Cool mountain breezes waft across snow capped mountains reaching towards implausibly blue skies. I have returned to one of my favorite vacation spots.
Summer in Aspen has it all: awe inspiring hiking, invigorating biking, unique shopping, the eight week long classical Aspen Music Festival and to top it all off, a vibrant and highly creative dining scene.
The food-scape has something for everyone but for those who want health conscious, veggie centric eats, it is nearly nirvana. The offerings range from casual Colorado “grab and go” to world class dining and plenty in -between.
Here are some of my faves. They reflect a range of dining styles, a necessity when I eat out numerous times in one week. I always seek ingredient driven, innovative preparations and the most scenic spots possible.
For my readers who are Kosher Like Me, pescatarian or vegetarian, I can wholeheartedly recommend all of these spots as having plenty of great choices.
If you are staying somewhere with your own kitchen, check out Rabbits Garden, a highly personal catering company that happily provides meals, snacks (“volcanuts”, “tropic bunny”), and freshly pressed organic juices to residents/visitors in the Aspen area. After reviewing the healthy offerings on line, I arranged to have the following delivered to our home (yes, very lucky to be with friends in a trail-side, Quintess villa) for the eve of our arrival.
We enjoyed wild salmon over a bed of cous cous, simply grilled and dusted with salt, pepper and fennel pollen. Grilled asparagus and perfectly prepared artichokes alongside veggie laden tri-colored quinoa rounded out the simple meal. It was just right after a long day of travel and despite a touch of high altitude fuzziness.
The next day, we explored the Aspen Farmers’ Market (more on that next week in Part 2 of my fave picks in Aspen) and dined at the legendary Pine Creek Cookhouse at the base of Elk Mountain, 11 miles (30 minutes) from downtown Aspen.
In the winter, the last part of the road leading here is unplowed and impassable even by jeep. Diners can choose to be lead by horse drawn sleighs or guided by restaurant staff with miners’ headlamps on a ski adventure to the log cabin for lunch or dinner.
In summer, hikers may stroll the historic ghost town of nearby Ashcroft (boomed and bust in the late 1880’s) or take the challenge of climbing up to American Lake with the incentive of dinner at the Pine Creek Cookhouse.
The simple log cabin is surrounded by steep mountains and has a generous, creek-side, wraparound deck for summer dining. After a chilly rain, we were treated to a site that drew all of the dinner patrons and most of the staff out of the restaurant to a patio that served as a spontaneous viewing platform.
An unusually bright shaft of light from the setting sun broke through the clouds, casting a supernatural light on the dimming mountain peaks.
Such sites are wondrous in the Rockies.
Salads enlisted assorted organic greens grown for the Cookhouse in Paonia. Tart green apples, candied pistachios and dried cranberries added texture.
Wild pan roasted salmon, caught in the Quinault River, WA., and sauteed Ruby Red Rainbow trout (Idaho) were both a bit overcooked, but still flavorful with kale, caramelized shallots and lemon caper sauce. Vegetarians have options of cheesy tortellini or wild mushroom and spinach crepes for lunch.
The next night, we switched gears entirely and were thrilled to experience a magnificent meal at Chefs Club by Food and Wine at the St. Regis Hotel. This recently inaugurated collaboration is successfully played out in the newly situated and re-designed dining room where the entire kitchen is in full view of the dining room.
A long expanse of comfortable counter, the “chef’s table”, allows diners to view the magic happening under the confident and competent Executive Chef, Thomas Riordan.
For the spring/summer menu selections, four of Food and Wine Magazine’s “Best New Chefs” collaborate with the culinary team on site to offer such delicacies as Smoked Sturgeon Salad, a delightfully updated twist on ordinary deli styled whitefish salad.
Four blinis (rye flour) were perfect platforms for house smoked sturgeon mixed with red onions and nestled against egg “mimosa”. Teeny beluga lentils dotted the plate.
Call me a traditionalist (you know this writer loves her smoked fish) but PLEASE call me back for this dish for lunch or dinner any time.
Second course choices included four options for those honoring the rules like I do. I opted for “warm green asparagus” and was thrilled with the velvety ricotta crema mousse and shaved asparagus stalks.
Whole Branzino a la Plancha and Seared Rainbow Trout were fish options, with the generous portion of perfectly crisped trout being cooked (and so willingly) in olive oil rather than brown butter for my dairy sensitive friend.
After a few nights of eating fish, I opted for English Pea Agnolotti, a luxurious mound of house made pasta with shaved black truffles, morels, spring leeks,and creme fraiche reduction. Damn the diet. I’ll remember this one for a long time.
Don’t forget to check out the oh-so delicious and cleverly named cocktails (“Back Country Bramble” and “Colorado Comfort”) , ingeniously designed by Jim Meehan, Deputy Editor of Food and Wine Cocktail Guide and the only mixologist to ever win a James Beard Award.
We spent our last eve at Plato’s, an intimate restaurant at the Aspen Meadows Resort, the home of the Aspen Institute.
I love the Bauhaus structure and floor to ceiling windows bumping up to breath-taking views of the setting sun over the Rockies.
Plato’s inspired menu is a contemporary and simplified interpretation of comfort cuisine, utilizing local and organic ingredients. Of the seven starters offered, five were veg or fish, putting the kosher keepers at the table in a position to choose freely.
Chilled strawberry soup with Greek yogurt, burrata and tomatoes, Colorado Ruby Red trout with trumpet mushrooms? We opted for most decadent and chose Spring Pea Risotto with firm English peas, mascarpone, nasturtium and Fruition Pecora cheese. Creamy, rich with nuanced melding of flavors, and perfectly al dente Carnaroli rice did not disappoint.
Baby Artichoke Salad, a generous mound of arugula, dried currants and cranberries, pine nuts and chopped herbs (from the garden out back) was dressed in a refreshing and tangy lemon-mint yogurt dressing.
Crispy Pacific Halibut, with a generous portion of spring veggies and morels, was rich with texture and flavor, topped off with a six-minute egg. Skuna Bay Salmon was intense with flavors of Hon-Shimeji mushrooms, and preserved lemon .
Desserts were nearly impossible to pass up so we opted for the Strawberry Tarragon Panna Cotta, a lovely plate accented with white chocolate Anglaise and melt in my mouth “milk crumbs”.
Please check in next week for Part Two about Aspen dining. I will be sharing my top picks for lunches.
Enjoy George Mendes‘ Seared Rainbow Trout, currently being served at the Chef’s Club.
Thank you to George Mendes, Aldea Restaurant in NYC, for graciously sharing his recipe with me!
- 4 ea Diced peeled Yukon gold
- 1 ea Leeks (whites only, quartered)
- 1 sprig Thyme (sachet)
- 2 Tblsp Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- Watercrest (Wild and Hyrdo)
- 00 A/P Flour
- Toasted Pine Nuts
- Olive Oil
- Lemon Juice
- Balsamic Vinegar
- Bring first 4 ingredients, covered in water, to boil in a pot. Season with salt and cook until potatoes are "fork tender" but not falling apart. Strain, and reserve some of the cooking liquid. Pass through a ricer (leeks will not go through but the essence will go through). Fold in 2 Tblsp of extra virgin olive oil. Use reserved cooking liquid if needed to get proper consistency. Season Salt and a touch of white pepper to taste.