Rocky Mountain High
Calamari fritti $8.95
Grilled romaine salad $7.95
Mustard-rubbed rib-eye $27.95
Chicken-fried lobster (demi plate) $16.95
Chocolate chess pie $6.75
Bread pudding $6.75
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Still kickin’ after all these years, Café Aspen — like fine wine — has aged well.
By NANCY SCHAADT
6103 Camp Bowie Blvd, FW. 817-738-0838. Lunch: Mon-Fri 11am-2pm. Dinner: Mon-Thu 6-9pm, Fri & Sat 6-10pm. Closed Sunday. AE, DC, MC, V.
Café Aspen has a few fancy, continental dishes on the menu, but the restaurant doesn’t seem stuffy. It has modern art (courtesy of William Campbell) but doesn’t seem funky. The walls are a robust orange (called Aspen Orange, a color created for the restaurant some years ago), but they don’t seem garish.
The food is similarly creative and hip, without being annoyingly trendy. Think of familiar ingredients served in new ways.
A few dishes left me gaping with glee. The grilled romaine salad was a revelation — this from a woman who grills everything, from potatoes to cabbage. A head of romaine was halved and closely trimmed to reveal the triangular heart, plus five inches of leaf. This part of the lettuce, usually tossed in the trash, was grilled and topped with sun-dried tomato relish and a dollop of no-egg Caesar salad dressing. Grilled lettuce? I loved it. The flavors were bold, and the heart was soft and tender but not mushy. It was firmer than cooked zucchini, but not as firm as cooked carrots. And although I always thought that Caesar salad (invented in the 1920s in Tijuana, Mexico) must have raw egg, Café Aspen’s no-egg rendition was pretty darned good. It had a tart garlic kick and lemony finish — one of the best I’ve tasted.
The calamari fritti — served as sticks, not rings — was also outstanding. The cocktail sauce had a heavy-duty, sinus-clearing jolt of horseradish that, in small amounts, really glorified the tender strips of squid.
When the entrées arrived — a demi (half-sized) entrée of chicken-fried lobster for me and a 16-oz. rib-eye for my companion — my guest and I were absolutely ready to be dazzled. And dazzled we were.
First a word (OK, a lot of words) about service. It will surprise no one that I eat out a lot. Usually the service ranges from irritating and fast to irritating and lazy. I’ve had service so hurried I’ve been forced to ask kitchens to re-make an entrée that appeared at the table when I was eating the starter, because the entrée would have been ruined by the time I was able to eat it. As a former waitperson, I know that doling out fine food is a difficult job. The cooks will fire (or make) a dish when they are presented with the order, so the server has to pace the meal or else appetizers and entrées will arrive at the same time.
The server also has to guess when diners are ready for their next courses. In the case of my visit to Café Aspen, seated at a table in a section headed by a waiter named Sean, my companion and I wanted drinks and appetizers rather quickly (we were hungry), followed by wine and entrées presented at leisure. Sean was spot-on perfect. He brought starters shortly after drinks and inquired only once as to our readiness for entrées. It was as if he could sense what we needed.
Back to the meal. A 16-oz., boneless rib-eye steak is not an entrée for the delicate. This slab of beef was perfectly rare (bloody, cold, and red in the middle, seared on the outside), with the essences of mustard and sweet soy. The high caliber of the meat, topped with crisp, skinny onion rings, reminded us of the cowboy rib-eye served at the late, great Stephen Pyles restaurant, Star Canyon. Café Aspen pan-sears the steaks so the fat in the interior of the meat does not melt quite as completely as it would on the grill, with flame licking the outer edges of meat and fat.
Café Aspen serves steak with a generous mound of Mediterranean risotto and perfectly grilled asparagus. The rice dish was not as great as the meat, but then — with a pound of beef on your plate — who needs corn-studded rice?
The chicken-fried lobster, roughly four or five ounces of tail meat, was bathed in a hearty tempura batter, fried, and served over lovely green, wasabi-spiked mashed potatoes. The dish was finished with a gentle wash of garlic cream sauce. This isn’t a dish I’d order in Maine — or even New York — because it’s almost an affront to our crustacean friends to batter and fry them. But I don’t live in Maine or New York, and, like any good transplant, I know the value of a perfect batter — and this was it. The marriage of eastern wasabi (a kind of Japanese hot horseradish, commonly used with sushi), southern batter, and cream sauce (gravy), was nearly unbeatable. I liked the way the flavors, though strong and distinct, worked together.
We ended the meal with two noteworthy desserts, bread pudding and chocolate chess pie, the latter with a crust studded with nuts and raisins. Although the pudding was declared simply OK by my companion, I found it soft, satisfying, and completely lacking in the overbearing density of most bread pudding that makes one feel as though one has consumed a brick, not a dessert. The sauce, we agreed, could have used a little more bourbon. The chocolate chess pie had a syrupy, loose center (typical of a chess pie), supported by an excellent crust. It was not death by chocolate, but it could have been — it was rich enough to cause a coronary.
Around for more than a decade, Café Aspen is like an old and artsy friend — full of character, comfort, and pleasant surprises.
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