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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...")

With all this service appearing so seamlessly around us, our horrible drive was disappearing from memory, and we were starting to feel pretty agreeable. Enter the wine dude.

Now, we don't pretend to be wine experts. We like good wine, and most of the time we're able to figure out what that is. We try to learn everything we can about wine--we go to wine seminars, we buy wines based on much research, and we drink as much wine as we can and still hold down jobs and raise children. We have not drunk Almaden since college. So when the wine steward came to our table just after we'd ordered our entrees, we had some serious questions about what type of wine would bridge the gap between my venison and my husband's chicken. We thought maybe a light red, so my husband mentioned pinot noir and opened the wine list to Little Nell's selection. The wine steward glanced at the page, pointed to a wine and said, "Oh, that one's a stunner," and then looked at us expectantly. Okay, we said, if you say so, although we were a little surprised at his brusqueness. He slapped the book shut and moved on to the next table, where he undertook an extensive discussion about several wines, something he did with every other table I saw him visit that night. Was it because we were at the flower table? Was it because we're thirtysomething and look like Grateful Dead fans? Who knows? Either way, the wine he'd suggested was so not a stunner--it was very cabernet sauvignonish, which is exactly what we'd been trying to tell him we didn't want--that we wondered whether some ski bum had killed the real wine steward and then taken his place.

We skipped the wine and turned our full attention to the food, off to a promising start with George's smoked salmon ($14.50). The house-cured fish is named for George Mahaffey, the highly regarded head chef responsible since 1992 for Little Nell's constant hype. Mahaffey is known for his "American Alpine Cooking," a style the nationally lauded chef describes as being "about interesting flavors, combining color, texture and taste." And certainly this starter was all that and more, with a generous helping of smoked salmon rippled over a crunchy potato crisp and ringed by an arresting sauce of flying fish roe and red pepper. The demitasse of lobster consomme ($8.50), however, was disappointing. A tiny teacup of the precious liquid was accompanied by a silver spoon containing a blurp of what tasted like creme fraiche topped with beluga caviar; the only thing in the dull consomme that tasted like lobster were two tiny pieces of shellfish meat.

Nor was the mixed-greens salad ($6.50) the celebration of stellar ingredients we'd hoped for--and expected from Mahaffey--but instead a plain old mix of mediocre greens topped by a lackluster red-wine vinegar and a bland olive oil. Much better was a salad of arugula, basil and radicchio wrapped in prosciutto ($12.50), the sort of inspired combination we'd imagined finding at Little Nell. The crisp, bitter arugula played against the salty cured ham; soft smoked goat cheese intermingled with the licorice of basil; and everything was enhanced by a subtle black-olive vinaigrette. There was so much going on in this surprising salad that it was almost overwhelming.

The entrees, on the other hand, were preparations we've encountered before: tuna with wasabi mashed potatoes, mustard-crusted trout with garlic mashed potatoes, rack of lamb with spaghetti-squash-stuffed zucchini and tomato-basil salad. We went with what sounded like the most interesting offerings, the pistachio-crusted chicken breast ($25.50) and the grilled filet of venison ($33.50). Although the pistachio thing has been done before, this version got points because the crust actually stayed on the chicken breast. The accompanying linguine was covered with a sauce of smoked gorgonzola and thyme with chanterelles and asparagus so salty and rich that eating it was a pleasure-pain kind of ordeal.

The venison was an impeccable cut, also cooked perfectly, with a fine sun-dried cherry sauce. The meat came with a very good side of caramelized apples, onions and sugar peas, as well as a mound of curried sweet-potato crisps that looked like a big spraying of Silly String. The unwieldy crisps were impossible to eat: You could pick them up with your fingers one by one, but I'd still be eating them now if I'd done that. Or you could jam them into a tangled pile on your fork, but every time I tried that, pieces crumbled off the sides of my mouth and fell onto the floor. Finally, I smashed them into the sun-dried cherry sauce until they became mushy and pliable, then squeezed them onto a fork. This worked, but it seemed contrary to the intent of making them crisps in the first place. In concocting this side, the kitchen apparently forgot to follow one of the cardinal rules: Try Eating the Food You Are About to Serve.

The roster of desserts (all cost $8) was even more ho-hum than the entrees. Creme brulee. Profiterole. Warm chocolate cake with vanilla-bean ice cream--a teeny piece of delicate cake even smaller than the scoop of homemade ice cream, which was topped with a tiny squirt of exquisite pistachio anglaise. In comparison, a slice of apple spice cake looked huge and tasted heavy, and wasn't helped by its pairing with brown sugar and sour-cream ice cream. The ice cream was superb on its own, but the brown sugar struck a strangely discordant note with the spices in the cake.

Definitely not the stuff memories are made of. As far as I'm concerned, the press on this place is much ado about Little.

Little Nell, 675 East Durant Avenue, Aspen, 970-920-4600. Hours: 7 a.m.-11 p.m. Monday-Sunday.