There’s never been a shortage of reasons to go to Aspen. Obviously, the annual presence of the Food and Wine Classic has cemented the place as one of the great locations to experience food, period. But only more recently has the town been growing as a truly year-round gourmet destination. While there have been times that cuisine has held a somewhat auxiliary position to the more glitzy attractions of skiing and luxury retail, the past several years have seen a boom in the kind of locations that make chowing down reason alone enough to visit.
Helping to solidify this cultural shift towards the culinarily-inclined is Duemani, the Mediterranean-inspired seafood joint from the illustrious Aspen Hospitality Group that specializes in gargantuan seafood platters, raw bar and crudo, grilled fish and sturdy cuts of lamb and beef. Since opening in 2019, it has been impressing locals and tourists alike by matching and integrating a commitment to world-class service with equally inspired cuisine. Nuanced decor and a fabulous wine list — ongoing staples that have become synonymous with Aspen dining — are here matched by dishes that maintain a competitive edge. Chef Jason Franey — who came aboard in 2021 to oversee the menus for both Duemani and its Italian sister restaurant Acquolina — is clearly unintimidated by the potential supremacy of the other aspects. His menu drifts into a refinement that reflects his time at both Canlis and Eleven Madison Park.
In December 2021, Duemani debuted its outdoor yurt. The space — an utterly sumptuous ode to the surrounding ski culture — holds up to 10 people, with two available nightly seatings for private parties who want to experience the outer limits of the restaurant’s emphatic style and knack for the chic. Cowhide rugs cover the floor as faux fur throws drape each seat. While yurt or igloo dining has become relatively commonplace across swathes of the Front Range’s restaurants, Duemani’s is uniquely transporting with the whole experience presenting an immaculate vision of the cozy. That the whole menu — including caviar with tater tots — is available helps to remind visitors that the snug and the cultivated go brilliantly hand in hand.
While the yurt is an excellent expression of Duemani’s forward-thinking approach, it is by no means the singular attraction. Come spring, the space will be converted to an outdoor seating area, decked out with similar aesthetic finesse. Even so, customers hoping to enjoy the yurt should act quickly, as it will close down to begin its warm-weather transformation on April 16.
The end of last year saw yet another pillar be added to further augment Aspen’s dining caliber. On Dec. 2, 2021, chef Lorena Garcia opened the third outpost of her famed Latin American hotspot CHICA. Following successful iterations in both Las Vegas and Miami, the chef decided Aspen would be the perfect location to introduce her distinct blending of the flavors of Venezuela, Peru, Brazil, Mexico and Argentina. “CHICA is a fun, sexy, high-energy brand, which plays into the après-ski scene. The Latin cuisine of CHICA wasn’t really represented in Aspen. We also felt we could do something fun with the space and give it a true personality,” said Garcia.
After studying law in Venezuala, Garcia quickly became conscious that she had picked the wrong career. “I realized I did not want to be a lawyer my first day as a paralegal,” grinned the chef. She then enrolled at Johnson and Wales University in Miami and, after graduating, embarked on a working culinary tour of Europe and Asia. Her travels had her working in kitchens that included the Ritz Paris and La Torre del Saracino in Italy with Gennaro Esposito, as well as stints in Japan, Korea, Argentina, Peru, Brazil, Venezuela and the Caribbean. CHICA’s flavors glamorously reflect Garcia’s voyage, displaying an integrated sense that could only come from really having put boots down in kitchens on nearly every corner of the globe.
Food-wise, the menu is full of fittingly robust fare for appetites generated by long days on the mountain. “The menu draws from CHICA’s Miami and Las Vegas locations, while also showcasing new dishes catered to our Aspen guests based on the unique location. For example, in Aspen, we serve our Fresno Chili Queso and Mexican Hot Chocolate perfect for warming up after hitting the slopes,” said Garcia. The al pastor ribs aka “the smoke show” ($48) look as if they could have been plated by Antoni Gaudi, and melt off the bone with all the ease of spring’s imminent arrival.
All great movements require cornerstones, and as Aspen drifts further and further towards the limits of epicurean refinement, there is no conversation to be had without mentioning The Little Nell‘s foundational role. Originally opened in 1989, the hotel immediately began stacking awards for its unparalleled commitment to hospitality across accommodations, dining and wine. Most recently, it was ranked the number one hotel in Colorado and number 13 in the U.S. “Original general manager Eric Calderon was brought in with the intention of creating the most luxurious hotel in the state,” said corporate director of public relations May Selby. “It’s a home away from home, and that’s how it was designed,” she continued.
While staying in one of the 92 rooms — that range from the outstanding to the palatial — is the best way to experience The Little Nell, stopping by the in-house restaurant Element 47 for a bite, a glass of wine or a cup of the famed hot chocolate can act as a close second. That the cellar has continued to win the Wine Spectator Grand Award since 1997 is clear from the more modest pours all the way down to some of the state’s most extravagant bottles.
Much of the menu can be ordered as part of room service, with only a few exceptions. One being the duck ramen ($26) — with tonkotsu broth, duck confit, soy egg, bok choy, scallions, cilantro — which has been withheld for obvious reasons. That CHICA has situated itself in The Residences at Little Nell speaks for the hotel’s continued interest in remaining at the forefront of the town’s evolving scene.
It’s easy to get lost in Denver’s triumphant development as a food city over the past decade. Even so, the continuing advancement of the high country scene is more than enough reason to occasionally venture a change of pace.
CHICA Aspen is located at 501 East Dean St., Aspen. It is open every day from 11:30 a.m. – 10 p.m.