Flavor beyond words
Food supersedes vocabulary in a series of Japanese dinners
At Kenichi Snowmass in late May, embarking on what would be the first of three Japanese dinners at owner Brent Reed’s local restaurants in the span of a month, I scribbled notes almost as much as I ate.
Chef Justin Lightsey told us of “light, bright, vibrant colors,” and the way “you eat with your eyes.” (The plates are works of art — some Jackson Pollock painterly, others Andy Warhol pop-art pristine.)
He shared his own culinary journey, from a kid picking up eggs and learning about farming to experiences in Yellowstone, Hawaii and Carbondale (he previously worked at Kenichi Pacific in Kona and at Izakaya in Carbondale).
He spoke of camaraderie, support, collaboration and experimentation in the kitchen. Regarding guest philosophy, he said the team aims to “treat our customers with the same respect and kindness we treat each other with.”
I relished in the conversation as much as the flavors of savory boar gyoza, scallops with a fresno chili sauce, greentail and dynamo sushi rolls that brought a spring-on-summer warmth to the palate.
At Izakaya Carbondale, I still made plenty of markings in my notebook, though they focused more on flavor than narrative. Our waiter regaled us with stories of his childhood in Hawaii, where his father would return from the water with fish fresher than anything I’ll possibly ever taste, unless I catch it myself.
“I had no choice but to be a foodie,” he said, making a convincing argument for the robust dinner of pub-style Japanese bites that filled our table.
I was hatching a gimmick to link menu items to the essence of the calendar months I thought they most embodied. Yellowtail sashimi, bright but not overwhelming, was the first warm day in June; soy-yuzu tuna nachos, weighed down by sauces, seasonings and seafood atop the crispy chips, had to be August; lobster bao buns, richer, heavier and rounder, were October.
But at Kenichi Aspen, little happened in the way of pen to paper. The flavors at the flagship location were so exquisite that I experienced a rare disconnection between my writing brain and my eating one. My eyes went wide with flavors and textures I had never experienced before; the cogs stopped churning over clever turns of phrase, and I succumbed to the sensation of surprise and satisfaction.
On the flame-torched A5 wagyu beef, served on a bone with the marrow still in it, the rich, dissolving fattiness overcame me. Just about all I could conjure for the page was that classic product slogan, “I can’t believe it’s not butter,” and even that was derivative from dinner partner Henry’s comment on its butteriness.
Because I am nothing if not committed to a bit, I also scribbled down “December.” Those decadent bites seemed to embody the luxurious, velvety texture of the meat that had sent me to a place of holiday meals, and of nights curled up on the couch, wrapped in a fur blanket, watching the snow fall.
Then, again overcome by the crispy surprise of tempura shishito peppers stuffed with lobster, I found myself writing down little, if anything at all. All I wrote in my notebook was “August,” underlined three times, before I let myself yield to the flavors within.
Kaya Williams is a writer for The Aspen Times and The Snowmass Sun who acknowledges the month of August can represent both tuna nachos and the best tempura she’s ever had. She ate her way through a few other months, too, but succumbed to the experience before she could write much down. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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