bread. Elation ensued.

Randall plans to put the appetizer on his summer menu, launching mid-month. Until then, the Limelight is open with happy hour specials from 3 to 7 p.m. ($6 margaritas, mules and mimosas; $6 rosé wine on Wednesdays).

Special events catering to locals are sporadic as well. L’Hostaria held a benefit for JAS music students on April 29 that funneled at least $2,000 to the nonprofit. The dining room filled with the teens’ lively jazz and the scent of smoked, barbecued meat, which sommelier Carlos Valenzuela prepared especially for the prix-fixe menu. Sharing his hobby with core supporters is more feasible now than, say, December or January. (Read about Valenzuela’s smoked experiments in the April 13 edition of this column.)

Call it his offseason gift to the community — acceptance of which is only possible if you’re around to enjoy it.