R Cuisine menu dazzles on the sly
ASPEN In one season in the kitchen at El Bulli restaurant in Spain, Aspenite Barclay Dodge saw that the most adventurous, high-concept cooking could attract a worldwide following. The creation of Barcelona-born chef Ferran Adrià, who experiments with such techniques as “foams” – dishes consisting essentially of air and flavor – El Bulli has been judged by Restaurant magazine as the world’s best restaurant three times, including the last two years. Adrià opens his doors only about half the year; the rest of the time, he and his crew experiment. Just as eye-opening to Dodge as the commitment to the food, El Bulli takes reservations one day of the year, and books its 50 seats for the entire season in that day.After that season Dodge returned to Aspen, where was raised from the time he was 13, and in the spring of 2001 launched a more modest variation on El Bulli’s theme. His Mogador restaurant put a bold spin on the food of the Mediterranean region. And while the effort was praised by the more intrepid diners – Mogador was, without doubt, among the most memorable restaurants in local history – Dodge watched as customers puzzled over such items as octopus, Romesco sauce and Medjool dates. Even worse, he observed many hungry souls read over the menu and pass on it altogether, heading to the more familiar land of Caesar salads and crab cakes.What worked in Roses – the blue-collar resort town on Spain’s Costa Brava that is home to El Bulli – didn’t work in ritzy Aspen. After some four years, Dodge dialed down the innovations and surprises, and, while also dealing with a difficult divorce, transformed Mogador into the more Americanized Restaurant Barclay. After half a year, the venture folded; Dish Aspen now occupies the space near the corner of Galena and the Hyman Avenue mall where Dodge once pursued his ambitious cooking.”That’s what I wanted. That’s what I did. But I didn’t succeed,” the 38-year-old Dodge said of trying to replicate the El Bulli model. “I saw at Mogador that black ink octopus, bocarones – a white anchovy – and salt cod didn’t sell. Strongly Spanish-influenced ingredients didn’t sell here. It had huge accolades and press – but that didn’t pay the bills. There’s only so many foodies in Aspen.”
The menu at R Cuisine, opened by Dodge and his partner, Aspenite Rob Ittner, in the space formerly occupied by Range, is designed to lure in any diner. Customers looking for the familiar will find Caesar salad, corn soup and seared tuna, steak, chicken and pork chops. There are touches of Dodge’s past – Medjool dates and crisp suckling pork can still be found – but it seems built for accessibility, designed not to turn away the average American eater.The menu, however, is merely a piece of paper with words. In this case, it is something of a false front. R Cuisine is Dodge and Ittner’s attempt to simultaneously pay the bills, fulfill their striving for culinary artistry, and, in the process, surreptitiously cultivate more of a foodie culture in Aspen. Dodge may have changed the sound of his menu, but he has not given in to mediocre tastes.The name R Cuisine plays on the “R” theme: Ittner also owns Rustique and was a partner, then sole owner, of Range. The new restaurant occupies the space where Renaissance once stood; it was at Renaissance where Ittner (then restaurant manager) and Dodge (who worked in the kitchen for three years) first met. But the name is also a statement – that the ideals remain high. (Think of it as “Our” Cuisine.)”We’ve had a lot of people who have said they’ve gotten something above and beyond what they read on the menu,” said Ittner, who said that business has been decent, but feedback fantastic. “To some extent, we have to dazzle them with our cooking. But in our own way.””With this menu, we’re giving an essence of accessibility,” said Dodge. “But what goes into it, the final product, is not what you get at Lulu Wilson, D19, The Little Nell. With the training that’s gone into this menu, you’re getting something that’s pretty f—ing special. With chefs today, I don’t see a lot of what you’d call intelligent cooking. There’s techniques in here, trial and error.”
