Food Matters: Seafood in the mountains, naturally
Close relationships with seafood distributors, speedy international delivery, and flexibility in the face of overfishing represent only part of the equation for local chefs. Once in Aspen, ingredients must be treated with care.
“It’s about knowing what you’re going to use, not ordering too much, and treating everything with respect,” says Maru head sushi chef Taylor Hale. “Even the best piece of fish will turn into a piece of sh*t in 20 minutes if you let it sit out on the cutting board or wrap it in the wrong paper. The process of breaking down that fish affects every single piece that you get out of it: You can only drop a fish so many times instead of placing it down, and if you don’t slice it right the first way, it gets wasteful really quickly.”
A razor-sharp knife is crucial, to maintain integrity of cells and prevent mashing, which leads to mushiness. “Anytime there’s pressure that’s not slicing, it’s going to damage the membrane,” Hale says. “That’s why sometimes you see that iridescence on the outside coating—as if the knife wasn’t super sharp as they were pushing down on the filet, to make oil come out prematurely. Stuff that’s delicate has soul. We treat produce the same way.”
WHEN HOTEL JEROME chef de cuisine Jason Niederkorn created a menu for the latest Somm Off wine-pairing dinner, he set his sight far past the horizon — to the Atlantic Ocean, some 2,300 miles away. Colorado steaks, chops and ruby red trout might feed hearty Aspen appetites year-round, but breezy, sun-soaked summer evenings beg for seashore foods (with rosé, margarita and mojito “patio pounders” to boot). In paying homage to New England, then, Niederkorn knew to consider its culinary claim to fame: the lobster roll.
So he prepared not one but two miniature versions on house-made brioche buns: a classic cold preparation with fresh mayonnaise, celery, and a hint of Old Bay seasoning, and a three-ingredient knockout made from little more than lobster meat poached in emulsified butter (beurre fondue). As expected, some visiting guests who already had devoured the first-course duo of sashimi tuna and Beau Soleil oysters expressed surprise. Plate after plate of fresh East Coast catch — in the Rocky Mountains? Yes, and it’s a novelty no longer.
Considering our geography — woodsy, rugged, remote, landlocked — it’s easy to understand why certain folks might regard Aspen’s seafood abundance with suspicion. At least three local restaurants are dedicated to the art of sushi and many more feature variations on crudo and tartare. Ajax Tavern’s annual Rocky Mountain Oyster Fest on Labor Day calls for guests to slurp unlimited shellfish faster than Fireball at a frat party. And at the very heart of town on the Mill Street pedestrian mall is what we might consider the Aspen Triangle, comprised of Jimmy’s Bodega, which follows the tradition of Pacifica with a signature raw bar; Maru, which replaced Takah Sushi last year; and Nantucket-import Grey Lady Aspen.
“I always joke with people who are like, ‘How do you get such fresh fish in the mountains?’” says Maru co-owner and head sushi chef Taylor Hale. “It’s the same way we have lettuce in January: On a plane. It’s an industry.”
The proliferation of purveyors specializing in dayboat-caught fish and the ease with which product may be shipped cross-country overnight via FedEx squashes the argument that fresh seafood in the mountains — or anywhere inland, for that matter — should seems strange.
“I’m from Nantucket and spend half the year there,” says Ian Perry, managing partner of Grey Lady, which counts a third outpost on the island of Manhattan. “Even though you can see the ocean [in Nantucket], that doesn’t mean all your fish is coming from there. Half of it is from the West Coast…shrimp is from Vietnam.”
Grey Lady Aspen’s new executive chef Kyle Raymond receives 50 to 75 live Maine lobsters every other day and shipments from Northeast Seafood up to five times per week.
“Our lobster roll is a whole one-and-a-quarter pound lobster on the bun,” he says. “[Lobster deviled eggs], I can’t make those quick enough. We sell at least 30 orders an evening.” Naturally, because each is topped with one-and-a-half ounces of freshly shucked lobster and a drizzle of lemon zest-infused oil with dill.
Other bestsellers include Cobb salad topped with an eight-ounce lobster tail, Alaskan king crab legs, mussels, sweet Florida red snapper and a retro-fantastic, crab-stuffed baked trolley sole with lemon butter and crushed Ritz crackers.
“You can get anything, anywhere,” explains Grey Lady general manager Geoffrey Geller. “Our fish order for the next day must be in by 10 p.m. We usually get it between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., depending on traffic [from Denver]. And we use lots of things that are sustainably farmed. That’s what everybody expects.”
Chefs who foster relationships with seafood dealers over the years reap untold rewards: insider info, discounted pricing. In return, when a chef moves to a new kitchen, he usually takes his “fish guy” (or gal) along for the ride.
For example, Niederkorn has dealt with Brooklyn-based Pierless Fish for more than 15 years, having run restaurants in Santa Monica, Newport Beach, and Big Bear in California. Thanks to that history — and established trust — he’s able to source line-caught, dayboat-fresh seafood for the Jerome according to a custom pricing structure.
“I’m so proud of what we get as far as the quality of ingredients,” he says. “Fish that was swimming along the East Coast the day before — it is special.”
At Maru, chef Hale hews traditional: He uses True World Japan primarily. Main cuts — tuna, yellowtail, salmon — arrive three days per week, to balance an ever-rotating array of Japanese species.
“You get what you pay for — it doesn’t matter where you are,” Hale says. “(Seafood) is just as good (here) as in San Francisco, Tokyo, all places directly related to seafood industry. (True World) product is immaculate. It’s beautifully wrapped, beautifully packed with cold ice packs. They know I care, I know they care. That’s the best connection to have with a fish company.”
An open mind helps, too. Every three to four weeks, Raymond receives a special delivery of spearfish-caught lionfish, an invasive species on the East Coast with no natural predators. Raymond uses them in fish tacos or fried whole to serve alongside pickled vegetables or farro risotto. Oysters hail exclusively from the mouth of the Damariscotta River in Maine, where Native Americans deposited and cultivated wild oysters centuries ago; the brackish water lends notes of earth and seaweed mixed with medium salinity and gives the bivalves a firm, plump texture.
“They’re very clean and crisp with subtle flavors you get from a freshwater oyster,” Raymond says — ideal for novices.
Each week, Raymond’s purveyor sends a list of product expected — along with suggestions. When his purveyor noted that his “favorite way to eat this Colorado striped bass was sashimi,” Raymond added a raw plate to that night’s menu. “We’re not confined to East Coast style,” he says. “We can go around the world.”
Education is key. When East Coast cod fell prey to overfishing, Niederkorn was able to secure Icelandic product to sub into the Jerome’s bestselling fish and chips.
“It’s our responsibility to know we’re buying something that is sustainable, not endangered, which is ever-changing,” says Niederkorn, who uses SeafoodWatch.org as a guide and prefers wild, line-caught fish to farm-raised, net-caught species. “Awareness is important. I’m not a huge fan of farm-raised fish, but obviously that’s very sustainable. It’s a fine line between doing the right thing by choosing sustainability and having amazing quality that isn’t farm-raised.”
In the end, chefs meet the challenge of changing perceptions about seafood in Aspen by staying flexible when working with a fickle industry.
“Sometimes the boat doesn’t catch a lot of one fish, so we have to juggle and see what we’re substituting,” Raymond explains. He chuckles. “But it’s never really an issue because there are so many fish in the sea.”