A few moons ago, I was solely dedicated to becoming the best musician I could be. And one of the best places for any young musician to venture is to the Aspen Music Festival and School. It's a little beyond what is even expected of a summer program; there are five orchestras, and international guest artists. It's a little surreal. Recently, I guess I was becoming a little nostalgic for the past, and wanted to see where Aspen was at today. You know, you go somewhere new, find new flavours, and then spend years craving those flavours again? I think I look at Aspen as the beginning of my adventures in food; the last summer here I was training for a marathon with a terrible cafeteria to serve all the best slop you can imagine. So, off to restaurants I went to fend off hunger. But more than that, the Festival has a "student dinner program", whereby students are invited to dinner in the homes of local residents. The dinner program sounds simple; unless you know Aspen. There are currently dozens of homes with a price-tag of over twenty-million dollars, and beyond. It can be a little absurd. Not many "local" cooks exactly, however, there are many chefs and caterers to meet the burgeoning need. So, lucky me, spent several fine evenings with chef prepared food, fine wine, and incredible conversation in some over-the-top homes which generally resemble fine hotels in size and in detail. It was over the top! This was definitely hard to get over, and thus began my continued delving into the world of good things to eat... certainly not many of which are ever in such luxurious surroundings, that is for sure. All fine and good, but the restaurant scene of Aspen is somewhat fascinating as well. As can be inferred, money is no object here, and most of the folks don't really live here. Just a handful of the glitteratti you see. The rest essentially have vacation homes or cabins here, which I say lightly, as the dwellings are palatial. Many restaurants, can "make it" here for awhile, but with the exceedingly high cost of goods and labour in Aspen, there has to be some real substance to keep things going long-term. So it is interesting, that after six years, I return to check things out. Which restaurants are still here, and which places are not? A few of my favourites are gone like Blue Maize. I see a bit of a trend with locally owned places, that are just shutting their doors when the owner decides to get out of the business. Jeff and I have had several stints of ice cream from Paradise Bakery, including some of their fabulous baked goods. Pretty darn good stuff. I learned that I am still enthralled with the creamy richness of the "peanut butter cookie" ice cream. It's a chain, but still, it's still fairly close to what I call "real food". There's still real chunks of fruit and nuts. To me, this rationalizes most any ice cream or cookie consumption. On Tuesday, we had some so-so food from Gusto. I had a grilled calamari and arugula salad, which I liked enough. The amatriciana bucatini was flavourful, but nothing to write home about. There were too many ingredients over-complicating things. Jeff's gnocchi were made in house, and better than we expected. Nice and light, with a sauce needing some improvement. Mostly, we weren't fond of the food, and the service made it worse. They were trying too hard, but nearly hovering over the table. Lambrusco was going to be served in a champagne glass, which seems fitting, but that would never happen in Italy. Luckily Jeff inquired in advance. The manager decided to open a window behind Jeff, after other customers requested it, but then it was sticking into his shoulder. It was eventually moved, but a little frustrating nontheless. Our server was often arriving at inopportune times, which could have been overlooked, if everything else was on par. Ah well. Onto the next day! On Thursday, our salvation was found at Montagna, situated in the Little Nell. The Little Nell is a Relais-Chataux and has exceptional service to go along with all that requires. I can literally hear voices through this computer, charging with disdain, that how could I possibly eat at a hotel restaurant?? Perhaps in Europe you say, but never in North America. It can't be good, it is just plain wrong, and an insult to gastronomes everywhere! I implore you to not run away screaming, as I always do from hotel restaurants. The food at Montagna is good, very, very good. Yes, the surroundings are beautiful, and the service attentive and detail-oriented, but the food is honest, well-executed, and flavourful. It was the third time I have eaten at Montagna, and I have yet to be disappointed. Jeff and I decided to enjoy the "Farmhouse Tasting Menu", and it was brilliant. When a tasting menu is "inspired by local farmers", there really isn't much that can be bad about it. Good ingredients well prepared, well, should be good! There is love behind this food, and I can't help but fall in love with the taste. We started with house-cured bresaola with radish, greens and pitted cherries. A refreshing combination of a little salty and a little sweet. Then, again I do have a soft-spot for cured meats and fruit. Next, was pappardelle with lamb from Rendezvous farms of the Roaring Fork Valley, and this was highlighted with mint. The lamb would kind of sit on your tongue, and then decide that it really did just want to melt away into deliciousness. This dish was the highlight of the evening; I wish I could have again and again. The sweet finish of the evening was cornmeal crepes with fresh peaches. A beautifully romantic meal, in equally elegant surroundings. Yesterday, we were not so lucky. I was looking forward the tasty appeal of the menu at Pacifica, but unfortunately it was a bit of a let down. After a bit of confusion with our reservation, we were seated and enjoying the comforting ambiance on a warm summer evening. The scallop and foie gras appetizer was quite lovely; the sweetness of the tender scallops were well complemented by a little crunch on the foie. Getting better. Then, the truffle fries were so-so. They were crisp, but they just needed a little bit more truffle. Oh well. The blue marlin I ordered came with sugar snap peas, and was absolutely beautiful on the plate. The marlin was cooked correctly, with a little bit raw as it should be, but I was not fond of the dish. There wasn't much flavour, but I was dreadfully hungry and just trying to get through the dish. Jeff ordered a whole striped bass, and again it was plated like a piece of art. Although, Jeff's summary: "It was bad". My summary: the fish was alright, but the noodles and vegetables were simply covered in a spicy sauce purchased at the grocery store. Too bad. Up next? Six 89 in Carbondale. Wish us luck!