Aspen Times Weekly: Season’s Eatings, Part II | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Times Weekly: Season’s Eatings, Part II

by Amanda Rae

I'M SLURPING tonkotsu pork broth at a holiday ramen party when the hostess makes a comment that strikes a cord.

"I'm just not inspired to dine out in Aspen," she says. I suppose it's the avid home cook's way of explaining why she can't come up with any favorite dishes at local restaurants right now. I bite into into a seven-minute egg simmered to gooey perfection and find myself shrugging. I get it: It's easy to fall into a food rut, especially in a ski town. And why eat out when you've got skills to make anything you crave in your home kitchen? A gourmand's ultimate soul-crusher is to drop a couple of bills at a restaurant in exchange for lackluster food and lame service.

At the same time, I talk to chefs constantly and collect menus like it's my job. I enjoy the thrill of the hunt — and this is prime food-hunting season. Reinvigorated after autumn travels, chefs are back in the kitchen, heads down and with eyes toward a fruitful 2016. Tis' the season for new openings and new menus — some of which, though already printed, are still in development behind the scenes. (Recently at a media tasting, the chef admitted that a new Brussels sprout salad was so fresh on his mind that he forgot to sprinkle on the walnuts.)

While many chefs grapple with reinventing longstanding dishes for fear of inciting a riot from diners who return to enjoy that specific taste memory, others tap dance on the fine line between stretching palates and alienating patrons by using esoteric ingredients and techniques.

Chef Aaron Schmude of Plato's Restaurant at the Aspen Meadows is no stranger to getting flack for thinking bold.

"We've had some guests feel our menus have been too 'gastronomic,' 'pretentious,' or that we are 'trying too hard to be different,' he says, quoting comment cards. "I mean, you know that to not be true. I just want to make simple, delicious, warming food this winter, while staying true to who we are and being a little different along the way."

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So this winter Schmude tops his wedge salad with a crispy pig ear and serves tea-smoked game hen with roasted onions and mushroom ragout. While his wild snapper is straightforward — with octopus and spot prawn in a smoky tomato-chipotle broth — he's not afraid to accompany maple leaf duck breast with brassicas, pomegranate peperonata, and vanilla sweet potato. Take a chance, folks!

I'm happy to find one of my favorite proteins cropping up on menus across town. Duck: It's what's for dinner this winter. You know a food trend has taken flight when Jimmy's: An American Restaurant has not one but two new dishes on its updated menu featuring the bird: Sweet potato gnocchi with duck confit, sage-brown butter, pumpkinseeds, and Parmesan; and "Duck Two Ways" with Syrah-tamarind sauce and tri-color root vegetables. (Make that three new dishes: Confit duck leg is Jimmy's Sunday evening bar special.)

Chef David Wang of Meat & Cheese makes slam-dunk five-spice confit duck leg with crispy polenta cakes and chestnut agrodolce; he'll add duck confit to anything on the menu for $10, too. Chef Matt O'Neill at Aspen Kitchen takes a playful approach with his sharable "Duck, Duck, Duck" (deviled duck egg, prosciutto, crispy tongue). Chefs Nate King and Chris Lanter make a killer duck confit, too. While it's already changed since I tasted it last weekend (with pickled cauliflower, honey, and kimchi) they promise that the next edition will be even better. Hard to believe, but I'm a believer.

Chef Matt Zubrod has taken his fowl-friendly spin on a classic, the DLT, with him to element 47 at The Little Nell; back at bb's, his old stomping grounds, duck confit hash returns along with monkey bread during weekend brunch, back on the patio when weather cooperates.

Bb's also showcases two emerging Aspen trends in one: hot-and-sour duck ramen at lunch and nightly in the lounge. J-Bar and Prospect at the Hotel Jerome hawk a hangover-quashing breakfast pho (chicken stock, house-made rice noodles, bean sprouts, chiles — all that's missing is an egg) for Sunday brunch; for lunch and dinner, chef Peter Coyne prepares his house-made ramen noodles with poached egg, shishimi, and bok shoy and either braised beef short rib or traditional Nibuta (slow-roasted pork shoulder). Rumor has it that Steve Guo, original chef of Little Ollie's, has returned to the nearly 20-year-old restaurant to update three recipes of noodle soup, beef pho and Japanese pork tonkotsu included.

"It's hard to bring back Japanese flavors and have them be successful," says 39 Degrees at the Sky Hotel executive chef Shawn Lawrence, who traveled to Japan this year. Lawrence is proud of his tonkotsu: creamy broth with pork belly, soy-pickled egg, scallions, burnt garlic, sesame oil, and hand-pulled noodles — a recipe that hews closer to tradition than most people are probably used to.

