Food Matters: Summer Synergy
Top Chefs, Master Sommeliers, local farmers, and artisanal spirits reunite with fresh energy at 7908 Aspen
The scene last weekend at 7908 Aspen was like a highlight reel on loop: diners cooing over brightly colored, artfully arranged dishes and exquisitely garnished cocktails; black-clad staff attending to guests in calm, controlled synchronicity; and executive chef Byron Gomez posing for the occasional “Top Chef: Portland” fan photo. Late-night, the DJ booth was back in action for the first time since the decks stopped spinning some 15 months ago.
“It was amazing to see everyone,” enthuses 7908 director of spirits Matt Corbin, who manned the bar Friday. “We thought this might never happen again. What the restaurant community went through over the last 15 months was horrible. Seeing a lot of familiar faces — actually seeing faces — was so cool. Now we’re gonna have the busiest summer of our lives.”
Buoying the venue is chef Gomez, who enjoyed an animated run on Season 18 of Bravo’s Top Chef. (Gomez made it to the final six contestants on the reality cooking competition, which is still airing currently.) The Costa Rican is leading a new dinner series that invites collaborators who bring fresh perspectives to 7908, conceived as a supper club when it opened on the Hyman Avenue Mall in July 2018. First up, on Thursday, June 17, is fellow “Top Chef: Portland” contestant Gabe Erales of Austin, Texas.
Erales, the former executive chef of Comedor in Austin (a champion of “visionary Mexican cuisine,” according to Texas Monthly), has become known as a “sauce whisperer” of sorts for his complex concoctions on the show. His burnt-bread mole, prepared during a 30-minute Quickfire Challenge, was complimented by judges as “having depth as if it had cooked for hours,” Erales recalls. (Typically, his mole requires two to three days to prepare.)
“We want to go back to our roots, (so) we’re highlighting Central American and Mexican ingredients,” Gomez explains. Erales’s parents were born in Chetumal, Quintana Roo; recently the chef visited extended family in the Yucatán, where he sourced different varieties of recados, or spice mixtures (rojo, negro), and indigenous chiles. “We’re focusing on Mayan cuisine, using our (shared) Mayan heritage and finessing it.”
The chefs will team up to compose each dish on the five-course menu, including duck breast with sour orange-habanero glaze and braised beef tongue (lengua) topped with pineapple salsa over green plantain patacones (instead of corn masa huaraches, as is customary). Cauliflower pibil is a plant-forward riff on the traditional Yucatán dish famously made with cochinita (pork).
“Using recado rojo (primary ingredient for cochinita) on vegetables provides an amazing flavor profile of spices and acidity … you (don’t realize) there isn’t protein on the plate,” Erales explains. “I have begun looking at how vegetables become the centerpiece of a dish and use animal fat or byproduct as a small detail to compliment it.”
Erales focuses first on sourcing when composing a dish. His Xni-pec (“Dog’s Nose”) habanero salsa on the tasting menu incorporates sour citrus, which grows throughout central and southern Texas. Gomez, too: A spring visit to the Central Rocky Mountain Permaculture Institute in Basalt led him to purchase bushels of founder Jerome Osentowski’s lovage — an herb Gomez last tasted in New York four years ago. “It’s a cross between celery and parsley, with basil-floral notes” and a pleasant tang, Gomez describes. Lovage finds a home at 7908 in ginger vinaigrette for the new Summer Salad and as a beef filet garnish (described below).
7908’s summer dessert menu, which includes a towering strawberry-rhubarb and “milk crunch” ice cream sundae, has been an instant success. The Mayan dinner finale will feature coconut, papaya, lime, and pumpkinseeds in an elevated confection.
“We have similar styles, (in) fine dining, especially,” Gomez shares, referencing Erales’s time in the kitchen at Noma in Copenhagen and Mexico. Gomez is a veteran of multiple Michelin-starred restaurants, including Café Boulud, Atera, and Eleven Madison Park in New York City. He relocated to Aspen for the EMP Winter House pop-up at Chefs Club at the St. Regis Aspen Resort in 2018-19 and transitioned to 7908 that summer.
