Aspen took me by the shoulders and shook me hard. It woke me up. And it was honestly in Aspen, speeding down a particularly steep black diamond of Aspen Highlands and feeling my body naturally shift into perfect form (if only for a second or two) that I breathed out the poisonous last 2 months of 2012 and gulped down my first sweet, clean lung-full of 2013. A new year with new promises.
I’m very thankful for my brother and his wife for realizing this trip was exactly what I needed to get myself in shape again. My initially feeble arms developed the strength to carry my skis and boots around, my cigarette stained lungs were cleared out by crisp mountain air, my tan skin developed resistance to the cold, my muscles relaxed in the steamy hot comfort of our outdoor hot tub, and I slowly started to get a healthy glow back in my face. And, for the first time in a while, I felt true hunger. The kind of hunger that comes as a shock to a bird-like eater like myself, especially when it occurs just 3-4 hours after a massive buffet breakfast at the Aspen Meadows Resort resto, where an unlimited supply of custom made omelettes and granola with toasted hazelnuts (I love hazelnuts…) sent me into a miniature food coma at the start of each day. The kind of unapologetic hunger one really only feels when breathing fresh air and metabolizing every ounce of fat on one’s body to do something pride-worthy. I took, without question, every single complementary muffin, Cliff Bar, cider and hot chocolate thrown at me at each lift and by the end of the day I was still hungry.
As a way to celebrate the new year, our survival of menacing ice-coated moguls and hypothermic moments on the lift up to Lodge Peak, my sister-in-law’s successful submission of a pretty significant geology paper and my brother’s kindof successful astrophysics lecture on how to find black holes in the universe, we decided to go for a nice juicy steak on our last night of the trip. Many reviews recommend Steakhouse No. 316 as the best place to get just that in Aspen, so we decided to go for it. Making a reservation over the phone went smoothly and the place was pretty easy to find as well. From the outside it doesn’t look like much more than a glorified log cabin, but the interior is elegant, homey, with a bit of a New York steakhouse gimmick running through it. Coats are kept under a heat-lamp in an indoor reception area, a detail I appreciated considering the 4F out. A sleek marble-top bar faces a selection of backlit liquors and a unique wine-tap from which bold reds flow forth at affordable prices (no bottling, labeling, etc.). Crimson velvet banquettes and comfortable leather sofas, white linen, big boy steak knives. The place was packed, as it was the night before Day 1 of the X Games, so the vibe was great – bustling, busy and chattery without being too distracting. Lots of pro snowboarder eye-candy in there too, which is never a problem…
The menu is nothing I haven’t seen before, geared in a somewhat cowardly way to the tastes of tourists from all over. The appetizers include Beef Carpaccio, Tuna Tartar, Crab Cakes and Onion Rings. There is a selection of hearty salads as well as some light entree options like a Seared Arctic Char, Sea Bass and Ahi Tuna. I say “cowardly,” because the place doesn’t need to try to be an all-around crowd pleaser. It is known and appreciated for its steak, not as much for its herb roasted chicken or its “white truffle” risotto. I guess giving those pesky vegetarians and no-red-meat’ers some options to choose from doesn’t hurt, but well…let’s get to the good stuff.
Rack of Lamb. A juicy and succulent medium rare with a great sear on the outside, not too thick in smokey flavor, but maybe a bit too salty. A lot of meat on the bone and all of it very deep in that mineral lamb twang. Came with a clove of roasted garlic on top, in a shallow cast iron pan. The latter was a tad awkward to eat out of, as it required us to cut the meat at a higher angle, but it also kept the flesh warm until the last bite, which was something particularly important to us on such a cold night.
6 oz. American Kobe Filet. I don’t really want to get into the details of why exactly it pisses me off so much when American steakhouses stamp the word “Kobe” onto beef that actually has nothing to do with that specific strain of Wagyu raised and perfected for centuries in the Hyōgo, Japan, just to jack up the prices. “Kobe-style” is okay, “Wagyu” is perfectly fine, “Kobe-style Wagyu” is passable. I guess “American Kobe” is okay, because it does not imply that the beef is imported (at a pretttty steep price point) from Kobe; it specifies that the moo moo meat is American and hints at the technique of raising it. It is Wagyu cattle and it is grass-and-grain and even beer fed, instead of corn-fed, which makes it better than most American beef (corn-fed, ugh), but it differs significantly from the grain fodder fed Tajima-ushi strain of Wagyu which is actually Kobe beef. Anyway…
A pretty satisfying filet mignon, with very bold flavors (unlike the mildness of real Kobe beef), cooked to a nice medium rare, with the inside still juicy and bloody but warmed through. The meat was dark magenta (darker than that of real Kobe) and had great marbling – lean but buttery smooth. Again, a roasted garlic clove over the top and some rosemary for an extra punch.
Roasted Wild Mushrooms. A very satisfying side, almost like another protein on the table. Local mushrooms foraged and delivered daily by a local mountain man, roasted until tender but not mushy, and seasoned only with salt, pepper and some parsley to really allow the earthy, fungal funk of the mushrooms to shine through beautifully. This side dish was great, because it pulled me out of the Midtown Manhattan and reminded me of where I actually was, surrounded by mountains and forests and nature. The other side we got, of sauteed asparagus was great as well, buttery but still very fresh, lifting up our meaty meal with something green.
12 oz. Buffalo Steak (The Daily Chop): As soon as I heard what the daily “chop” was, I had to go for it, as I imagined the animal prancing around somewhere not far from where I was sitting, soaking up all that nice mountain air and nibbling that green green grass. A 12 ounce buffalo steak cooked “between rare and medium rare,” with a thin layer of fat sealing the outer rim of the meat. The steak was very lean and marbled, despite the fact that most of the fat seemed to be on the exterior rather than intertwined with the flesh. The meat was much milder in flavor, not as gamey as beef but sweeter instead. The sear on the outside was salty and dusted with cracked black pepper, which made my mouth water even before my teeth sunk into the meat. Not a complicated dish but a very satisfying one.
Bourbon Bread Pudding with white chocolate, pecans and salted caramel sauce. Hearty and a little too big even for 3 people to share, but very comforting in flavor and texture. Spongy, soft cubes of sweet bread soaked in Bourbon, dotted with crispy, oily pecans. To make things even more decadent, a pool of sickly sweet white chocolate sauce sat on the bottom which offset the alcohol in the bourbon. Better still, a little container of thick, gooey salted caramel syrup to balance the sweetness of the vanilla. After my second bite of the thing I was saturated, wishing it was socially acceptable to pass out in my velvet booth and have a long, hearty, coma-like snooze as a form of warm hibernation in the midst of the winter cold.
The food at Steakhouse No. 316 suited Aspen perfectly – hearty, rich and packed with the calories needed after a day on the slopes. And a fantastic way to celebrate pretty much anything. A perfect last meal together in our mountainous paradise.