The Little Nell debuted its redesigned restaurant, Element 47, on Wednesday. But a few lucky souls — including both Time Out food columnists — had the great pleasure of feasting our senses during a soft opening the week before the public was invited in.
Since our dining habits diverge on several key points — one of us is a girl, the other a guy; one of us is a pescatarian, the other a card-carrying carnivore; and one of us hates most condiments, while the other is, well, normal. So instead of just one of us reviewing what will certainly be one of the hottest dining spots of the season, we both decided to take a stab at it. Here’s what we thought. Oh, and for those who didn’t catch the reference, Element 47 is silver on the periodic table, which references Aspen’s storied history as a silver mining town.
Before Element 47 was Element 47, it was Montagna. As expected, the food was excellent, but the name was probably butchered more than the fine cuts of meat served within. That and the fact that the dining room was eerily reminiscent of “Dynasty” made for a more-than-necessary facelift.
And like most things that come out of Aspen’s only five-star, five diamond hotel, the results of the renovation were pretty stellar. There are still remnants of Montagna’s former glory — most notably the two-tiered dining room — but the chic, modern and minimalist design from 2012 James Beard Restaurant Design award-winner Bentel & Bentel did justice to the space.
But this is a food column, after all, and not a design column, so on to the task at hand!
Typically at a soft opening, you expect a few kinks — a slightly disorganized wait staff, a mixed-up order here or there, dishes that are good, but not quite perfect. But the most striking aspect of Element’s opening was the sheer togetherness of it all. Perhaps everyone was sweating deep down, but they didn’t let it show.
The first thing that stood out for me was the made-to-order bread. It’s one of the first things you taste at a restaurant, and as a lover of the loaf I find that most places put a mediocre first foot forward. From the presentation in the individual baking dishes to the fresh-baked smell that wafted toward your nose, we knew we were in for a culinary treat.
From there we tried the Nantucket Bay scallop ceviche with avocado, pomegranate and pickled onions (recommended by our waitress) that, for better and for worse, redefined how I’ll look at ceviche. Perfectly balanced seems an inadequate descriptor.
Then we moved on to a current infatuation of mine: beets. The baby beets with Granny Smith apples, endive, dill crème fraîche and caraway had both of us hooked. I even contemplated ordering a second.
But when the Emma Farm Wagyu beef (New York Strip was substituted for the soft opening) with braised cannelloni, black trumpets, winter squash and sassafrass arrived in front of me, I didn’t know whether I was supposed to eat it or admire it. It was edible abstract art on a plate, and one of the first times I really felt compelled to snap a picture before diving right it. But when I finally did, I wasn’t disappointed.
While writing this column in my head, I was already preparing to make excuses for things that weren’t just so. Turns out that was wasted mental energy, as food and beverage director Sabato Sagaria and his team nailed it on the head the first time out of the gates.
My dining partner at Element 47 hates condiments, so I relished in delight when food and beverage director Sabato Sagaria served him a gallon of Heinz ketchup on a crisp white plate.
It was a well-played joke. But what’s worth noting here is that Sagaria, who oversaw the redesign of The Little Nell’s Montagna to its sleek Element 47 digs, remembered that Damien is afraid of things that would normally accessorize a hot-dog or hamburger. This attention to detail is what carries the restaurant that’s housed inside the five-star hotel at the base of Aspen Mountain. Though it’s not Sagaria who’s cooking, everyone from the other sommelier on the floor to the servers and chef put the same care into what they’re presenting.
Of course, as a vegetarian I don’t mind ketchup. Fortunately, nothing on the menu requires it. And even though the large plates (a.k.a. entrees) read a bit on the meaty and fishy side, there are enough tasty greens to please leaf-eaters. The wild and cultivated mushrooms flan, tortellini, and herbs looked like the forest floor on a plate, but much more delicious. Rarely do fungi alone take the meal’s spotlight, but the variety in their preparation and presentation made it a complete package. Medium plates like roasted squash soup, winter vegetables or the baby beet salad with granny smith apples are all hearty options and sides like roasted cauliflower with caper and meyer lemon round it out.
The meal is an experience, and the focus is on the food — just as new diners and loyal followers would expect from Montagna’s old home.