Each of Thursday’s five courses will be paired with a cocktail crafted by Corbin in partnership with LALO Tequila, a small-batch brand founded by Eduardo “Lalo” González, grandson of the great Don Julio. Corbin introduced LALO to the bar last winter, and Gomez met the founder during a charity dinner with Erales in Austin this spring.
“Gotta keep the momentum going,” quips Gomez. “On (‘Top Chef’) I was educated on 14 different mindsets of how (chefs) were dealing with the pandemic back home. One thing that was common: We missed cooking for people! Everybody was yearning to be slammed on a Friday night. Once that human interaction got taken away, we realized how important it was.”
Situated in the chic lounge just a few steps down from the main dining room, the monthly dinners will welcome 35 to 40 diners; a ticket to this week’s tasting costs $325, which includes five tequila cocktail pairings, tax and tip. 7908’s main menu will run in the dining room and on the outdoor patio as usual. Folks who miss this first installment might join the 7908 Aspen email list via website or follow on social media (@7908aspen) for updates.
In the works are events that may feature other “Top Chef” contestants, some of whom Gomez has already visited on their own turf — Shota Nakajima with Japanese whisky; a rum pairing with Chris Viaud and Nelson German, of Haitian and Dominican descent, respectively — as well as farmers from Sustainable Settings in Carbondale and top somms invited by 7908 wine director and Master Sommelier Jonathan Pullis.
Back on the nightly menu by popular demand and further refined: salmon crudo with Peruvian huancaína sauce, jicama ribbons, puffed quinoa, and kaffir lime leaf oil; compressed watermelon salad with pistachio-basil dressing, watermelon molasses, pickled Fresno chiles, and cotija cheese; Pacific corvina, a mild and meaty white fish, topped with crunchy green papaya salad in a pool of fragrant, silky curry; and Wagyu filet mignon with beef tallow-cauliflower purée, pickled beets, and that lovage-infused jus.
Texture and color, everywhere!
“It’s been a year of uncertainty and quietness … the energy is back,” Gomez says, noting the appointment this past winter of maître’d Frank Iglesias, also from East Coast fine dining establishments, and new patio flooring that will cover those pesky cobblestones. “How can we reinvent ourselves? How can we give back to the community because we went through some hardship, worldwide?”
Fired up, Gomez doesn’t wait for an answer: “That’s why we offer this dinner series. We want to hit the refresh button.”
Summer Dinner Series
June 17 at 7 p.m.
Chef Gabe Erales, Austin, Texas
$325 (incl. cocktails, tax, tip)
415 E. Hyman Ave.
Big Trouble in Little China cocktail taken during winter 2020-21. Photo Julia Punj
7908 Aspen director of spirits Matt Corbin is thinking big at the supper club this summer, offering a list of large-format, theatrical cocktails and an expanded tequila selection that closes in on the bar’s 200-plus whiskies.
“(We) want to draw everyone together (to) share in a fun experience,” Corbin says. “When I travel with friends, I always try to find stuff (that is) over-the-top and memorable.”
Proof that 7908’s cocktails are increasingly ambitious: Big Trouble in Little China, a ceramic Chinese takeout box that serves as a punch bowl; Disco Disco, which arrives in “a full-sized disco ball”; Swan Song, in a giant copper bird; and Up! In Smoke, a Disney-inspired miniature house sculpture surrounded by vapor and a helium balloon.
“It sells out within 10 minutes of the first person ordering it,” Corbin notes of the latter. “I only have four of those vessels.”
Related to the Mayan-themed tasting menu on June 17: chicha morada, a dark purple-red Peruvian elixir made of dried purple corn simmered and steeped with pineapple, apple, citrus, and warm spices then dosed with pomegranate liqueur and lemongrass syrup over ice. The fruity, non-alcoholic quaff—which may be infused with pisco as a South American cocktail (Purple Rain)—might arrive with a sidecar of Topo Chico for topping, if desired. Head bartender Ross Hensley, who noticed Latin Americans guzzling the drink during his offseason travels, explains that some diners prefer a lighter consistency, as chicha is inherently viscous with a rounded mouthfeel. Cheers!
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