Aspen, Colorado is the richest locale in the United States. In 2009, the average home sold for over $4 million. A large contingent of Aspen's residents—or, more accurately, transient homeowners who fly in to their vacation abodes on private jets that line the airport—come from the Bay Area and Chicago. They are, or should be, used to eating great food. With Alinea, Avec, Charlie Trotter's, Gary Danko, The Slanted Door, Blue Plate, and many others, those two cities are renowned for their fantastic restaurants, and are arguably the best foodie cities in the United States. (Sorry, New York.) Why are these people with sophisticated palates and no monetary barriers willing to put up with mediocrity? Why doesn't Aspen have a truly great restaurant?
How can you have a great restaurant that cannot even muster a single worthwhile dessert?
To be sure that I wasn't overly prejudiced, I recently went to some of the highly recommended places in Aspen, always accompanied by another diner with food credentials superior to mine. (To protect the innocent, I will not name my accomplices.)
First stop: a basement establishment called Syzygy. We did have a fantastic half bottle of wine, a wonderful 2007 Chateauneuf du Pape. But the food was completely forgettable. I had to ask for a menu to be faxed to recall what I ate. The "Beginnings" were a trio of salads—romaine, red oak leaf, and lollo rossa—with different dressings. All fresh but unremarkable. The marinated artichokes were also unremarkable, although the accompanying roasted red pepper was superb. For main courses we had lamb and elk tenderloin. I love game and wish I could be more positive, but...
The next stop was Montagna, at the famed Aspen hotel The Little Nell. It has an advertisement in the over-the-top Aspen Music Festival and School Magazine —which, at 140 glossy pages, it is more like a Nieman-Marcus catalogue than a concert brochure. Entitled "Farm fresh. Exceptional table.", the ad boasts that the food comes from the executive chef's "organic farm in Crawford CO." Many people tout Montagna as the best eating establishment in Aspen. The restaurant's design is strange; the dining room looks out on a small courtyard with a pool, rather than being on the top floor of the hotel with a view of Aspen Mountain and the surrounding landscape. Why come to Aspen to look at a courtyard?
The dinner began well. The amuse-bouche was an espresso cup filled with garlic scape soup topped with chive, which was creamy, smooth, and wonderful. For the antipasto I had the fried squash blossom stuffed with ricotta and anchovy. Wow. This was terrific. Fresh blossoms with the right crispness from the lightly fried batter, and the anchovy flavor giving a gentle, pleasant sparkle and slight afterglow to the fresh cheese. When I commented to my dining partner that only three blossoms seemed paltry for the price ($15), the staff immediately rushed out with two extra, explaining that the dish had been moved out of the kitchen before it was "complete." (I guess, as an Emanuel, I have a voice that carries.) I was beginning to wonder whether my prejudice against Aspen dining establishments was just that—a prejudice.
Unfortunately, the dinner was a linear descent to ground from there. For the pasta course I had ravioli stuffed with ricotta and peas. It was too salty and had a mushy pea taste. My colleague's pappardelle with lobster Bolognese was at least inspired: the pasta was fresh and perfectly al dente, although the topping was not that remarkable. Both entrees we had, Pacific halibut and Colorado lamb loin, were bland. The halibut did not seem fresh and lacked any distinction. The medium-rare lamb was bloody rare, and totally lacking in that gentle but distinctive flavor and taste that comes from the top-end grass-fed organic lamb that the best Colorado farms are famous for. However, the corn under the halibut was rich, with distinctive very fresh corn flavor and perfectly prepared, crunchy with individually separated corn kernels.
The real disappointment was that there absolutely nothing on the dessert menu worth ordering—nothing. Chocolate peanut butter cup, buttermilk panna cotta with strawberry-rhubarb compote, and gelatos or sorbettos. And to add insult to injury, the desserts were an outrageous $12 to $14 apiece. How can you have a great restaurant that cannot even muster a single worthwhile dessert?