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Upscale downvalley

Jeanne McGovern
Aspen Times Staff Writer

Sitting at the counter of Hestia, crisp vodka martini in hand and marinated olives on the sleek tabletop, it’s hard to believe we’re in Basalt.

The recently opened Mediterranean restaurant is bustling – and it’s a Monday night. The tables are packed, the wait staff is rushing and the chefs are cooking, literally (Hestia’s open-air kitchen lets you watch the action firsthand).

“It’s been amazing,” says Stacey Baldock, co-owner of the new upscale-yet-affordable bistro in Basalt’s Riverside Plaza. “We waited for years to open a restaurant downvalley, and the time was finally right.”

It appears the time was right for others too.

Once a bedroom community to Aspen, Basalt is proving its culinary prowess with the opening of a handful of restaurants within just a few short months – Hestia, Martin Fierro Argentine Grill, Rick’s Steak House and Zheng Pan Asian Bistro.

“Downvalley really is becoming a dining destination,” claims Mike Mercatoris, co-owner of Zheng.

With that in mind, a friend and I went on a tour de cuisine to find out whether Basalt’s restaurant scene really is booming. And, if it is, why. (Remember, these are just the area’s newest restaurants. Longtime favorites like Bella Mia, Cafe Bernard, Bistro Basalt, and the Blue Creek Grill – which has a new menu and a new space, by the way – weren’t on the list. Nor were the area’s new gourmet food shops, Val’s in downtown Basalt and Epicurious in El Jebel, both of which bump up the area’s taste factor.)

Let the eating begin …

Our mobile feast begins at Rick’s Steak House, located in the space that was once Chefy’s on Midland Avenue in downtown Basalt. (Claude Van Horton closed up shop after more than 15 years in business, although he plans to reopen under a new name in Carbondale.)

As the name suggests, Rick’s is indeed a steakhouse. With nine different cuts and preparations of beef – Cajun Rib-Eye, Pepper Steak Saute Au Poivre Style, Filet Mignon Saute Bordelaise and “The 20 oz. T-Bone,” to name a few – this isn’t a place for veg-heads.

“It’s a real steakhouse, plain and simple,” says owner Rick Omer, who founded both the 82 Grille and Rick’s Fine Dining in Glenwood Springs before opening Rick’s in July.

Why a steakhouse? “I know what it takes to make one succeed,” he says.

And what’s that, we ask. “Consistency. I’m always on the line making sure we serve the same product every time.”

Of course, like any steakhouse, Rick’s does serve up the obligatory chicken and fish dishes, not to mention an impressive selection of salads, appetizers and wines from around the world.

Equally as impressive as the menu, though, is the bar. Completely redone in a Western motif, with seating for 16 plus a few adjacent tables, it’s the perfect place to enjoy a glass of wine. Which, according to co-owner Cindy Becvarik, is just what Basaltines tend to do.

“Red wine and vodka … that’s what we’re selling,” she says.

Before we sample any more of either, it’s time to move on. Walking across town we set our sights on two of Basalt’s other new restaurants: Hestia and Martin Fierro Argentine Grill.

Set side by side at the intersection of Two Rivers Road and Midland Avenue, one might think the pair are dueling it out for business. Rather, they feed off of one another, giving Riverside Plaza an urban streetscape feel.

“We work well together. In fact, I’d say we complement one another,” says Thea Huber, who with husband Leo opened Martin Fierro three weeks ago. “We’ve created a real dining destination.”

While the destination might be Basalt, the food is anything but domestic. From appetizers like Chorizo al Plato (grilled Argentine sausage served with Ensalada Rusa and authentic garlic chimichurri) to main courses such as Parrillada Fierro (a mixed-grill sampling of skirt steak, beef ribs, sausage and sweetbreads served with potatoes and pickled eggplant), Martin Fierro’s fare has flair.

“We’re primarily a grill,” explains Huber, who grew up in the valley. “But as an Argentine grill we have cuts of beef people may not have heard of, as well as things like chimichurri marinade.”

Chimichurri, a robust spice blend, is just one of the bold elements of Martin Fierro. The restaurant, open for both lunch and dinner, is lined with large paintings in a South American theme, and there is talk of hosting tango nights.

“This has been a dream of ours for a long time … owning a restaurant. And since my husband was born in Buenos Aires, this made sense,” says Huber. “Plus, there’s nothing else like this in the valley, and we know people like to have choices when it comes to eating out.”

Neighboring Hestia offers even more choices, with a completely different world of fare on its menu.

“There are 17 different countries in the Mediterranean, so our cuisine isn’t limited to one type of food,” says Hestia’s Baldock. “If we want to do pasta, we can do pasta. We can do just about anything.”

A look – and a taste – of the restaurant’s myriad appetizers proves Baldock’s point. There’s hummus served with fresh pita bread, two types of dolmades, and classic falafel, to name a few. We order the Garlic Shrimp, paired with a traditional Greek salad, as an entree.

“It’s good. It’s different, yes?” asks the waitress as she dashes to another table.

Hestia’s been hopping since the day it opened. And this, says Baldock, is a good thing.

“This has been our dream,” she says of herself and Pagge Wheatley, who together opened the restaurant in July. “We always wanted to open a restaurant, but didn’t have the money, so we opened a salon to save enough money to open a restaurant.”

That salon is Blue, now located in Riverside Plaza after years of operation in Aspen.

“We’re downvalley girls, so we worked in Aspen until we could move the salon to Basalt. Then we waited for the valley to be ready for us to open a restaurant downvalley.”

Moving farther downvalley, we come to our final dining experience: Zheng.

Tucked in the El Jebel City Market strip mall with no signs to speak of, one might miss this up-tempo bistro if not for the crowds of people lined up to sample chef-owner Ming “Henry” Xing Zheng’s Pan-Asian cuisine.

“By serving Pan-Asian cuisine, we have a license to do whatever we want,” says Mike Mercatoris, who along with Zheng opened the restaurant in January.

In this case, “whatever they want” crisscrosses the Orient, with entrees ranging from Chinese Style Crispy Duck to Bangkok Beef. Appetizers are equally worldly – not to mention the best deal on the menu – with Atomic Shrimp, Vietnamese Shrimp Rolls and Chicken Satay topping the list.

“Truly, a table of four could try food from four different counties,” explains Mercatoris. “Or you could come in several nights in a row and try a different type of cuisine every time.”

This blend of flavors is precisely what Zheng and Mercatoris envisioned when they set out to open their own eatery. “Henry and I always talked about opening a restaurant, and the more we talked about it the more we realized we had the same vision,” says Mercatoris, a former bartender at the Mountain Dragon in Snowmass Village, where Zheng was head chef.

Zheng, open every night but Monday for dine-in or take-out, has been consistently packed with midvalley locals. Which, says Mercatoris, is just as it should be.

“It shows we are still a small valley, but now we have good food both in Aspen and downvalley,” he says.

Jeanne McGovern’s e-mail address is jmcgovern@aspentimes.com


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