Restaurant Critique: The Restaurant at The Little Nell

Fall Line

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Aspen, Colorado

Aspen has been hosting more than its regular share of Chicagoans this winter. It’s not powder they’re after, but Keith Luce, who, six months ago, departed the Windy City’s beloved Spruce Restaurant to run the show at The Restaurant at The Little Nell. “I was so focused on what I was doing at Spruce,” says Luce, “that I didn’t have time to develop relationships with customers. It’s neat to know that I touched so many people with my food.”

“Neat.” It’s a word that comes up often in conversation with Luce. For all his experience (The White House, New York City’s La Côte Basque and Le Cirque) and acclaim (“Rising Star Chef,” James Beard Foundation; “Best New Chef,” Food & Wine magazine), Luce just turned 30. He, in fact, may be the most celebrated chef-of any age-working in ski country today.

Before deciding on Aspen, Luce researched his new locale. He talked with botanists about the food of Western Native American tribes and the availability of regional ingredients. Once in town, he foraged for wild mushrooms, choke cherries and rose hips. “What I create has to make sense for the area, so I take advantage of regional cuisines and products,” he explains.

Luce’s dishes are the result of a careful layering of textures and flavors combined with classical European techniques. “I have a hard time with ‘confusion’ food,” he says. “When I write a menu, I brainstorm flavors. I have a healthy respect for making sure you can appreciate a dish for what it is.”

To that end, he’ll steam a ruby trout fillet with chervil, basil and tarragon, add a thin layer of trout mousse and a “silhouette” of herbs, then top it with delicate steamed potato “scales.” Rib-eye center cuts are crusted with pine nuts, pan-roasted and sauced with a roasted red grape reduction. Colorado striped bass comes with a super-crispy skin and an olive pan sauce that resembles a warm vinaigrette.

While one of Luce’s goals is to elevate the restaurant to Relais Gourmand status (the culinary counterpart of Relais & Châteaux), he’s adamant that providing an exceptional dining experience is what drives him. “I love what I do for a living,” he says. “Being a chef is not an egotistical thing for me.”What’s Cooking: The Meat Of The MatterYou needn’t leave your car to indulge in an exquisite warm roast beef and pepperjack cheese sourdough sub at Choice Meats on Jackson Wyoming’s Highway 22. But if you roll up to the drive-through window, you’ll miss the chance to eye-ball, sniff and sample your way around Scott and Jill Boxrud’s meticulously stocked gourmet market and deli. There are, of course, the namesake “choice meats” of Santa Maria tri-tip roasts, pork tenderloins, homemade Jamaican jerk sausages, elk, alligator and even kangaroo. This selection is rounded out nicely by fresh seafood (Steelhead trout, Atlantic king salmon, Chilean sea bass) and poultry (fryers, duck, quail, pheasant). But non-carnivores brake for Choice Meats, too: A deli turns out non-stop orders of satisfying salads and soups. Nearby, top-quality produce, pasta and fresh bread stand in wooden bins while an impressive collection of bottled sauces, oils, spices and chutneys pack wire shelves. All of this makes it impossible to depart without at least one bulging sack of consumables to go.Wild Game Dishes Pan-roasted buffalo tenderloin with seared foie gras
@ Valhalla Restaurant,
Stein Eriksen Lodge, Park City, UT Grilled venison chop sauced with port and morels
@ Graham’s,
Squaw Valley, CA Rack of wild boar in a boletas mushroom sauce
@ The Bavarian,
Taos Ski Valley, NM Quail stuffed with wild mushrooms, foie gras and confit
@ Syzygy,
Aspen, CO Australian kangaroo kebabs in a maple vinaigrette
@ Mr. Pickwick’s,
Stowe, VT B.C. fallow deer loin with oven-dried blueberries
@ La Rua,
Whistler Resort, BC