A full plate
Craig and Samantha Cordts-Pearce have cornered the Aspen dining scene – literally.And what a corner.
Where brick meets pavement at the corner of Mill and Hyman, the couple’s trio of restaurants share a downtown corner with the venerable Wheeler Opera House and Aspen’s popular dancing fountain on the mall.Look for a sea of patio umbrellas to complement the already vibrant space next summer, when Craig’s vision for the corner is in full bloom.The roots are already in place for the al fresco scene of his dreams. The couple opened The Wild Fig just more than two years ago and introduced D19 in December. Sandwiched between the two restaurants is the venerable Popcorn Wagon, which they also own. The stage is set for tables and flowers that will reach from D19, facing the mall on Mill Street to The Wild Fig’s spacious patio perched above Hyman Avenue, not to mention the outdoor tapas bar that Craig can hardly wait to unveil.Two restaurants in two years is no easy feat, Craig conceded, even for a couple of Aspen restaurant veterans, but a second establishment was on their radar almost before they caught their breath after launching The Wild Fig in what some naysayers called a doomed venture.The Hyman Avenue space, located atop Su Casa and a half-level up from the street, had seen a string of restaurants come and go in recent years.
“Everyone was like, ‘Oh, let’s see how long that one lasts,’ ” Craig recalled.But the Cordts-Pearces gave the space a Mediterranean feel and introduced a cuisine to match, with the influence of France, Italy, Spain, Greece and a touch of the Middle East. It quickly gained a following. Open for lunch and dinner during the summers and solely dinner during the winter months, the restaurant finished its first year of operation in the black.”We were so determined to make that place work,” Craig said.
By year two, they were eyeing the former Colony restaurant around the corner. Last fall, the couple purchased both the Colony and the Popcorn Wagon businesses from Susan Parry, with help from the foursome of backers who also invested in The Wild Fig.”Basically, when we opened this place [the Fig], our dream was to open another restaurant in town,” Craig said.As for the venerable Popcorn Wagon, Craig is tickled to own “a piece of Aspen history,” letting it run pretty much as it always has.Craig and a friend quickly tackled an ambitious overhaul of the Colony, with plans to open Dec. 19, in keeping with the new restaurant’s name – the D stands for “date” and a lot of big events have occurred on the 19th for the Cordts-Pearce family. They missed the mark a bit, opening on Dec. 26 instead.
“We had one reservation, but did 150 dinners,” Craig recalled. “The hype was there. People knew the restaurant was going to open – it was seriously word-of-mouth.”Admittedly, D19 is enjoying its Aspen honeymoon, but the restaurant has thus far exceeded the couple’s expectations from a business perspective, and without hurting business at The Wild Fig, Craig insists.”People are just feeding off what we’re doing,” he said, oblivious to the pun. “It’s awesome.”With executive chef Dena Marino now in charge of both restaurants, D19’s menu boasts a fare that Samantha calls “new Italian – or “Old World Italian with a New World twist.”
“It’s Italian, but it’s Italian without saying it,” Craig explained.Samantha offers the prociutto di parma zeppole as an example of old meets new. The traditional Italian-style donut (zeppole) gets a D19 spin with prociutto and parmigiano-reggiano.Along with appetizers, soups, salads and sides, the menu boasts pasta dishes, many of which are available as a half-order, and entrees.Samantha is quick to peg gnocchi with braised wild boar as her personal favorite.
But the bistecca, with sautéed onions, Southwestern peppers, mushrooms and salsa verde, is flying out of the kitchen, Craig reports.”We’re trying to raise the bar of cuisine in Aspen, not to say we don’t have a lot of good restaurants here,” he said. “But Aspen has such an amazing clientele that comes here, it’s nice to push the envelope a little bit.”Both learned the restaurant ropes, to a large degree, in Aspen. Before opening The Wild Fig, Craig at one time managed Gusto and Campo de Fiore, while Samantha’s local restaurant résumé boasted stints at a number of establishments, including the role of general manager at Jimmy’s and Matsuhisa.Craig, a native of South Africa, arrived in Aspen 12 years ago with $40 in his pocket, lured by a picture postcard from longtime friend Craig Hart, now a partner in another local restaurant, Genre Bistro.
He credits his former employers at Campo and Gusto, owners Luigi Giordani and Elizabeth Plotke-Giordani, with giving him the inspiration to run his own place.”I probably wouldn’t be here today if I didn’t work for those guys,” he said. “They gave me the hunger and the drive.”Most nights, diners at The Wild Fig and D19 will run into Craig or Samantha, and occasionally both of them, though one of them often stays home with their two young children – 2 1/2 years and 7 months old.Currently midvalley residents, the family is planning a move to the North 40 near Aspen.
“We want our kids to grow up here. We want our roots to go into the ground,” Craig declared. “We’re trying to be in this business, have a family and be successful.””Other than never going skiing, it’s going well,” Samantha chimed in.”We’re having so much fun with this place and that place, I think because we’re having fun, everyone else is having fun,” Craig said.Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org