Food Matters: Food to the Max
January 25, 2018
In a town that prides itself on being extreme — in sports, partying, wealth, scandal, celebrity, behavior, even weather patterns — it would make sense that food follows suit. Yet though the City of Aspen shuns basic joints (aside from McDonald's operating here for 30 years ending in 2016 and Domino's hanging on, chain restaurants are mostly prohibited, a form of extreme exclusivity), chefs and restaurateurs tend to play it safe.
It's a dining dilemma that dates to the Golden Years: the escalating cost of doing business here requires tiptoeing a fine line between innovation and comfort to keep customers coming back. Regular visitors must know that the Jimmy Mac or Freddy Salad or Lulu's Kale will always be here to greet them with a bullhorn of nostalgia. Truffle fries — love 'em or hate 'em — are ritual at Ajax Tavern. Any leader to 86 the fragrant app from the menu would suffer instant cheficide.
However, there are flashes of creativity in Aspen that defy reason and/or convention. There's extreme presentation: the steak knife stabbed dramatically into an entire head of roasted cauliflower at Aspen Kitchen. A branding iron stacked with a tower of seven onion rings at Steakhouse No. 316, where the bread pudding is the size of a brick. Claim to celebrate a birthday at Kenichi and just wait for what the server brings out…
At the members-only Caribou Club, chef Miles Angelo is known for extreme flavor, as evidenced by his "Tuna Bomb." Imagine a tiny masa corn tortilla turned jet-black with squid ink and bamboo charcoal, deep-fried until crunchy, puffed and hollow, then topped with a slice of sashimi (ahi or yellowtail) and no fewer than four garnishes (piquant aji amarillo sauce, avocado mayo, diced salsa, pickled red onion). They're served three to a plate alongside petite shooters of dashi broth.
Angelo, who travels annually with Caribou staff on tasting trips to destinations du jour (Lima, Peru; Mexico City; Bangkok) during the slow season, is expected to take risks.
"It's not playing anything safe at all," he says of the dish. "In doing that, it's playing it safe for our clientele — individuals who travel the world and come to the Caribou Club to see where we've traveled and how we're been inspired. We're lucky to have the ability to do food that's out of the box."
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There's extreme showiness elsewhere, often thanks to luxe ingredients: The Little Nell's $47 frozen margarita mixed tableside with liquid nitrogen; showers of black truffles upon request across town. Sometimes such excess can send a diner overboard: recently I escorted myself home soon after an epic truffle-tasting menu feast at Acquolina, courtesy of baller buddies. It was decadent and outrageous — the Aspen way.
Still, overkill is what makes this place so fun to discuss. Arguably the only thing remembered about short-lived Nello Aspen was that it offered an $800 cocktail, one rumored never to have been ordered. (Apparently Aspen imbibers aren't that extreme.)
Concerning extreme cost, locals who grumble about the escalating price of lunch in this town are known to quip that the burger buns at one of the OG watering holes in town, the J-Bar, cost 18 bucks; everything else is an add-on, charged accordingly. That's misleading — a 7X Beef patty is, in fact, included in the base price — but they have a point. Adding cheese and bacon bumps the J-Bar burger to $23 before tax and tip. Skip those accouterments, top it with lobster salad, and drop $27, minimum.
Meanwhile, Bosq Aspen, perhaps one of few truly innovative restaurants to open in the last couple of years, serves a bar burger whose reputation so far exceeds its handsome price tag ($15). The spectrum of Aspen burger prices itself is extreme: $8 at CP Burger and 520 Grill; $10-12 at Justice Snow's; $17 at White House Tavern; $20 at Ajax Tavern; $30 at The Monarch.
In another corner of the extreme food conversation — eating competitions — I made a bold journalistic move and attempted to crowdsource ideas via social media. Besides confirming what I already know—most users are obnoxiously snarky, distracted and unhelpful — I learned that none exist in Aspen proper. The closest response was about a hot dog-eating competition held at the Square Grouper (RIP) on the Fourth of July in 2016.
When a Zane's Tavern server with firsthand knowledge of the competition told me that one chick swallowed eight regular-sized hotdogs, including buns dipped in water until soggy, my initial thought was, "That's it?" Clearly living "Aspen extreme" has desensitized my shock response.
Speaking of wieners, this weekend I heard that the Illy coffee bar inside the new Gorsuch shop at the base of Aspen Mountain (which replaced Starbucks, chains be gone!) serves après-ski sausages alongside bottles and cans of imported German bier. Reportedly, it's a loose operation: brats go on the grill whenever the manager feels the time is right; 3 to 4 p.m. is a safe bet.
Aspen is also a place with extreme influence: Michelin-starred chefs flock here during the Food & Wine Classic each June and visit kitchens at the Nell and the Cooking School regularly. I had the good fortune to hang at Cache Cache on Saturday night, where I was thrilled to discover that chef Nate King had created a special dish in tribute to Paul Bocuse. The legendary French chef and founder of the global Bocuse d'Or — known widely as "the Olympics of culinary competitions" (see the "The Contender" documentary) — passed away that morning at the age of 91.
King, who upon graduation from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, received an autographed Bocuse cookbook as a gift from the school president, presented a dish at Cache Cache inspired by a classic from "the chef of the century": pears poached in red wine with spices, set over lightly dressed frisée and a cloud of Haystack Mountain goat cheese whipped with fresh herbs. Over top: a ruby-red sauce made from the poaching liquid, reduced with crème de cassis. It was divine — the extreme version of delicious.
Naturally, thrill-seekers pursue extreme spice. Last year I wrote about my brush with the Carolina Reaper, the hottest chile pepper in the world and the spiciest food to ever touch my tongue. It was intense. A few steps down: Bamboo Bear across from City Market will throw Thai bird's-eye chile on pho or bánh mì — just ask.
Spice is hot lately. Which is why I'm not surprised when 11-year-old AVSC racer Porter Morris tells me during our impromptu gondola interview that his favorite restaurant in town is Zocalito Latin Bistro, where chef-owner Mike Beary uses chiles hand-harvested alongside Oaxacan farmers. Morris explains that his father prefers the spicy chicken tamale. On a recent visit, "it fired up his mouth," he says.
Of course, Aspen kids are lucky to enjoy exposure to world-class cuisine from an early age. Brainstorming my "extreme" theme, Morris drops knowledge on dessert at Matsuhisa.
"The shaved ice — it's huge!" he exclaims. "You have to ask for the strawberry dip. It's a clear cream they put over it. It's so huge you can probably only eat a quarter of it!"
Now that's what I call extreme.
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