Aspen- Sweet Basil

High enough in Colorado to make your ears pop, some of Vail’s vistas are so cutsey sweet they could easily stand in for framed watercolours for sale at Walmart.

For us Vail is a pit stop for lunch and a leg stretch in a road trip that’s taking us from San Diego to Chicago. Today’s stage has us moving across Colorado, from Grand Junction to Denver. Walking around Vail’s buildings , with their peaked wooden roofs and ’Swiss Alps, but we speak English(!) vibe, you can’t help imagine how magical it might be in winter.

But today it’s 90 degrees. There’s plenty to entertain; from giant bronze statues of bears, to the shops selling $14 000 fur coats and drastically reduced kids tshirts with ’I like big dumps’ emblazoned across the front. Wildflowers are blooming on some drastically green hillsides. Adventure junkies are shepherding mountain bikes around. On the pedestrian only streets toddlers are tottering in and out of water fountains and most locals of drinking age are taking refuge somewhere with a long lunch.

We can do that too. One of the factors that drew us to Vail was a reservation at Sweet Basil. A slew of consumer rating guides pit it as a favourite restaurant in Colorado. And as much fun as it’s been checking out the micro brewing culture of the state with The Hungry One, hoeing into a menagerie of meat products and drinking tastings of up to 12 beer varietals a night; I’d clap my hands three times and twirl around twice for the simple pleasures of a glass of wine and a salad.

Sweet Basil (pron. Bay-Suil) seems like it can help. It’s been making Colorado natives and blow ins like us happy since 1977. There’s a pink wine by the glass that isn’t a sickly white Zinfandel, but something brittle dry from the south of France. There’s a list of beers quirky enough to distract The Hungry One, and salads seem to be popping up everywhere.

Sitting out with us on the sun drenched, lavender cosseted balcony are a collective of ladies who look like they lunch very well. Big diamonds, streaked manes, faces stretched tight like hospital cornered beds and jersey singlets straining over enhanced chests . Each are nursing a glass of chardonnay and a “Grilled Natural Chicken Breast Salad, with Apricots, Cherries, French Feta and Walnuts.” Despite some quirks with how it’s written on the menu, their salads look good. Maybe with so much physical alteration in the clientele it’s important to communicate that at least the chicken’s breasts are natural.

The menu has a variety of ‘healthful’ options and a couple which are downright gluttinous. Over the next two hours we tread an even path between the two, with a couple of wins and losses on each side.

Looking over the menu I know it’s going be pretty hard to ask The Hungry One to go past something like a ‘foie gras corn dog’. So I don’t. Served with a rhubarb compote, that’s more like a slightly tart but sticky jam, and a beer muddled grain mustard it’s a little Frankenstein esque, but it has its redeeming features.

I like it in the same way I find ugly dogs photographed for calendars in cute costumes kind of funny. The batter gives a light cornmeal coating for crunch. The inside is only just quivering warm and it’s still smooth. There are bamboo skewers for sticks, and while you could pick it up and gnaw on it, it’s a little nicer to cut into it and even push a little onto crispy bread, like pate. There are only two of the corn dogs, but an embarrassment of the condiments.

It’s also nigh impossible in the midst of a road trip to ask The Hungry One to go past truffle fries. So I don’t.

Served in a cone with a waistcoat of leachy fat they’ve got a faint truffle pungency and a dandruff of Parmesan that gives additional funkiness.

I called it at the beginning, but I do like it when I’m right. For a restaurant that prides itself on its commitment to “organic ingredients and sustainable food sources” the salads are the highlight.

A tomato salad comes with a posy of heirloom varieties from Borden Farm and some rough chunks of buffalo mozzarella. For crunch there’s discs of radish and an ’olive oil “soil”, which is really much more like toasted and slightly mushy breadcrumbs. But the tomatoes are giddy with summer flavour and a light lick of a quality balsamic makes you want to hop skip and jump.

The same can’t be said for The Hungry One’s ’crispy rock shrimp and calamari’. I raised an eyebrow when he ordered it, but quickly went back in my box when he said “I really feel like calamari”. I’m not going to get in the way of a good craving. What he got to pick at was an Asian inspired collection of bits and pieces; baby shrimp and rings of calamari in a collar of batter, shards of carrot and spring onion, bean sprouts, deep fried jalapenos with a timid and sweet dipping sauce.

Compared to the lithe and lovely tomato salad it was the slightly pudgier, plainer friend that got invited to the group date to fill up space.

When it comes to dessert Sweet Basil’s try hard. The Valhrona chocolate fudge with local cherry sorbet, cherries and pistachio coulis is a fun party of flavours, with a kick of cardamom helping it all along.

Though to The Hungry One, the fudge was more like a squished brownie, and he kind of wished there was more of it.

For me, a ‘not so classic lemon bar’ has a dangerous resemblance to the Australian snot block (aka a vanilla slice). The advertised lemon curd is astonishingly sturdy and despite its lurid hue was a little timid on the citrus . But the other elements; buttermilk ice cream and warm blueberries are so country-air honest that it made me want to pick at them all day while fixing my hair in braids.

Our Gap model of a server tells us that for the winter season people start making their bookings for dinner, lunch and weekend brunch at Sweet Basil in November.

Even if some of the road was slightly bumpy, it’s easy to see why. The staff are achingly genuine. The wine list is varied and long (at around 500 bottles). A meal there is also not going to break the bank, with entrées (main meals to those of us in Australia) between $15 and $17.

Within that section of the menu there are more conventional listings that we missed out on; build your own burger, mac and cheese for kids and a pork loin BLT with tarragon mayonnaise. Maybe at Sweet Basil the straighter path is the safer one to tread.

In summer it was divine to sit on the balcony and pick at the simplicity of a salad. And I bet in winter there’s nothing better than coming down off the mountain, with snow still on your boots for something from the classic section of the menu.

But I think we might need to come back to Vail sometime in winter- just to be sure.

Sweet Basil
193 E. Gore Creek Drive
Tel: (970) 476-0125

Leave a comment