My background knowledge of Ellina was nil when I chose to review it. I'd heard it mentioned by well-off locals and big budget prom couples, but that was the extent of it. I piled into the car with vague thoughts of old people eating dinner under glass chandeliers, sullenly complaining that their steaks were undercooked. I believed it was going to be an average monochromatic overpriced Aspen dinner, and boy was I wrong.
We were greeted at the front by an attractive Italian wait staff. They ushered us in with gusto, energized by the second day of the season, and showed us to our table. My pre-conceived notions vanished. The place was so hip! The walls were stony and earthen and the light fixtures gave off a clear nightclub glow. Accompanying the modern decor was ethereal music, which completed the classy sci-fi ambience. It was a complete shock to me, and I spent several moments looking around imagining I was in some contemporary joint in New York surrounded by black suits and stilettos.
Within moments another impeccable Italian waiter named Nelson was handing out menus and enthusiastically describing dishes. He spoke about the dishes like they were artwork, sweeping us up in the beauty of a freshly poached egg breaking over homemade pasta. We were captivated and ordered everything he suggested, four dishes more than what we had planned on.
I was enchanted by the restaurant before the food came, it was comforting and friendly, but still very fresh. The atmosphere was energizing, far different from the casual western mining town mentality of some other Aspen restaurants, and yet it was still a local's joint. Then the food came. We had a white asparagus salad with a poached egg and prosciutto, and calamari in a ponzu sauce. Both dishes were incredible. The plating was so beautiful we took a picture before we ate, and the food was so good I won't elaborate for fear of writing a four-page article. For entrees we had some of everything, I had Alaskan Halibut with saffron risotto, sis had hand cut pepper fettuccini, mom had seared octopus, and step-dad had rabbit with herb mashed potatoes. I chastised him at first for daring to eat a cute wittle bunny wabbit, but when the dishes came I ended up devouring the majority of both of our entrees.
My personal dish suggestion would have to be... All of them. I was simultaneously insanely jealous of everyone's plates and incredibly pleased with the dish I had ordered. I hate to use a cliche but you really get the bang for your buck.
I was astounded to hear Ellina had only been open for two years, and was going to attribute the delicious food and cool atmosphere to beginners luck before I heard the master who was behind the operation. Chef Miguel Diaz has been one of Aspen's elite chefs for years. He started out with partner Dena Marino at Ajax Tavern, a local's favorite at the base of Aspen Mountain, before moving on to D19 in 2006. D19 immediately took off, showcasing a traditional Italian menu, and stayed open for three years. Dena Marino then moved to Florida and Chef Diaz went solo, opening Ellina last year. The wait staff is also compromised of seasoned professionals seeing as it's more or less the same group who worked at D19.
I left feeling guilty, not only because that meal equaled my caloric intake for the past three days but also because I'd never been to Ellina before. Why don't great restaurants get more recognition? Come on people! Stop busting your wallets at restaurants like Il Mulino, it is simply not worth it. Take your empty stomach and head on over to Ellina for a guaranteed good time.
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