Restaurant Critique: Conundrum

Fall Line
Ski Life G 1100

Aspen, Colo.

Don't let the revolving front door fool you. Judging from the glitter in his eye as he chats with customers (not to mention the challenge of getting a reservation), chef George Mahaffey and his Restaurant Conundrum are in Aspen to stay.

Formerly of The Restaurant at The Little Nell in Aspen, and the Hotel Bel-Air in Beverly Hills Calif., Mahaffey opened the eatery in June 1999. In a town known to eat up chefs in big gulps, he's made it look easy. "My motto is more class, less sass," he laughs. "We didn't go overboard with the china or flatware. We're not trying to recreate the New York or San Francisco or L.A. dining scene. We're capitalizing on what's going on in the world of cuisine and doing it in an Aspen environment."

The environment? Plush banquettes, soft carpets and textured fabrics in earthy greens and golds that reflect Conundrum Creek, for which the restaurant is named. The food? Signature Mahaffey¿extensively resourced ingredients, impeccable flavor combinations, carefully crafted presentations¿but with touches that reflect his playful side as well.

Take the demitasse of lobster soup. A demitasse cup of rock shrimp-studded soup topped with frothy white truffle cream and served with a demi spoonful of Golden Osetra caviar, diced red onions, chopped egg yolks and a touch of sour cream. (Fun presentation and a signal of what's to come.) In addition to signature dishes, such as crisp, mustard-crusted trout floating on fragrant garlic mashed potatoes, and grilled elk loin accompanied by grilled figs, caramelized onions and a luscious sun-dried cherry sauce, Mahaffey serves homemade cauliflower agnolotti, deftly-roasted Chilean sea bass wrapped in pancetta, and smoked and grilled Texas quail.

"We want to run a respectful business that does everything by the books," he says. "So people in the industry and guests all over the world point to us and say 'there's a good restaurant.'"