Chef Daisuke Nakazawa brings omakase sushi to Aspen

Daisuke Nakazawa was going about his day in the middle of August when an Instagram message popped up on his phone: Would you like to come to Aspen and open a restaurant this winter?

The award-winning Tokyo-born sushi chef and restaurant owner didn’t hesitate. After some back-and-forth to iron out the details, Nakazawa packed up and headed West for the winter.

Nakazawa, who has earned one Michelin star each for his restaurants in Manhattan and Washington, D.C. (one of the highest honors a restaurant can receive), is spending the next few months in the Roaring Fork Valley with a new sushi spot in downtown Aspen, Nakazawa Aspen.

So far, it’s just a winter pop-up, but if everything goes well, the restaurant could become a permanent fixture in the Aspen food scene.

“It’s so pretty and also I like the location of the restaurant, too,” Nakazawa said of his first impressions of Aspen.

The East Coast’s loss is Colorado’s gain — and Nakazawa isn’t the only one fleeing big cities for some fresh mountain air. Aspen and other mountain towns saw huge influxes of people as the coronavirus pandemic wore on this summer and fall. And even with increased “Level Orange-plus-plus” COVID-19 restrictions in Pitkin County, Nakazawa and other restaurant operators are betting on a strong winter season. (For now, Pitkin County restaurants are still operating at 25 percent indoor capacity, with last call at 9:30 p.m. and closing time at 10.)

The historic New York City bar Dante is also opening an Aspen location this winter, and New York-based master sommelier — the highest certification in the world of wine — Josh Nadel is spending the winter at The Wine Bar, a new space inside The Little Nell hotel.

“I noticed during COVID-19, especially during the summer, so many people had left the city and were moving to smaller towns or to their second homes or renting second homes out of the city,” said Linden Pride, Dante’s co-owner. “There’s still a lot of demand for great food and great drinks and people don’t want to cook at home seven nights a week. We thought, ‘If there’s only one other place we want to be able to do business in America, it’s the Rockies.’ ”

Nakazawa Aspen

The message that lured Nakazawa to Aspen came from Ryan Chadwick, a restaurateur and entrepreneur who splits his time between the East Coast and Colorado.

Chadwick had been running Grey Lady, a New England-style seafood restaurant with locations in New York City, Nantucket and Montauk, in downtown Aspen for the last five years. But he was ready for something new — and he thought Aspen was ready for a change, too.

“I just felt Aspen needed a reboot and I thought what was missing was omakase, which is what (Nakazawa) does,” Chadwick said.

Chadwick took a chance and sent a cold pitch to Nakazawa on Instagram. Nakazawa replied within 10 minutes.

“I don’t mind Instagram; it’s easy,” Nakazawa said.

Social media-savvy Nakazawa spent 11 years apprenticing at Tokyo’s three Michelin-starred restaurant Jiro, where he learned from top sushi chef Jiro Ono (the subject of the 2011 Netflix documentary “Jiro Dreams of Sushi”). Nakazawa opened his own restaurant, Sushi Nakazawa, in Manhattan’s West Village with partner Alessandro Borgognone in 2013; they opened their second location in D.C. in 2017.

Chadwick and Nakazawa worked out a deal for the chef and several of his key staff members to move to Aspen and take over the Grey Lady space for the winter season.

The Aspen restaurant, which opened Dec. 2, features omakase (a chef’s tasting menu), as well as a la carte nigiri, sashimi and other hot and cold appetizers and entrees. There’s also an extensive selection of sake — some of them very rare — and Japanese whiskeys.

Dante

Dante, which first opened in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village in 1915, is taking over The Snow Lodge at the base of Aspen Mountain for the winter.

Linden Pride, who took over the long-standing cafe with his wife Nathalie Hudson in 2015, has had his eye on Aspen for a while. Earlier this year, he asked a few Aspen real estate broker friends to scope out potential restaurant locations — but they all came up empty-handed.

Then, out of the blue, he heard from the team at The Snow Lodge, the winter sister property to Montauk’s Surf Lodge that opened last year at the base of Aspen Mountain.

The Snow Lodge had planned to reopen this winter as the Aspen outpost of abcV, a vegetarian and vegan restaurant led by renowned chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, but ultimately decided to reverse course because of the pandemic.

Pride quickly jumped at the opportunity. He said he wasn’t deterred by Aspen’s indoor dining restrictions, since his award-winning team successfully pivoted to delivery, takeout and outdoor dining throughout the spring and summer. (Dante was named the 2019 World’s Best Bar at Tales of the Cocktail, one of the most prestigious honors in the industry.)

And after nine long, stressful months trying to navigate the pandemic in Manhattan, Pride said he couldn’t be happier to be in Aspen.

“We’ve never worked harder,” he said. “It’s been crazy. To get off the plane (in Vail) and drive into Aspen, even though it’s a lot of work to open a restaurant, the fresh air was almost hypnotizing.”

The new Aspen location, which opened Dec. 15, features European-inspired breakfast and lunch foods served outdoors with blankets and fire pits; the prix-fixe dinner menu is offered indoors exclusively for private dining groups. Food and bottled cocktails are also available for take-out and delivery.

Pride said he hopes to create a friendly, neighborhood-style environment where Aspenites and visitors feel at home any time of day.

“The kind of place you might want to come and eat or drink two or three times a week and feel immediately very comfortable,” he said.

The Wine Bar at The Little Nell

The popular Chair 9 apres-ski bar reopened this winter as The Wine Bar at The Little Nell — with help from New York-based master sommelier Josh Nadel.

Like many working in food and beverage, Nadel was laid off in April because of the coronavirus pandemic. He spent the summer taking it easy at his eastern Long Island home but, by the time fall rolled around, he was eager for a change of scenery and to get back to work.

Nadel was already familiar with The Little Nell, since it’s where he took the master sommelier exam five times before passing in 2017 (there are fewer than 300 master sommeliers in the world). He reached out to The Little Nell’s wine director Chris Dunaway, who invited him to spend the winter in Aspen.

Pre-COVID-19, Chair 9 was one of Aspen’s liveliest apres-ski bars, complete with dancing and champagne-spraying. But as the pandemic continued, The Little Nell’s food and beverage team knew it had to make big changes to the space. Rather than simply closing Chair 9 this ski season, they opted to create a new, more laid-back space drawing on the hotel’s robust wine program.

The Wine Bar features an extensive wine list (you can order dozens of wines by the glass or choose a bottle from the nearly 3,000 options in The Little Nell’s wine cellar), a private patio tent and a COVID-safe, plexiglass-enclosed DJ booth where DJ Dylan Regan spins his collection of 4,000 vinyl records live each afternoon and evening. It’s got a cozy, art deco vibe and was designed with social distancing in mind.

“Research suggests that music can influence the way we perceive taste and, just recently, I was fortunate enough to experience this first-hand when a generous guest poured me a taste of an incredibly rare bottle of champagne that he’d purchased from our cellar,” Dunaway said. “I can confirm that Clos du Mesnil and Stevie Ray Vaughan are a perfect pairing and I’m now obsessed with finding others like it.”

Along those same lines, Nadel said he hopes to make wine approachable and fun for everyone who stops by The Wine Bar, no matter their budget, their knowledge of wine or their tastes.

“Wine is just a tool to enjoy life and it’s not overly precious,” he said. “It should be demystified and it should be for everybody to enjoy in the way they want to enjoy it.”

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