To Nell and Back

We were halfway through our entrees when we realized what we'd been doing since the start of the meal. Here we were at Little Nell, the Aspen restaurant voted by Gourmet readers as one of the 25 Top Tables in the United States this fall, and all we could do was talk about the great dishes we'd had at other restaurants over the past decade or so. The carbonara at a trattoria in Rome, the green beans with garlic at a tiny spot near the train station in Nice. Just about everything we'd eaten at a Caribbean place called the Real McCaw in Naples, Florida. The salmon smothered in bearnaise at an unknown bistro in Montmartre and the shark fin consomme at the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton. The gnocchi at Ristorante Firenze by Night in San Francisco, the roasted chicken at Guido's in Chicago. And, closer to home, the ravioli at the Savoy in Berthoud and the tiramisu at Denver's Greens, now called Hugh's.

All of these dishes had one thing in common: love at first bite. Just a taste of each had been enough to make our eyes roll back in our heads; the dishes were so wonderful we could still remember every detail.

Nothing we'd been eating at Little Nell was having the same kind of effect on us.

That didn't mean the food at this elegant eatery at the base of Aspen Mountain wasn't good. In fact, it's very good, and we had only a few small complaints regarding our fare. But it didn't seem special. Little Nell is the vanilla ice cream of fine dining. It may be Haagen-Dazs, but it's still vanilla ice cream. The food is good the way James Fenimore Cooper was good at writing novels, the way Eric Clapton is good at playing guitar (at least lately), the way the guy on PBS is good at painting landscapes: technically perfect but lacking passion. Playing it safe. No character. No excitement. Nothing we haven't seen elsewhere.

To make matters worse, the press this place gets has taken business away from other joints in Aspen, some of which are just as deserving, if not more so. The greatest thing about Little Nell is its reputation--which far exceeds our experience there.

Given that reputation, though, we'd breathlessly anticipated this meal. And then we had wondered if we'd get there at all: Whiteout conditions at the Eisenhower Tunnel made travel slow-going, which meant we'd be pushing it to arrive by our reservation time. So before we left Denver, we called Little Nell. A very nice guy who answered the phone told me it would be no problem to change our time from 6 p.m. to 6:30, and he added that we should drive carefully. Okay. Fighting through the blizzard, the trip took five hours rather than four, and we arrived at the condo at 6:15. I immediately called Little Nell to see whether we could be fifteen minutes late. "You're already a half-hour late," a snide woman chided. "We can get you in, but you'll have to leave by eight." I knew we'd never be able to eat five courses that fast, so I told the woman we'd just survived a snowstorm and were dying to eat a huge meal at Little Nell. "I'm sorry," she replied, "but if you're not here in ten minutes, we'll have to give your table away." After some shuffling in the background, she put me on hold and then returned to report: "There's been a cancellation. Just get here as soon as you can." Click.

Thirty minutes later, it was obvious the woman seating us was the woman I'd spoken with, because when I said we were sorry for being late and thanked her for getting us in, she responded with an "mmmm" and a grim smile. I guess I was supposed to slip her a fifty or something, but it seems to me that Little Nell can afford to be nice. She took us to a table that put the lie to her "cancellation" story the first time someone flung open the door right behind my chair and let in some toasty 8-degree weather. At that, I nabbed a waiter. "Is this table usually here?" I asked. "Uh, no," he said, obviously surprised. "That's where the flower table goes." He then smiled a very warm smile and added, "Sometimes we move it so we can take care of everyone."

With the exception of the rude hostess and a sullen wine steward (more on him later), the rest of the waitstaff displayed the same congeniality, which proved to be the most significant aspect of our meal. From the gentleman who brought us glasses of champagne--"That'll take the edges off," he said--to the fellow who presented the hefty check, Little Nell's employees were fascinating to watch. Like the workings of a clock, they were cogs and wheels that fit together smoothly, setting things into motion rapidly and precisely, with none of the hustle and bustle that often distracts diners. (Except, that is, for the otherwise pleasant fellow who found it necessary to preface the delivery of every plate with, "And here we have a lovely...")

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