Restaurant: Pine Creek Cookhouse
Cuisine: American Alpine
Chef: Chris Keating
Location: the Castle Creek Valley
Note: cross-country ski, snowshoe, ride a horse-drawn sleigh
Experiencing the raw beauty of the Castle Creek Valley in Aspen is truly surreal. To get to the base – it takes about 25 minutes by car on a winding road with sprawling views of intersperse creeks and stunning mountains facing each other in the valley ahead.
There’s no cell service so you can actually take in the dreamlike scenery in all of its primordial glory, without modern distractions.
We were on our way to visit Pine Creek Cookhouse in the valley. The only way to get to the restaurant in the winter is to either ski or take a horse-drawn sleigh, both of which are very fitting for this active town. All locals and tourists alike hike, bike, ski and do all sorts of recreational activities with their friends and families. The chef at this storied restaurant, Chris Keating, is no different – he bikes around 3000 miles every year and most likely cross-country skied on this day to get to his kitchen on time for lunch.
My husband and I find it charming and sort of romantic- the idea that you would have to ski or take a horse-drawn sleigh to have lunch or dinner at a restaurant. This time around we took the easiest route which is the sleigh. Two massive black Bergeron horses harnessed into a wooden sleigh pulled us up the picturesque road to Pine Creek Cookhouse, a chalet styled restaurant in the valley surrounded by mountains. Starting on the road we enjoyed the warm spring air but as we went deeper and deeper into the mountains we felt the frost nipping at our cheeks. Picturesque views of the mountain range opened up in front of us, and after the final turn – you can’t help but wonder how beautiful life really is. It felt wonderful and almost calming – I wanted to savor the moment, take it all in, feel the cold and enjoy the anticipation of the upcoming lunch.
Juliet, the wife and business partner of the owner John Wilcox of Pine Creek Cookhouse, was cross-country skiing to the restaurant along with adventurous tourists and locals. Her Golden Retriever was barking cheerfully at our sleigh, sort of leading the way and showing us who the boss was here! Her husband John is a legend in his own right; he pioneered the entire outdoor documentary genre and traveled all over the globe shooting some of the most daring feats that earned him twenty-four Emmy Awards – all of which are proudly displayed in the dining room of the restaurant. They are a wonderful couple who we enjoyed meeting.
Aspen is a coveted destination not only for its awesome skiing and luxury shopping but also for its fine dining. When I say fine dining I don’t necessarily mean white-table-cloth kind-of-a-place (although there are plenty of those), but rather something rustic, interesting and local, even outside of town. To that point,Pine Creek Cookhouse is a unique location with a gorgeous setting that grabs everyone’s attention and provides a wonderful culinary experience. Hearty alpine food will nourish and pamper your palate regardless of whether you skied, hiked or took the sleigh to get there.
As I previously alluded, Aspen has no shortage of restaurants that cater to the culinary enthusiast but the one where I am taking you today is a place with a more rustic atmosphere for a different gusto experience. Pine Creek Cookhouse lies in the Ashcroft area in the Pine Castle Valley just outside of Aspen. Formerly a mining town in the mid-eighteen hundreds, this ghost-like town is now a cool place for big city folks like us. While reading the history of the place, we could almost imagine the kerosene lamps glowing on the tables of the saloon on the only main street where the miners would drink and squabble over their silver stakes.
Pine Creek Cookhouse has a cozy, relaxed ambiance and an interior made of light colored wood that projects warmth the moment you step in. Large windows offer breathtaking views of the fantastic mountain scenery and a small frozen lake directly outside.
Ceilings are embellished with antlers chandeliers and large wooden beams cross the expansive high ceiling. While waiting to be seated, we warmed up by the inviting fireplace next to the bar. Even though it seemed like spring on the day of the shoot, it still took me a good five minutes to warm my hands by the crackling fire.
Chef Chris Keating delights his guests with classic dishes of alpine origin but with his own signature twist.
He uses the highest quality of products, sourced either from local farms and streams or from other reputable sources (like the farm in Idaho for trout & quail from Texas).
Chef Chris designs his menu utilizing his knowledge of the regional cuisine while recognizing and taking into consideration his clients desires and tastes.
A vibrant salad of organic greens, delicious sweet Dijon mustard vinaigrette, soft goat cheese, candied pistachios and beautifully grilled quails is just unreal.
It can totally be a meal in itself. The fresh quails are delivered weekly and guaranteed to be the best quality- which becomes evident with every bite.
Wild trout from Idaho with capers and buttered shallots is another standout dish.
It’s like biting into the most flavorful, moist piece of fish I have ever had.
Elk shank with polenta is another one of chef’s signature dishes. Perfectly seared with a salt and pepper crust. It will surprise you the way it surprised us.
Tender and not too gamy which is uncharacteristic for the wild game, cooked to medium-rare perfection, it was one of the best meat courses I tried in the area.
For dessert, we tried chef’s favorite- warm apple crisp with a scoop of vanilla ice cream- my ideal finish to any gourmet lunch.
LOOK: The other day I was asked how do I select an outfit to go to the restaurant? The answer is simple – my mood but also taking into accounts the weather, location, and basic restaurant review. If traveling to such glamorous ski resort as Aspen, my previous observations of the surroundings, street fashion but of course with my own twist and interpretation.
If you are taking the sleigh to the Pine Creek Cookhouse, dress stylishly warm. I layered a warm Coach leather jacket with short fur collar and Yves Solomon fox vest over it. To introduce a bit of color I borrowed purple vintage Missoni neck scarf that my sixteen-months old daughter has been wearing. It really played into my Illesteva mirrored purple shades. And of course you need a nice denim shirt! Mine is by Stella McCarthy with elegant floral embroidery paired with classic jodhpurs from RL’s collection and furry Chloe wedges to keep my feet warm. Those boots are a must in Aspen or any mountain destination you will travel to!
Photographed by Michele Cardamone.