New Frontier: Tatanka Western Bistro asserts its identity—and quietly introduces The Ranch Room
On a rare timeout from the hustle and bustle of Tatanka Western Bistro’s kitchen, executive chef Corey Smith retreats to a stylish subterranean room for a moment of quiet. Upstairs, diners linger at patio and sidewalk tables as Sunday afternoon brunch blends into late lunch. Down here, Smith settles on a white leather couch, chugging a liter of Acqua Panna straight from the bottle.
The day coronavirus shut down Aspen restaurants in March, The Ranch Room — this event space and pop-up venue decorated in a stunning mélange of wood, metal, glass, and graphic tilework — was scheduled to host a launch party, Smith tells me. While the official opening was postponed indefinitely, leaving locals in the dark to its existence, the place has been booked nonstop since dine-in service reopened in late May.
Meanwhile, Smith has overhauled the menu at Tatanka while weathering relentless staffing issues and implementing strict sanitation measures to comply with state and local guidelines. Despite all of this, “We’ve definitely hit our stride,” Smith says. “The last couple of months have been great. We have a team that wants to be here. We have a vibe. We are trending in the right direction.”
While Colorado flavors weave a consistent theme through many of Smith’s dishes — a knockout bison burger topped with jalapeño aioli, cola-caramelized onions, and queso Chihuaha; Bluefin tuna tiradito garnished with sliced serrano and garlic chips; the bestselling avocado tostada with chile vinaigrette at brunch (order it with lump crab!) — the chef has incorporated more diverse influences in lighter, simpler fare on smaller plates meant for sharing.
“I like to cook New World with soul — not because I’m Black, but because I cook with passion,” says Smith, a New Orleans native who played defensive tackle for the University of Colorado’s 1990 national champion football team and has spent more than two decades working in the Centennial State. “‘Western’ for us now is more … Western Slope.”
Tatanka’s new fare is comforting, craveable and, as it’s always been, served at a slightly lower price point compared with old guard establishments here on Hopkins Avenue. Gulf red snapper à la meunière, classic jumbo lump crab cakes, and crispy beignets showcase Louisiana flair. Classically French and Italian dishes include a braised short-rib grilled cheese; potato gnocchi with leeks, sweet peas, and lardons in white wine butter sauce; caprese pasta with San Marzano tomatoes and fresh mozzarella; and prosciutto, melon, and watercress over mixed greens with agave-mint vinaigrette. The clincher: Smith’s epic chicken Parmesan sandwich, topped with slow-simmered marinara, provolone, and a heap of fresh burrata that melts decadently from the brioche bun.
Carefully sourced ingredients link these dishes together. “I don’t skimp on quality,” Smith says. “My short-rib is prime beef, I’m not using any schwag piece of meat. Seafood, I’m touching it, getting it from a reliable source. Great fish, you want to showcase that.”
Tatanka has endured a long, rocky road in one year, punctuated by COVID-19. It opened in the former Ute City restaurant space in June 2019 with a straight-up Southwestern menu by chef James Mazzio, a 1999 Food & Wine Best New Chef most recently at The Edge at the Timberline in Snowmass. Smith served as sous chef, reuniting with Mazzio since the pair opened Triana in Boulder in 2000 along with Douglas Clayton (who served as general manager there and helped craft Tatanka’s wine program). Smith assumed full leadership of Tatanka just months later, in late August, and immediately began “tightening the bolts” on the operation. Most important, he says, was refining the Western bistro concept while incorporating his own style grounded in French technique.
On Thursday, the city of Aspen is expected to declare updated rules for restaurant operation; Smith and director of operations Taylor Clayton are bracing themselves.
“We’re in a holding pattern,” Smith quips. Drawing on lessons from playing football with the Buffs championship squad, Smith knows that the road to glory is rarely a straight shot and the journey is never easy. “I don’t shy away from competition,” he adds. “That brings the best out of me, and makes my staff want to be better.”
So Smith stays focused on the food. The night before this visit, he featured a 12-ounce porterhouse pork chop, brined in apple-orange juice and served with sour cherry and apricot chutney and purple fingerling potatoes. He’s making shortcake biscuits for strawberries macerated in Grand Marnier. Soon: lamb meatballs with fresh pappardelle, maybe Millionaire’s Pie and Lemon Lush to toggle with ice cream cookie sandwiches and bananas Foster butterscotch budino.
“We just have to keep pushing,” Smith says. “We’ve embraced the struggles — and the solutions. Let’s go.”
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