Foodstuff: A walk in the PARC
A new restaurant claims to ‘bring local back to Aspen’
Forget a love of the mountains or a hatred of roundabout traffic: If there is one tie that binds the people of Aspen, it is angst over the fate of our beloved local restaurants.
Lamenting the loss of longtime institutions has become so popular a pastime here that it’s now poised to surpass Aspenites’ other crotchety hobby: competing to see who is the most “local“ at the bar of a favorite locally-owned watering hole.
The cause may well be the effect. With fewer bars for locals to sit at and compare their years of service, they must instead stake their claim to townie tenure by rattling off all the bygone hubs they used to go to, back when Aspen was still a place locals could afford a bite to eat. Those who remember Jimmy’s or L’Hostaria have been here at least long enough to respect the history or relish in it as it happened; the ones who can recall the heyday of Little Annie’s or Cooper Street Pier have a caché that takes decades to cultivate.
So of course I was skeptical when I saw the slogan for PARC Aspen, a new restaurant that’s slated to open in L’Hostaria’s old spot on E. Hyman Avenue later this summer. PARC Aspen’s whole schick is that they’re “bringing local back to Aspen, one curated dish at a time.” Really?
Well, yeah. At a test kitchen tasting two weeks ago, any of the cynicism I might have had about the “local” claims of a newcomer dissolved amid boisterous, friendly company and flavors as fresh as they are inventive (very, on both accounts).
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when I got the invite for the meal, which would take place not at the restaurant (still undergoing renovations) but at the home of its proprietors, Maryanne and Harley Sefton.
Maryanne greeted me at the door, and for every minute of the next two hours, I found it harder and harder to cast a doubtful glance at what looked, tasted and felt very local indeed.
With my year-and-a-half of Aspen tenure, I was probably the least local person at the table. Maryanne, across from me, said her family had been coming here since 1996, which is longer than I’ve been alive; she and Harley have been residents for more than four years and owners for nearly 25. Turns out they’re also kind of my neighbors, just a few blocks down the street.
To her right, chock full of advice and anecdotes of Aspen’s past, was the proprietor of a beloved local restaurant institution that wrapped up business last year; to my left, and at the head of the table, two other locals with restaurant ties to community mainstays still standing.
In the wings was PARC Aspen operations manager Madie Bailey, born and raised in the valley, and sommelier Jeff Otterson, who came to the team from the Destination Hospitality group that runs Aurum locations in Snowmass Village and a couple other Colorado mountain towns.
And in the kitchen, executive chef Mark Connell worked alongside his sous chef Robert Regan; he joined PARC Aspen after a brief stint at Casa D’Angelo, but grew up in Reno, not far from my hometown in Tahoe.
We chatted about farm-to-table sourcing (it’s at the core of Park Aspen’s “local” premise) and his discovery of a Colorado shrimp farm (road trip to Yoder, anyone?) and, also, about the breakfast restaurant just a few miles down the road from the house where I grew up (dearly local to me, just not to Aspen).
The crew at PARC Aspen is well aware of the clout they could get from throwing around a word like “local” in their marketing.
“We know how far that goes in Aspen. … There’s so much leverage with local,” Bailey said. But they also seem to be abiding by that founding principle to show rather than just tell about the merits. Sefton said that the hiring team asks applicants to PARC Aspen how they define local; she believes, earnestly, that it is about contributions to the community and care for it more than years spent in it, and that being here “still feels good if you let it.” Bailey and Otterson offered much the same insight about an investment in the community that defines the word “local.”
Which might explain why Sefton said the focus of the bar menu is “affordability, comfort foods, something you can count on.” There will also be a finer-dining menu and a private dining room priced accordingly, but the hallmark of the local restaurant that is affordable high-top eating will stick around, intentionally so.
The offerings might be something like the kale croquettes we munched on, lemon-drop bright in flavor with a hick of Fresno chili heat, or the blistered shishito peppers with peanut brittle that radiated a sweet heat more than a spicy one.
Both were exactly the kind of semi-finger food I’d want before me on a casual Tuesday out, good eats that don’t require much ado about ordering.
But it’s worth noting some of the more upscale dishes too: a Colorado striped bass on cauliflower couscous and a leek soubise that set me wide-eyed with its unexpected sweetness; the stone fruit salad that tasted like a farmers market smells.
If you’ve ever stood at the right corner of a good produce purveyor in the early summer months, you know what scent I’m talking about: the peaches, tart still and a whiff more floral than fruity so early in the season; the leaves, bright and herbal, proving that it is not just the rare synesthete who can smell the color green.
This salad was that, in presence as in essence. A bed of stone fruit, fennel, arugula and basil made a springy resting place for a cherry tuile; tucked in between, a scoop of goat cheese sorbet, slowly melting to dress the salad beneath it with a cool, savory tang I could not imagine if I had not tasted it myself. I would eat it by the pint if I could.
More opportunities for test kitchen tastings will take place in the lead-up to the restaurant’s opening later this summer. Madie Bailey, from the PARC Aspen team, recommends joining the mailing for updates at parcaspen.com to stay in the loop.
Kaya Williams is a reporter for The Aspen Times and the Snowmass Sun who thinks we might owe it to ourselves to give some of these newcomers the benefit of the doubt. Email her at email@example.com.
This story has been updated to correct a typo in the spelling of Mark Connell’s name.