Postcard From Tom: Aspen

Sunday, August 1, 2004

Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema's monthly report from the road.

Aspen, Colorado's popular playground, is perhaps best known for its skiing in winter and rafting, fishing and rock climbing in summer. Judging from the number of restaurants there, I'd add another sport to the mix: table-hopping. Here's what's good right now:

MATSUHISA (303 E. Main St., 970-544-6628)

Arrivals are anything but subtle, as visitors to the underground sushi bar are greeted by the cooks behind it with a loud chorus of "Welcome!" in Japanese. A branch of the wildly popular Nobu restaurant in New York, Matsuhisa does its parent proud with pristine yellowtail sashimi ignited with jalapenos, deep-fried crab claw with onion sauce and seabass made fragrant with truffles. Knock a meal back with a bracing sake (the list runs deep), served in tall bamboo cups. House specialties $7-$33.

39 DEGREES (709 E. Durant St., 970-925-6760)

In cold weather, patrons refuel in a hip lounge that includes a blazing hearth. Summer finds most guests outside, arranged around the pool of the aptly named Sky Hotel, with Aspen Mountain as a backdrop. No matter where you try it, the food spells f-u-n. Sushi nachos, for instance, team crisp seaweed chips with glistening tuna tartare. Just as tasty are fried calamari with lemongrass sauce and the meaty half-pound hamburger. Small plates $7-$14.

THE WILD FIG (315 E. Hyman Ave., 970-925-5160)

Inviting with red banquettes and a low yellow ceiling, the small dining room of Aspen's newest eatery spills onto a lovely patio that faces the historic Wheeler Opera House. The young servers are quick to declare their favorites, which might include a big, juicy rib-eye steak topped with blue cheese crumbles and bedded on garlicky spinach. But much more -- seafood stew, chicken with couscous -- is Mediterranean in flavor. A cozy bar adds to Fig's charm. Dinner entrees $21.50-$29.75.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company