It wasn't until we took our first bite of Matsuhisa-Aspen's tuna sashimi salad that we recalled a fundamental principle of fine dining: nothing perks up the appetite like good food.
This was our first trip to the Rocky Mountain town, but it didn't take long to get a feel for the place. Take a studio-back-lot western set, splice in Rodeo Drive and lift the result 8,000 feet into the ether and you have Aspen, where a log cabin can cost $10 million (granted, the one in question has a seven-car garage) and the preferred mode of transportation is private jet. Chanel, Ralph Lauren and Bulgari all have stores in town, and Gucci is on its way. Yet often the only traffic is a lone Labrador retriever trotting purposefully through an intersection or a Range Rover with mud on its fenders.
We'd come to Aspen to explore its alpine cuisine, which focuses on such local ingredients as venison and trout. We also knew that some of the nation's top restaurateurs had opened satellites here, and we were eager to visit both the new places and the old outposts.
Curiously, this mile-and-a-half-high town has terrific sushi; but then the airport is only five minutes from downtown, and fresh fish is flown in daily. Aspen has several renowned sushi bars, including Kenichi and Takah Sushi. We settled on Matsuhisa-Aspen, partly because it's the newest and partly because I can't pass up an opportunity to try the cuisine of Nobu Matsuhisa, the restaurant's Peruvian-Japanese executive chef, who also has places in Los Angeles, New York City and London. While he's perfectly capable of producing impeccable classic sushi, he's known for his unexpected, even controversial, appropriations: there's olive oil on his sashimi salad, caviar on his tartares.
The subterranean dining room, built into an abandoned quarry, has high terra-cotta walls and an insulated appeal that's half speakeasy, half pueblo. The patrons are mainly bi-coastal power players and the occasional wind-burned 60-something rancher feeding tempura to his 30-something date.
Although Nobu Matsuhisa visits only once a month, regular customers report that the quality of the food is consistently excellent. The best dishes--like black cod marinated in miso to a deep, almost confectionery sweetness--are downright startling. Our yellowtail sashimi with jalapeños and a citrus-soy sauce was the single most delicious thing we ate in Aspen. (303 E. Main St.; 970-544-6628.)
The Century Room
Down the block from Matsuhisa-Aspen is the Hotel Jerome's Century Room, a bastion of Victoriana: dark carved wood, lace curtains, crystal chandeliers. The space calls for top hats and bustles, but what it gets is Aspen formal wear: jeans and Armani jackets.
The chef, Todd Slossberg, creates alpine cuisine using classical French techniques. He balances the complexities of flavor, texture and visual impact with apparent ease in such dishes as
delicate striped bass with spaetzle and bitter greens. Farm-raised elk, a fine-grained lean meat, comes with a rich parsnip risotto--a stunning preparation if you can ignore the stuffed elk heads watching from the wall. (Hotel Jerome, 330 E. Main St.; 970-920-1000.)
Real Restaurants, which owns Tra Vigne and Mustards Grill in the Napa Valley, has airlifted the virtues of northern California dining--a Mediterranean-inspired menu and a great wine list--to the convivial Ajax Tavern. Tobias Lawry, now in his second year as chef, oven-roasts olives with garlic and serves them warm, adds tiny lentils and horseradish-spiked cream to a baby beet salad, cooks halibut in an eggplant wrapping until it's succulent and a little smoky.
The room is loud and crowded, but never mind that we literally rubbed shoulders with a table of New Zealand industrialists. If we lived here, the Ajax Tavern would be our canteen. (685 E. Durant Ave.; 970-920-9333.)
The Restaurant at The Little Nell
At The Restaurant at The Little Nell, all reproduction French antiques and muted colors, we sat next to four young socialites in cashmere sweater sets and chunky gold. They discussed the wine list--expertly, I must say--and settled on a white Burgundy, Chassagne-Montrachet, then moved on to a friend's impending marriage. "I just think she should have someone richer," one woman said.
"My dear," another drawled, "we all should have someone richer."
Last December, William Koval replaced the famed George Mahaffey as chef, and change has been gradual. From the tortilla soup to the warm chocolate cake, everything seems to be on course. Koval impressed us with his signature grilled salmon, which he had marinated in honey and soy. Charming, expert service made the meal even more delightful. (The Little Nell hotel, 675 E. Durant Ave.; 970-920-6330.)
Baang Cafe & Bar
The Far East collides with Tomorrowland at this splashy--and noisy!--new fusion restaurant designed by the nationally renowned David Rockwell. Baang is a playful combination of the futuristic and the retro done up in saffron, celadon and warm reds: the Jetsons go Tibetan.
Fusion cooking is too often con-fusion cooking, but the chef, Peter Klein, has a direct and convincing approach. His Mandarin beef isn't the usual deep-fried strips; instead, it's a seared, sliced fillet in a thin, subtly sweet soy-orange sauce served with wasabi mashed potatoes.
Dishes at Baang are presented family style. One course split between two people is more than adequate, unless of course you want to try lots of different things. We wound up swapping tastes of calamari salad and shrimp wraps with two hip teenagers out on a date and armed with Mom's credit card. (325 E. Main St.; 970-925-9969.)
Michelle Huneven is a food columnist for The Los Angeles Times and the author of the novel Round Rock (Knopf).