Food Matters: The Alchemist
‘Best Bar in the World’ Dante NYC pulls off an impromptu pop-up at The Snow Lodge
Winter in Aspen on a weekend night has never before looked like it does in 2021. See for yourself: On clear evenings, downtown sidewalks are dotted with tables of diners huddled beside flaming tower heaters. Everyone is bundled up in puffy jackets, thick hats, scarves, sometimes gloves, chatting and laughing as if it were lunchtime on a bluebird day. Even when the sky’s been dark for almost two hours and it’s a snappy 20 degrees Fahrenheit.
Tucked beside the gondola, up the stairs from Dean Street, Dante at The Snow Lodge is at the outer circle of this new normal. At 7 p.m., the patio is as packed as possible under social-distancing guidelines, and guests swaddled in outerwear are sipping hot toddies and tucking into big bowls of pappardelle with wild boar ragú, mushroom lasagna, and roasted branzino. Snowcats crawl over a shadowy Aspen Mountain beyond like glowing, nocturnal creatures. Down here, heaters and firepits are on full blaze as the crowd gobbles up this only-in-Aspen experience.
New York City restaurateur and longtime Aspen visitor Linden Pride was prepared for this situation. In mid-December he accepted an eleventh-hour offer from Snow Lodge owner Jayma Cardoso to introduce Caffe Dante, a beloved, 106-year-old institution, during a winterlong pop-up. (Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s abcV vegan concept pulled out abruptly in November due to rising COVID-19 risk.) Pride exported a team including chef Mary Bartel, hired locals to fill in the gaps, and opened in three days upon arrival, just before Christmas.
“It’s a time of year in New York that people usually don’t sit on the sidewalks,” Pride muses. “That beautiful deck (at The Snow Lodge) was a big factor in making this work.”
Pride and his wife and business partner, Nathalie Hudson, purchased Caffe Dante in 2015, following decades of slow decline. They had to win over a lot of naysayers. They “had to focus on the core of the business: hospitality, how people are made to feel,” Pride says. They hit a stride. Since at least 2018, Dante has been on a hot streak, winning “bar of the year” and “best cocktail” from Time Out New York, then being crowned Best Bar in the World, twice, in 2019, by the World’s 50 Best Bars and Tales of the Cocktail. (It is W5BB’s #1 in North America in 2020.) So, when the pandemic shut down the city in March, Dante launched a menu of bottled cocktails and a mobile app for ordering food and drink.
“You can take those bottled cocktails home and keep them in your fridge or freezer to recreate that ritual,” Pride says. “We send them with custom watercolor Dante coasters. Even if you’re locked inside, you can still have a half-hour moment where you’re tapping into a bar, to disconnect from the day.”
The beverage program onsite is extensive, including hot cocktails that are unique to Aspen. When a dining companion proclaims, “This is the best martini I’ve ever had!” I perk up and ask her to pour me one, even though I quit drinking in March. As she said, it is a work of art.
Linden calls the Dante Martini a “taste of the Mediterranean.” Our server describes the craft: a gin-forward combo with vodka, a higher proportion of vermouth than usual, and mastika, a Greek liqueur made with the resin of an indigenous evergreen tree. That mixture, batched in a basement cocktail lab for consistency, is steeped over blanched, toasted almonds, lending a subtle toasted flavor and rounded mouthfeel. The 8-ounce bottle ($35) serves two, technically, but it’s actually closer to 9 ounces. We got three modest pours.
Revived by the success of these balanced bottled cocktails to-go (including a Negroni, Mezcalito, and Toasted Apple Manhattan, among others; also in 750-milliliter format), Pride and Hudson opened a second Dante in the West Village in July. It was four months later than planned, but drew the opposite response of the first revamp in Greenwich Village.
“Dante is a legacy brand, in continuous operation since 1915,” Pride shares. “I don’t think we anticipated the responsibility you have as a private operator owning a public institution.” When the Australian couple added avocado toast to the morning menu at Caffe Dante, all hell broke loose. “People would say, ‘I’ve been coming here 30 years, what have you done to the place?’” Pride recalls. “We’d have to win them back over. Six months later, they’d say, ‘I’ve been coming here 30 years…and it’s just as I remember it.”
That scrappy spirit and positive attitude jives with Aspen.
“Linden and Nathalie, they had a vision,” says chef Bartel, a Melbourne expat. “I think that’s why it works: they adapt.”
Bartel’s all-day menu at The Snow Lodge combines greatest hits from Dante NYC, Italian and American plates that fuel the après-ski vibe with live DJs on weekends. First up, Bartel is expanding the morning menu, available with espresso beverages and fresh-pressed citrus juices beginning at 10 a.m. Sharable plates and snacks on Dante’s all-day menu include salumi and cheese boards, fried calamari with spicy marinara, oysters, shrimp cocktail, and signature burrata with a whole, peeled tomato roasted for three hours in a bath of olive oil and agave nectar.
There’s a massive Colorado beef burger on house-made brioche with bacon, Gruyère, and spicy mayo; three kinds of flatbreads; spaghetti with Manila clams in garlic-parsley broth; and crispy chicken Parmesan that would satisfy the most discerning mafioso.
Bartel sprinkles Aussie flourishes throughout. Her chicken Parm is served with a simple, well-seasoned kale salad instead of pasta, traditional Down Under. A thin slice of red beet, pickled in-house, is tucked between burger and brioche. She adds spicy lamb sausage to one flatbread and features “mushy peas” crushed with anchovies and Parmesan as a staple side. Classic tiramisu and vanilla panna cotta with blood orange and pomegranate seeds in red-wine balsamic syrup are both top-notch. (Bartel’s special Valentine’s Day menu will likely incorporate a chocolate dessert.)
The ultimate choice is the set dinner menu, which bears a surprising bounty of food for $65. It includes: olive-oil bread baked in the pizza oven to dip in smoked butter; two apps, two flatbreads, branzino, chicken, truffle fries, tiramisu. (All of that.) The $75 menu subs beef filet with porcini butter, roasted hen of the woods mushrooms, and broccolini for chicken, plus an additional app, side and dessert.
“It’s a good way to taste a lot of the menu,” Bartel says. “We’re doing fresh food, made in-house. To me, the best food is simple, which Dante does really well with drinks and service.”
If hospitality is about reading the room, then Dante is on it. Bartel added those truffle fries to the menu early on, serving them with house-made ketchup.
“That’s our top-selling item,” she says with a laugh. Just add a Dante Martini: “Nobody needs it, everybody wants it.”
Amanda Rae is the editor of “The Aspen Cookbook” (2020), a community fundraiser for restaurants through the Aspen Board of Realtors. AspenCookbook.com
Dante at The Snow Lodge
RSVP: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
501 E. Dean St.