Italian pasta is more popular than ever, with programs at Aquolina, Campo de Fiori, Casa Tua, L'Hostaria, Trecento Quindici Decano at the St. Regis, and the new Nello Aspen. All are unabashedly Euro — including the latter's plan to serve until midnight and crank beats long after that. Skewing more French, Cache Cache unveils a new, extruded shape: trenne rigate (triangular penne) with lamb Bolognese and briny Niçoise olives. Element 47 has two cooks devoted to preparing fresh pasta daily. Similarly, Aspen Kitchen launches its pasta program with two dishes: winter squash tortellini with pancetta and brown butter and squid ink chitarra with fennel, sunchoke, sunflower seeds, and uni emulsion.

Chef Schmude at Plato's tops his hand-rolled pasta with braised lamb shoulder, house ricotta, and smoked onions, reminding us that rich meats are appropriate come winter. Chef Rob Zack at the Jerome pairs his raviolo with veal cheek pot roast and serves wild boar sausage with pretzel spaeztle.

Giant steaks are everywhere: Jerome's 7X Beef tomahawk cut for two with house-made steak sauce and crispy oysters; Aspen Kitchen's 30- and 55-day dry-aged Salt Brick Beef; and plenty at the new Monarch, in the former Brexi space and sister to Steakhouse No. 316. Bb's popular buffalo filet and Broken Arrow Ranch antelope steaks are anticipated returns to the menu, alongside chef Jeff Casagrande's new veal osso buco, lobster scampi, and asparagus strudel. Even the overhauled breakfast buffet at the St. Regis has a prime-rib carving station every morning. (Locals receive half off from 7-7:30 a.m. Rise and shine!)

Short ribs abound, too, in the stellar 10-hour braised Korean beef tacos with kimchi on special at Meat & Cheese and Sky's Asian Cheesy Fries, a firecracker of a love child between Québécois poutine and Korean beef bulgogi with kimchi and kewpie mayo. Chef Mawa McQueen brings her braised beef short rib sandwich from last winter's Snowbird snack shack (where Red Fox Tacos took over) to lunch at Mawa's Kitchen. At Maru, the signature Killer 82 roll mixes braised short rib with shiitake mushroom, asparagus, and a Wagyu sirloin topper; from the kitchen, find gochujang short ribs with crispy Brussels sprouts and shallots.

But leave it to chefs King and Lanter at Cache Cache to create a fish special that satisfies even the most bloodthirsty carnivore. Admittedly, the lobster-tomato broth scented with Pernod is amped up with ground Berkshire pork, but the star, paicha — a Peruvian white fish — has a seriously meaty texture that belies its mild flavor. Save your bread to absorbing that addictive stock at the bottom of the dish.

Despite all of this — bone marrow (Plato's, Aspen Kitchen, Ajax Tavern), bo ssam (Meat & Cheese), and beef fondue (Creperie du Village), oh my! — vegetables are getting their due. I've long been a fan of the various sides at Steakhouse No. 316, the miso green beans with shishito peppers, especially. Brussels sprouts may have shoved kale out of the spotlight, finally — even at HOPS Culture, along with another side dish of fennel-roasted carrots—but cauliflower is making strides around town, too.

Says chef Andreas Neufeld of his roasted red pepper soup, revamped asparagus salad with fava beans, and spinatpalatschinke: "We have so much cheese and meat on the menu, I want to offer more vegetarian options."

Yet another reason to sit at Creperie's seven-seat bar: It's only an arm's-reach from Neufeld, who will shave a few grams of imported black truffles on anything — cheese or mushroom fondue, chèvre chaud drizzled with honey, veal cheeks, nightly specials.

Though Cloud Nine is switching up its daily specials, the Monday Truffle Gnocchi of yesteryear is always available upon request.

"We just got two pounds of fresh truffles, so it's easy to do that," chef Michael Johnston says.

The Little Nell's New Year's Barolo Truffle Dinner will showcase truffles over a number of courses according to the chefs' whims, including fresh-extruded bucatini with cream sauce. Decadence is always in season in Aspen, eh?

Perhaps finding memorable food in Aspen does take a bit more effort than in a major city, where setting foot into a hip, new noodle shop or celebrity chef project nearly guarantees a killer meal. Instead, some sleuthing is in order. For example, recently I learned that some chefs frequent one particular Asian restaurant in town to order off-menu pork and chicken ramen — readily available to those in the know — in addition to the spicy duck broth advertised on the printed menu.

Take that as a clue, dear readers. Happy food hunting!

Amanda Rae finds culinary inspiration on the cover of the new issue of EAT, out next week. amandaraewashere@gmail.com

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