Why Are the Restaurants So Bad in Aspen?
PiÃ±ons . As we were being seated, one of the maitre d's said the restaurant was A++. Not a good sign. Great restaurants don't brag. Even more depressing to me was the look at the menu. There were hardly any dishes that even aspired to greatness. The items seemed much like the list at every other restaurant—salmon, duck, lamb, beef tenderloin, halibut. But surprise, surprise. While not A++, it was better than expected. There was no amuse-bouche but starters were good, even very good. A spinach salad with walnuts and beets and fresh, sweet black mission figs was all fresh, and a nice combination of what my daughter calls "extras." A triangular, puffy lobster strudel looked more like a samosa, with flaky dough and fresh and flavorful lobster. Duck quesadilla with portobello mushroom was nice, and the texture was right, although it was hard to discern a distinctive duck taste.
The fish entrees, salmon and sea bass, were very good. The sesame crust on the sea bass and the bread crumbs on the salmon did not add anything, but the basic fish was flavorful and had clearly been flown in that day. And at least the chef had the good sense not to obliterate their taste. My friends told me the pork tenderloin was good. My buffalo tenderloin was bland—no distinct bison taste.
PiÃ±ons had a lot of desserts that seemed appealing. Five of us shared three desserts. They were huge. Unfortunately, the chocolate bread pudding was more like a cakey brownie than a bread pudding. The fresh berry cobbler was very good, with a nice combination of strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries. If I wanted to complain, I would say that the berries could have been tarter and the ratio of crust to berries was too doughy. But that is being too picky. Truth be told, I would have been honored to make this cobbler. The sorbets were both elegantly presented and delicious. The three—green apple, raspberry, and blackberry— came in a 9-inch square dish with fresh fruit in the others. They were clearly homemade with the very freshest ingredients. The apple was a perfect palate cleanser, crisp and clean with no aftertaste, and the raspberry optimized the combination of tart and sweet. What a wonderful finale.
PiÃ±ons was workmanlike. The food was well-crafted, but there was no inspiration or aspiration. Nothing on the menu, except maybe the lobster strudel, tried for great heights of originality or creativity. This was competence and excellent execution—not artistry. Overall, though, it served a very good meal.
Syzygy gets a B. But had a great wine selection.
Montagna gets a B, or if you want to recognize the effort infused into the terrific antipasti, a B+.
PiÃ±ons gets an A-.
So the question remains: Why? WHY? Why doesn't Aspen have a great restaurant?
There are all manner of explanations.
Aspen is so rich, there are too many private chefs . I don't buy it. The restaurants are busy, and the rich transients eat out a lot and would patronize a great place.
Rents are exorbitant and the prices people are willing to pay cannot support a great restaurant . WHAT? The prices are already high for what one gets. And a town filled with millionaires would not spend a few hundred dollars on a great dining experience? Surely rents for the best places in New York, Chicago, or San Francisco are competitive with those in Aspen.
Insufficient year-round demand . Once upon a time Aspen was only a ski resort, but now it is a year-round destination. So many things are going on, from the comedy festival to Food + Wine to the Aspen Ideas Festival and the Fortune Brainstorm conference, it is hard for anyone to find a free week to book another event. Furthermore, it is not as if Napa and Sonoma have more people passing through than Aspen—but those valleys have numerous great food establishments.
The growing season is so short there are not the ingredients for a great restaurant . With great lamb—and great game, such as elk and bison—outside the door, and berries and all manner of vegetables just miles down the road in Paonia, Orchard City, and surrounding towns, this seems hard to believe. And then there is the obvious question of why Chicago or New York—far from ranches and organic vegetable growers—seem to get the fresh ingredients for great restaurants.
Maybe the rich aren't like you and me. Maybe they are so preoccupied by making money, they don't care about enjoying the great things of life, like great food. Don't we wish they were uncultured bores.
I don't know, but I have not yet heard a plausible explanation for my question. But I do know that dining in Aspen is always a disappointment and by all rights should be much, much better than it is. Maybe next year.