Syzygy: from imitation to invention
February 28, 2008
ASPEN ” Walt Harris doesn’t hold back from saying that he used the sincerest form of flattery when he opened his Syzygy restaurant. In the mid-’80s, Harris was a waiter at Gordon’s, the ambitious and popular restaurant owned by Gordon Naccarato. When he struck out on his own, Harris looked to Naccarato’s concept of replacing traditional but tired fine-dining dishes ” duck a l’orange, veal marsala ” with more inventive food. He even stocked his kitchen with ingredients from his former employer; the first two chefs at Syzygy were Gordon’s veterans.
“It was amazing food, did incredible business,” recalled the 48-year-old Harris. “We imitated Gordon’s.”
But Harris was determined to put his own stamp on the concept. Gordon’s was a big, open room, designed for socializing. (It was located in the space now occupied by Jimmy’s.) The romantic in Harris wanted something more intimate ” “Where you sort of had a table to yourself,” he said. He found a space well-removed from other restaurant traffic, up a flight of stairs and set far back from Hyman Avenue. He took an unusual but memorable name: “Syzygy” is an alignment of heavenly bodies. Harris intended the name to represent the harmony of food, wine and service. Thirteen tables were placed in the small room, arranged for maximum privacy.
Harris initially heard howls of protest. Some came from what he calls the “old guard” of Aspen restaurateurs who, fearing increased competition, protested the granting of a liquor license. (Harris said that his license was sealed when the loud-mouthed chairman of the liquor licensing board at the time would not keep quiet, agitating the City Council enough to look favorably on Syzygy.) Another came from a well-meaning friend in the dining business, who assured Harris that his idea couldn’t fly in a cozy space.
“I remember someone coming up to me and saying, ‘This doesn’t work. I’ve run the numbers and it just can’t work,'” said the 48-year-old native of central Florida who is a constant presence at his restaurant. “Fortunately, we worked right away, from the first night.”
Some things have changed at Syzygy. A few years in, the restaurant expanded considerably, taking over an adjacent space that had been used as storage for a mail-order shoe operation. Prices, which had started at a modest $16 to $25 for entrees, were adjusted upward as Harris and his accountant realized that the numbers really didn’t make sense.
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Still, Syzygy is marked by a notable consistency. The original space has not been touched at all; the water windows that divide the room haven’t been deemed outdated. The “new” room had its last redesign in 1995. Austrian-born Martin Oswald has been the chef for 13 years, after stints at Sweet Basil in Vail and Postrio in San Francisco. Trumpeter Steve Peer has squeezed his combo into a corner for a decade now, transforming Syzygy from a fine restaurant to a swinging jazz club several nights a week. And though Harris laments that the ski bums are not nearly as frequent customers as they were 20 years ago, Syzygy still balances elegance with a laid-back vibe that begins with the unfussy Harris himself.
Interestingly, what has enabled that stability is the ever-changing menu. Oswald has become comfortable but not complacent, and he uses Harris’ guiding philosophy ” “no rules, no boundaries” ” to keep the cuisine fresh. There are hints of Europe, Asia, the Pacific and the Southwest in Syzygy’s notion of “New American” cuisine.
Syzygy has been an epicenter of another welcome change in Aspen’s restaurant culture ” the growing appreciation of wine. Master sommelier Jay Fletcher headed Syzygy’s wine program for several years, and has since served as a mentor to the town’s wine stewards, including Gerald Theron, who became Syzygy’s sommelier three years ago.
There is change looming over this world Harris has built. Harris bought the old La Cocina space, in the middle of Aspen’s Restaurant Row on Hopkins Avenue, and is eyeing a move in the next few years. The plans are uncertain, ranging from relocating Syzygy to the downstairs space in his new building to creating an entirely new restaurant that can attract a broader clientele. There is also the possibility that Syzygy will remain where ” and how ” it is well into the future.
Harris can take comfort in the fact that, as an Aspen institution, Syzygy has surpassed his original model. Gordon’s lasted just five or six years. But it hasn’t been forgotten, least of all by Harris. The compliment that seems foremost in his mind came soon after he opened, from his old boss and inspiration, Naccarato.
“Gordon said, ‘Finally, there’s a restaurant in Aspen I can go to,'” recalled Harris.
Twenty years later, he still can.