At Aspen’s Rustique, a communal dining experience worth savoring | AspenTimes.com

At Aspen’s Rustique, a communal dining experience worth savoring

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Country style dinner setting at Rustique

ASPEN – Probably the best-tasting restaurant meal I had this summer was also the most sociable, the slowest, and the one where the conversation was most focused on the food we were eating. Coincidence? At first I would have said, possibly yes: This dinner – at Rustique Bistro, as part of their new Farm to Table offerings – looked as if it would have been just as scrumptious had I wolfed it down alone, in front of the TV, in a matter of minutes.

But the more I thought about it, the longer the chicken in crawfish ragout and the pickled vegetables and the roasted horseradish potatoes lingered in my mind, the more I came to believe that the context had enhanced the food itself – the long oak table, the family-style service.

“Food tastes better in an atmosphere of sharing,” Rob Ittner, the owner of the 9-year-old restaurant, told me. “Taste happens in the mind. And if there’s that shared communication and a consciousness of the dining, it raises the level to a whole new spot. Sharing an experience is huge.”

Going into the meal, I had counted on standout food. The Farm to Table dinners – served Tuesdays, Thursday and Sundays, assuming there are a sufficient number of reservations – are paid special attention by the Rustique kitchen, which is headed by chef Ryan Flemming. Most of the ingredients come from local farmers, ranchers and cheese-makers, and are picked based on what is available at the moment. The staff, instead of preparing dishes they have made countless times before, are concocting something new for each dinner, which made me believe there would be an extra dash of creativity: Not only would the ingredients be extra fresh, so would the hands and minds making the meal. (Among the dishes that have found their way to the communal table are lavender honey-roasted duck breast, Paonia tomato salad with Vidalia onions, juniper-roasted venison loin and a plum-and-vanilla custard tart.)

The Farm to Table dinners – $49 for four-plus courses – were intended in part as an opportunity for the staff.

“A main reason is, it gives the kitchen the ability to work with products that they don’t normally put on our menu,” said Ittner, a native of New York City and Vermont who studied restaurant management at the New England Culinary Institute and the Culinary Institute of America’s Napa Valley program. “It’s like the stimulus of giving an artist new colors to paint with. It’s fun to express ourselves in this way. It’s an expression of who we are.”

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Equally significant is the chance to join the slow food movement, which emphasizes not only the ingredients used, but also the manner in which they are consumed. At Rustique’s Farm to Table dinners – which are presented in addition to the restaurant’s regular menu and regular service – guests eat communally, often with fellow diners they are meeting for the first time.

“You’re getting an experience where you’re getting joy at the table,” said Ittner. “There’s an innate thing in passing the plate, sharing the food, interacting about the food items. Don’t just put it in your mouth to get it in your body. Taste it, take it in consciously.”

“The first night we did this, the entire waitstaff had bigger smiles than I’ve ever seen. Because this expresses that we’re doing something we care about. Everyone, down to the dishwasher, thought, ‘This is cool.'”

Ittner – like Tom Passavant of the Slow Food Roaring Fork/Aspen – stresses the enjoyment of food over sticking to strict guidelines of where the ingredients can come from. The selections for the cheese course come from France, California and New York; some of the proteins come from outside of Colorado. “More than anything, we wanted products that require specialty care in producing them,” he said. “If we use beef from Oregon, it’s from an organic, specialty farm.”

And Ittner understands that some diners want a more private experience, and that they like to order from the menu.

“People like the option of choosing their own main course,” he said. “We’re asking for a leap of faith, for them to be adventurous.

Stewart@aspentimes.com