As a kid in Aspen looking for a summer job, Dodge had the pick of either a construction site or a kitchen. Though his parents were not particularly food-conscious, it was an easy choice to go into restaurant work. At 17, he began doing front-of-house jobs at a succession of restaurants that would eventually include Andiamo, Mezzaluna and Paragon; by 18, he had made his way back into the kitchen, at Bonnie’s. What immediately attracted him was the possibility of bringing idealism to the job.”I liked the aspect that it’s a craft, an artistic craft,” he said. “It needs constant honing and refinement and there can never be an end to that. And I love the dynamics of the kitchen – that’s in my blood.”Dodge spent a year and a half at the California Culinary Academy, in San Francisco, and several more years in the city, at such spots as Bix, an elegant supper club, and Bistro Roti, an upscale Indian restaurant. A year spent traveling around the Mediterranean and North Africa was for pleasure, not training – but Dodge made it part of his education.”I didn’t cook on the way,” he said. “But I’m a cook, so I was in markets, little kitchens and restaurants. It was cultural thing for me. What better way to get the culture than through the food? It’s such a school for us.”
On his return to Aspen, he took a job at Renaissance, a place that earned chef-owner Charles Dale a spot on Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs for 1995. The restaurant also earned Dale the admiration of his worker; Dodge makes a point of saying that Dale was “a huge influence on my career. The greatest respect goes to him.”While Dale won Dodge’s respect, Renaissance’s manager, Ittner, was impressed by Dodge, who climbed from cook to chef de cuisine in his three years there. Ittner remembers Dodge mentioning once that he thought the two of them would work together down the road, and Ittner took that as a big compliment.”I’ve used that as a quote,” said the 30-year-old Ittner, a New York City native who grew up in a foodie culture. “I was impressed he’d say that, because I was so early in my career.” Some years later, Ittner celebrated several birthdays at Mogador.It was Dale who suggested that Dodge go to Spain, to check out what has been considered the most innovative dining scene in the world. Dodge made several visits, culminating with his six-week stint at El Bulli.At El Bulli, Dodge was paid only with room and board – and what he calls the best kitchen experience of his life. The restaurant features an incomprehensible 65 cooks for its 50-seat room, so the level of perfection and experimentation – and competition – is staggering.”Can you imagine the attention to detail? And the hierarchy to push through to increase your knowledge?” said Dodge, who slips easily into the hyper-demanding, critical persona often associated with chefs. “We’ve seen 70 ways of making potatoes – they invented five more. They say don’t reinvent the wheel. They created another wheel.”
On some level, Dodge seems to have known that Mogador was a gamble. He calls the clientele there his “lab rats.””Especially the chef’s table,” he continued. “I was experimenting enormously. Eighty-five percent of it went over with flying colors. But some dishes bombed horribly. But what I can I do – I didn’t have the time to go home and experiment.”Worse than the dishes that bombed was the lukewarm popular response to the successful dishes. “I could’ve pulled my hair out,” said Dodge. “I wanted to shut down every year. But the chef’s table kept me happy. There were nights that rocked. There were moments of people saying, you should do this in L.A.; you should do this in New York. But that didn’t get 100 people in the dining room. That got 30 people in there.”Dodge says that Mogador started with a bang, and did good numbers for a while. But a few months after opening came Sept. 11, and the hunger for luxury items was extinguished. People went looking for familiar comfort foods, said Dodge.”At Mogador, we weren’t willing to compromise on that,” he added. “I grew up in educational kitchens. I had a crew that was there to learn. I couldn’t let them down. It’s not just the customer to me; this is a craft, and you have to pass that craft down to your people.”
At R Cuisine – and at the R Bar upstairs, which extends the restaurant’s concept with items like a bison burger – Dodge and Ittner are willing to compromise on the menu for the sake of pulling in customers. In fact, before writing the menu, the two sat down for an hour and wrote down the 20 most popular dishes – mac and cheese, crab cakes, the BLT salad – at local restaurants. It’s hard to imagine Dodge having done that upon his return from El Bulli. But the easy-to-digest nature of the words on the menu doesn’t mean Dodge has eased back on his commitment to the food. In fact, he may have to elevate his game in the kitchen to overcome the relative tameness of the menu.”You’re not going to get a better meal in town. You’re not,” said Dodge. “And I’m not saying that pompously. It’s true.”And will Dodge and Ittner’s ideal diner, the one looking for an experience more than a meal, look past the fact that the menu has commonplace items like chopped salad and pan-roasted chicken on the menu? The two expect the food will speak bigger than words.”I think the real foodie – the real foodie seeking out something like Mogador – is coming to R Cuisine because they’re looking for me,” said Dodge.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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