Value exists at restaurants in Aspen hotels, so why don’t locals go?
August 16, 2018
Food kept coming. Four dishes, standard, to start: a fat rectangle of fluffy focaccia topped with creamy mozzarella and ribbon-thin slices of La Quercia smoked ham; grilled octopus and olive oil-basted vegetables in a small, enamel-coated Staub casserole dish; zucchini with runner beans, basil and shaved sheep's milk cheese; and a bowl of mixed greens with chunky avocado and heirloom tomatoes tossed in green goddess dressing. Then, two pastas we picked as our primi course: pillowy potato gnocchi with corn crema and heady huitlacoche black butter, plus tender cocoa-flour strozzapreti with lamb ragu, asparagus, fresh ricotta and mint.
A pair of surprise kitchen experiments also arrived: bite-size arancini (crispy risotto balls) dusted with "black magic" made from black garlic, plus a petite portion of black truffle risotto topped with a soft egg.
All of it prefaced our two chosen main courses (one, a comically large bistecca fiorentina porterhouse with marrow butter), two farmers' market sides (spigarello with broccoli pesto and sesame seeds; charred sweet corn with sundried chili) and dessert. We were here in the airy Chefs Club dining room, inside the St. Regis Aspen Resort, to experience San Francisco summer resident chef Matthew Accarrino's epic tasting menu. The kicker: It's five courses priced at $69 per person.
Why, then, we wondered, wasn't the dining room packed? Where were the people who complain that impressive food with reasonable pricing is increasingly difficult to find in Aspen? A few other tables were occupied—"The Cheese Lady" Laura Werlin swung by to tell us conspiratorially, "I've been here three times this week!"—but the subdued atmosphere seemed incompatible with a peak-season Tuesday. A few folks sat at the seven-seat chef's counter, which looks into the sparkling open kitchen where executive chef Todd Slossberg and team assist visiting chef Accarrino (who returns for the final engagement of his three-month residency on Sept. 3-7). Mostly, it was mellow.
The lack of locals at Chefs Club is even more shocking when you consider who's cooking. Accarrino has received a Michelin star at SPQR in the Golden Gate City every year since 2013. He's a five-time James Beard Award nominee. And he's got Aspen street cred: When crowned a Food & Wine Best New Chef during the 2014 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, the champion cyclist pedaled into town via Independence Pass from Leadville to accept the award.
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This got my dining pal and I debating: Even with a crazy good prix-fixe deal for a lavish meal made by a world-class chef, why is it so hard to attract locals to restaurants in hotels?
To be clear, Chefs Club is a tenant within the St. Regis Aspen property; it's not operated by the resort. Ditto for Marble Bar in the Hyatt Grand Aspen. Marble Distilling Co. opened the Aspen outpost of its Carbondale tasting room in the Hyatt (adjacent to the St. Regis) this past winter, yet the few bustling evenings were during après-ski parties.
"You hit the nail on the head! We are slow," confirms Connie Baker of Marble Bar, flummoxed after putting ads in local newspapers every Wednesday with buy-one-get-one offers and bestowing a 20-percent-off-always "Distillers Card" to any local who asks. "I'm scratching my head. We have delicious craft cocktails at very reasonable prices and still so quiet. Our space (doesn't) feel touristy. It is strange."
A while back I visited element47 at The Little Nell to sample chef Matthew Zubrod's three-course prix-fixe menu ($69) showcasing dishes using ingredients from a special garden cultivated specifically for the Nell at ACES at Rock Bottom Ranch (RBR) in Basalt. From what I could tell, the patio wasn't swimming with locals, either.
Though e47's prix-fixe offering isn't intended as a locals' deal, it does highlight local ingredients from the RBR partnership, as well as Wagyu beef raised by West Emma Cattle Co. in an exclusive, multi-year Nell contract for 100 head of cattle.
Locals would be wise, though, to order the steak. According to e47 chef de cuisine Lucas Rocca, "70 percent of entrées ordered have been wagyu since we introduced this summer prix-fixe menu. $20 an ounce is standard pricing for wagyu in Aspen or pretty much anywhere. For a 4-ounce cut, the value can't be beat."
By those calculations, the $69 prix-fixe wagyu serving at e47 would otherwise cost $80 per plate—not counting a starter course and dessert.
Back at Chefs Club, my dining partner enthused that our meal made by chef Matthew Accarrino himself "flies in the face" of any Aspen dining experience since moving to town in January. Also, "I never think to come to the St. Regis for dinner."
Yet again: It's not a St. Regis restaurant, it's just located there.
Might there be some sort of weird psychological block that prevents residents from considering venues in hotels—places, which, by definition, cater to outsiders?
It's a shame, because weeks later we're still talking about that meal at Chefs Club. Sixty-nine dollars may register as a steep price for weeknight dinner (I don't disagree), but the quantity of food offered, and care with local sourcing and unique ingredients represents value. We took half that marrow-butter steak home. Our dessert cheese plate presented a chef Accarrino exclusive, made nowhere else in the U.S.: Sartori BellaVitano cheese infused with black garlic. A bigger bummer: chef Accarrino's residency expires Sept. 9, before Chefs Club closes in October to prepare for a fresh winter residency (new chef TBD; a new format showcases a single chef per season).
Sometimes, perception is everything. In July when I attended "Bubbles + Seafood" at Ajax Tavern, one in a summer series of themed wine-pairing dinners (two remain, Aug. 18 and 25), the events were described as "designed for locals…with an approachable price and educational component."
After some residents balked online about spending $100-plus per person for the dinners — despite multiple courses and free-flowing wine — marketing shifted.
"Ajax Wine Dinners…(are) geared towards incredible value: 3-5 courses and 5-7 servings of wine, dedicated service from a somm and chef(s), in the context of an intimate group," explains The Little Nell PR director May Selby.
Getting Aspen locals on board surely isn't an issue confined to hotels. Owner Karin Derly recently revised the name of her European restaurant on Restaurant Row: La Crepêrie du Village French Alpine Bistro—three words added in a rebranding effort. (Online it's opposite: French Alpine Bistro Crepêrie du Village.)
"People say: I've lived here seven years and always walked by because I didn't want crepês," she says. And yet … crêpes comprise only a fraction of the menu.
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It's unfortunate that folks miss out on gooey cheese fondue (gluten-free baguette available), escargots in white sauce with tomatoes and Pastis, foie gras torchon with lingonberries, saffron-lemon-butter scallops, and Croque Madame because of misperception. Five salads are on the menu now. About price: offseason locals' discounts will remain a hallmark of "French Alpine Bistro."
Most eating establishments located inside Aspen hotels will likely never assume the cozy, elbow-worn, all-welcome, we-won't-rob-you vibe of, say, L'Hostaria bar. (J-Bar may get a pass, but its burger isn't cheap.) But excellent meals (and deals) do exist at there. Fewer crowds, too.
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