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Dining for grownups

Ordering from a menu can be a real art. Not the way you do it, but what you order. There are people who can compose the perfect meal from a restaurant menu, each dish progressing perfectly into the next, each dish the pinnacle of what the kitchen can produce, so that their meal proceeds sublimely from peak to peak.

My father is one of those artists. He can open an unfamiliar menu, scan it, and come up with a coherent meal for himself in a matter of minutes, beautifully complementary from start to finish, and chances are, what he orders is what everyone else at the table will be envying for the rest of the evening.

You want the meal to make sense--to not load yourself down with three cream sauces and flan for dessert because those dishes sound the most intriguing or because the waiter recommends them. On the other hand, you want to let the kitchen show its stuff---your favorite food (a steak sandwich, for example) may not always be the best example of what a kitchen can accomplish.

Dad is a menu connoisseur--a lifetime of reading menus has honed his naturally correct instincts about what to eat into a dependable skill.

So he opened his menu at Roaring Fork, noticed immediately that it listed "creamed turnip greens," which he'd never seen before on any menu, and decided what he was going to eat before I'd finished reading the appetizer list. And it turned out, as it often does, that his food was the best we tried.

Roaring Fork is the name of the river that runs through "downtown" Aspen--a bad sign, I thought, for a restaurant that is north but not that north. It's too pretentious an allusion, it implies a little too much elitist attitude. My own attitude softened, though, when we walked in and saw the fork theme was taken so literally: the entry is completely lined with forks, covering the walls in tine-to-tine rows. At the hub of the restaurant, where the bar, two dining rooms, and the semi-open kitchen converge, there's a Claes Oldenburg-sized fork stuck through a leaf the size of a dining-room table. It will probably remind you of the giant artichokes or the asparagus fence at Natura, another restaurant owned by Roaring Fork owners Phil and Janet Cobb.

The Cobbs vaguely describe Roaring Fork as "an American grill" serving innovative American food, specializing (redundantly) in fresh fish specialties and regional American favorites. That's PR-speak, but Roaring Fork is a pleasant change from the too-noisy, too-big, casual-chic cafe style most new restaurants adopt.

Roaring Fork is an old-fashioned restaurant with new-fangled food--a restaurant for grown-ups. You'll see more navy blazers than band collars here, and lots of high heels.

The space is not that different from when it was Atlantic Cafe Too!, with dark-wood dividers, and elegant booths providing more privacy than most restaurants assume diners want these days. Its arrangement doesn't encourage table-hopping and the bar is completely separate. It's untrendy, but unstuffy, a style of restaurant enjoyed by the generation ahead. (I took my parents--who taught me everything I know about food--to dinner there.)

Past the giant fork is the raw bar, a big, fishmonger-style bed of crushed ice displaying lobsters, mussels, shrimp, stone crabs and oysters (Malpeques and Blue Points the night we were there), flown in fresh every day.

There are several dining rooms; one was occupied by a party of 80 that particular Friday night, absorbing a considerable amount of the kitchen and staff's attention. Along the wall of one dining room there are little, private dining rooms--small, mirrored alcoves where you can draw the curtains and eat in privacy. Watching the groups who have reserved these rooms adds a little vicarious drama to your dining--one couple entered happily and ordered champagne. Too soon, she left, then he left, bubbles still rising in the flutes on the table.

The Cobbs' executive chef is Mark Morrow, who oversees the food at Mi Piaci next door and Natura downtown, as well; Chef de Cuisine Lance Young is the man directly in charge of the Fork's food. Perhaps he instructs the waiters to push the "duck cigars" as an appetizer--we accepted our waiter's suggestion and then recognized them arriving at nearly every table. Crisp won ton-wrapper sticks stuffed with shredded, stewed duck and invisible-tasting jalapeno are served sticking out of a martini glass filled with plum sauce and diced-melon salsa. The condiments were difficult to scoop up with the tube and the rich duck tidbits needed their cool, fruity contrast--you actually managed this finger food best with a fork.

Dad started his meal with the house-smoked trout--two snowy fillets, moist and thoroughly permeated with the aroma of wood smoke, garnished with mild aioli, oven-dried Roma tomatoes and slices of crisp toast, studded with pine nuts. You put a dab of the garlicky mayonnaise on a piece of toast, topped it with a forkful of trout and a tomato round...dinner could have ended right there as far as I was concerned, but, of course, it wasn't officially my dinner, was it?  

