Food Matters: In the Mood for Soup? | AspenTimes.com

Food Matters: In the Mood for Soup?

by AMANDA RAE

The promise of ramen was enough to get us out the door, on the gondola, and down the mountain for a few rock-dodging runs before posting up at the Sundeck for a late lunch on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Apparently folks with a full ski pass receive a 10 percent discount on all mountain food, so the wok station's big bowl of ramen — dashi broth, ample curls of fatty pork belly, bean sprouts, vegetables, and fantastically slurpable wheat noodles — tallied just ten bucks.

Ten dollars! That might be one of the best deals in town right now. And to enjoy it atop our patch of the Rockies while watching storm clouds roll in to wrap the lodge in a chilly hug was a bonus. Combined with an epic full moon — the "Cold Moon" or "Long Night Moon" according to astronomists — and a light dusting of snow later that night, that ramen made a good day great.

Slurping our soup at the Sundeck, we lamented the evaporation of Japanese ramen elsewhere in town. Chef Shawn Lawrence's "chicken and the egg" ramen at 39 Degrees at the now-demolished Sky Hotel is but a distant memory; ditto with chef Jeff Casagrande's sweet-and-sour duck ramen at bb's. (Casagrande, as it turns out, is now chef de cuisine at the Aspen Mountain Club, so at least he gets to shred on days he works in the kitchen.)

Despite a bunch of restaurant shakeups, ramen is still out there. Maru's got it, in three varieties (shrimp with red-miso lobster broth; Colorado short rib or Sakura pork in master pork stock). Bamboo Bear serves classic Vietnamese pho (beef, chicken, or vegetable) with traditional rice noodles, herbs, and chiles, but occasionally chef Vinnie Bagford will throw soup specials on the board, including ramen. Most memorable in recent memory was a killer version with lemongrass- and scallion-infused pork meatballs. So, always check that board before ordering.

Recently I sampled some new menu items at element 47 at The Little Nell, and I'm thrilled to report that chefs Matt Zubrod, Patrick Dunn, and Grant Rico have introduced a miso udon soup with Key West red shrimp. Sadly, it replaces last year's ramen (and Red Light Ramen specials will not return), but the choice of chewy udon noodles almost makes up for it.

Element 47's house-made miso broth is so savory and satisfying that I even convinced my vegetarian pal to spoon it up, around the shellfish. (She ordered the new beet burger, which, despite its fluorescent-pink hue, doesn't have an overwhelming beet flavor once bitten into. It's another hearty, healthful dish that will draw diners to the swank hotel restaurant this winter.)

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The crowning glory on the Nell's udon soup is a swirl of bright-green oil infused with phytoplankton, a chlorophyll- and mineral-rich microalgae at the base of the ocean food chain. It sounds gimmicky, but marine algae is one of the latest superfoods, chock-full of omega-3 fatty acids and micronutrients, to hit mainstream dining, after all.

Word is out on whether the trio that delivered the Broth-el from Boulder to the Mill Street-Hyman Avenue pedestrian mall will bring bone broth back to town this winter, but here's hoping. If so, add ramen noodles and spinach to the to-go cup. If not, will someone please open a ramen-dedicated winter pop-up, pretty please with nori on top?

While Avalanche Cheese Company is shuttered now that Wendy Mitchell sold the farm in Paonia — another tragic change in our culinary landscape; award-winning Cabra Blanca was my favorite goat cheese in the world — Meat & Cheese Restaurant and Farm Shop is going strong, with new winter menu items added soon. Still, my sources tell me that Mitchell can't take the kid's Sun Noodles ramen off the menu. They also mention that some diners order the bowl with added protein (chicken, duck, egg) or with all the fixings from the popular Vietnamese chicken noodle salad in a funky flavor mash-up.

In related news: Meat & Cheese hosts a Southeast Asia Dinner on Tuesday, Dec. 12, featuring five courses inspired by Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Phillipines.

Asie Restaurant, which reopens on Main Street soon with a major interior remodel and likely an updated menu, is another Asian eatery to explore. Same for Sake Restaurant, around the corner from Slice Pizzeria on the backside of Base Village in Snowmass, which reopens for the season on Dec. 12. Merry Go Round on Aspen Highlands and Cliffhouse on Buttermilk will serve pho — not quite ramen, but a fine substitute — says Aspen Snowmass mountain dining executive chef Jim Butchart. (Was the short-lived Double Black Noodle Bar on the second floor of the Wildwood Snowmass just a dream or what?)

Elsewhere on-mountain, Gwyn's High Alpine on Snowmass and Bonnie's Restaurant on Aspen Mountain are both known for outstanding soup bars. I was lucky to find a dog-eared copy of the 1996 Bonnie's cookbook ("Bonnies at 1:00: Recipes from Aspen Mountain's Dining Tradition," by MaryAnn Greene) at the Thrift Shop of Aspen, so I might start making many of them, the famous chicken chowder and white bean chili included.

SO Café at the top of the Aspen Art Museum is another lunch spot to watch for warming broth. Though limited to just three or four main dishes, the menu changes weekly, and soups make regular appearances. So far, I've enjoyed chicken posole and butternut squash soup; last week showcased roasted mushroom and parsnip soup with crème fraîche and basil oil. Since Asian cuisine is featured frequently — last week also included a Chinese chicken salad with tamari-roasted meat, crispy vegetables, wild rice, pickled cucumbers, and hot-mustard vinaigrette — it's possible that ramen could show up, too.

Castle Creek Café is another gem hiding in plain sight, with lots of soup to boot. Though Aspen Valley Hospital may not be on your radar as a dining destination, it should, because the menu is consistently intriguing. Every weekday showcases two different soups, including a vegetarian option, except Monday, when both soups are meatless. (Meatless Monday is alive and well in Aspen.) In December those include broccoli cheddar, mushroom barley, vegetable rice, African peanut, Tuscan chickpea, French onion, Mexican lime, and vegan black bean.

On other days of the week at Castle Creek Café, find creations such as turkey noodle, chicken and rice, corned beef and cabbage soup, kielbasa and kale, navy beans and ham, Italian wedding, pork green chile, chicken tortilla, roasted carrot, pumpkin black bean, or coconut curry lentil. Saturdays and Sundays are always chef's choice, which could be anything but likely not a repeat of other soups offered that month. That's about 50 unique soups every month!

Alas, I don't see ramen on the list, but a big bowl of warmth is still worth the drive while we wait for snow.

amandaraewashere@gmail.com