The trout was followed by the double-thick pork chop, shockingly juicy and tender. Pork is appearing on more and more menus, but there aren't very many kitchens that handle it well, few as well as this. (Before this chop, the best I'd tasted was at Rock Bottom Brewery in Addison.) It came with grits with globs of Maytag bleu cheese melting into their softness, and wedges of tart Granny Smith apples, coated with a light, eggy batter and fried until meltingly crisp. On the side, Dad had to try those creamed turnip greens, a fine-textured and almost mousselike mixture of greens and rich cream. It was altogether a wonderful plate of food.

My press release says this is the concept for which Dallas has been longing. I don't know about that. But I do know this is the pork chop for which it has been longing.

We skipped the raw-bar menu, offered separately. The lobster tail, shrimp, steamed mussels and clams, Alaskan crab claws, and oysters are priced by the piece. You choose pickled-okra tartar sauce, vinaigrette, or cocktail sauce.

None of the other appetizers measured up to that smoked trout, though several were good. The Nantucket bay scallops on potato-leek pancake with a mustard sauce were some of the biggest bay scallops I've ever seen, not those lovely tiny ones, and the pancake was beginning to lapse into sogginess.

"Chop salad," a variation on a Cobb salad, was a plateful of everything chopped to the same size: romaine, roasted corn niblets, asparagus, tomatoes, capers, olives, and pecorino cheese. Unfortunately, the pickled okra overwhelmed every other flavor. The whole thing tasted pickled. It makes my face pucker just to remember it.

The pear and Maytag-bleu salad was purely wonderful. Thin wedges of crisp pears are scattered with buttery crumbles of mellow Maytag cheese. (By the way, this is a cheese invented by the Maytags--yes, the washing-machine family--who evidently have as much time to kill as their repairmen.) It's served over deep-green romaine leaves with an unusual garnish of lightly glazed walnuts and a barely tart vinaigrette with just a whiff of tarragon. I'm sure this wasn't the kitchen's intention, but it seemed most practical to pile a lettuce leaf with a pear slice, some cheese, a walnut, and roll this salad like a taco, ensuring a delicious simultaneous taste of each flavor.

The simplest entree preparations were the best, as is usually the case at a grill. I imagine the beef is wonderful but with that Colorado reference in the name, the pan-seared trout was irresistible and it was wisely left alone, the beautifully delicate fish just garnished with strips of pepper-spiked corn bread.

Pheasant wasn't. Left alone, that is. The breast's strong-flavored stuffing of minced, seasoned shiitake mushrooms, pistachios and herbs overwhelmed the white meat, which was cooked until thoroughly dry. As if there wasn't enough going on already, it was served on a bed of braised red cabbage on top of a layer of roasted corn (more dryness) with two rock-hard cow patties of wild rice. A perfect example of too many ideas for one plate--skip the stuffing, simply roast the pheasant (which isn't offered on many menus), keep the cabbage, ditch the rice (or mix it with the corn), and you might have a dish.

Except for an inexplicable wait for dessert, none of which were prepared a la minute, our service was smooth. Wine servers were knowledgeable and there were plenty of selections by the glass, but this is food best preceded by a martini or a glass of good scotch.

Desserts after such a meal are superfluous, but we tried them anyway and were shocked--and daunted--by the size of the portions. Blueberry compote was a jamlike mixture of deep purple in a sabayonlike sauce, and plain cheesecake was creamy and not too sweet.

The wedge of apple pie, three or four inches tall, looked perfectly horrible. It appeared to have a grayish pastry and a mushy filling in which apple slices were just barely discernible. But when you cut into it with a fork, it turned out that this mass was actually wafer-thin apple slices packed tightly together with a hint of spice, crisp and bright flavored, topped with a light brown crust. It was an appropriately terrific apple pie at this American grill and Dad's one menu error of the evening. That's right. Mom ordered the apple pie.  

The Roaring Fork, 14866 Montfort, 387-FORK. Open for lunch Monday-Friday from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Open for dinner Monday-Thursday 5 p.m.-10:30 p.m., Friday-Saturday 5 p.m.-11 p.m., Sunday 5 p.m.-10 p.m.

The Roaring Fork:
Malpeque Oysters
$.80 each
Smoked Trout
$8.50
Duck Cigars
$9.95
Nantucket Scallops
$12.50
Chop Salad
$7.95
Stuffed Pheasant
$22.95
Creamed Turnip Greens
$3.50
Pork Chop
$16.95
Trout
$14.95


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