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WHERE ASPEN’S ELITE MEET

Assorted Kennedys dine there regularly, as do assorted Fondas. Media bigwigs from Barbara Walters to Rupert Murdoch check in when they’re in town. Don Johnson, Jack Nicholson, Paul Simon, Cheryl Tiegs, Calvin Klein, Glenn Frey, Don Henley and Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, among others, are friends of the house. For a modestly sized restaurant in a town with a permanent population of only about 8,000, Gordon’s certainly does have an impressive clientele.

But, then, the town in question is Aspen, Colo., where simply everybody who’s anybody (at least according to the magazine W) seems to go at least once a year--and, anyway, the place has a strong Hollywood connection: Proprietors Gordon and Rebecca Naccarato (she is a baker and pastry chef who has her own retail shop downstairs from the restaurant) are veterans of Santa Monica’s own celebrity-rich Michael’s, and their backer in the establishment is Bruce Paltrow, producer of television’s acclaimed “St. Elsewhere” series and husband of actress Blythe Danner.

Of course, there’s also the possibility that Gordon’s is so popular with people who are used to eating well simply because it’s the best restaurant in Aspen--and is a darned good place by anybody’s (or any town’s) standards.

The Naccaratos call their food High Altitude Cuisine. “That started as a joke,” says Gordon. Somebody asked him to label his food, and he blurted out the phrase. It got published, so he started using it himself. “Frankly,” he says, “I like it when people come in and tell me they think it’s pretty silly. It is. It just means whatever we want to cook.” And that, in turn, obviously means all kinds of stuff--Southwestern, Mexican, Californian, French, Asian, whatever. Many of the dishes offered are interpretations of dishes served at other restaurants, mostly in L.A. Thus, Gordon makes luxurious potato pancakes with creme fraiche and golden caviar reminiscent of Ken Frank’s at La Toque, a spicy (and delicious) shrimp-and-black-bean salad inspired by Cha Cha Cha, a cabbage salad with bacon and blue cheese resembling a signature dish of John Sedlar’s at St. Estephe, an elaborate chicken sandwich (on Rebecca’s homemade bread) that might be served at the West Beach Cafe, a wonderful duck-leg confit “Chinois” (named, of course, for Chinois on Main), a grilled lamb saddle with Cabernet-cassis sauce that is almost exactly a recipe from Michael’s, and so on.

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Other standout dishes include a lunchtime “Chippewa salmon sandwich,” lightly grilled juniper-marinated salmon on fried bannock bread with wild local watercress mayonnaise; a superb and unusual salad of cilantro-and-tequila-cured “gravlax” with achiote vinaigrette and crisp slivers of fried tortilla; grilled swordfish in a homemade Texas-style barbecue sauce, and Rebecca’s irresistible desserts--most of all, maybe, a surprisingly light carmelized walnut and chocolate torte.

If I have a criticism of Gordon’s food in general, it’s that it’s hard to find Gordon in it--hard to pin down a sensibility, a “voice.” But then, this might have something to do with the way the restaurant’s weekly menu is written: Every member of the kitchen staff, from sous-chefs Ed Fertig and Matt Stein on down, is expected to propose new dishes every week, and all of them are prepared and tasted and considered.

This isn’t exactly the way things were done where Gordon learned to cook: He and Rebecca had met and married in their native Washington, and then had moved to Los Angeles so that Gordon could go to law school at Loyola Marymount. But his heart wasn’t in it, and he had always loved cooking--so when he happened to walk past Michael’s the day before it opened, he stuck his head in on a whim and asked for a job. He was hired as a waiter, and within two months had begged his way into the kitchen. He stayed for five years, becoming head chef for a year in 1982.

“Michael’s was the only school I needed,” he says. "(Restaurant owner) Michael McCarty might have an ego the size of Santa Monica’s ZIP code, but his place was a perfect crystallization of a moment in American food history. Think about it: While I was there we had Jonathan Waxman, Ken Frank, Mark Peel, Nancy Silverton, Kazuto Matsusaka (now the brilliant chef at Chinois), Roy Yamaguchi, Billy Pflug (of the defunct American Bar & Grill), Jimmy Brinkley. . . “It was like Michael was J.F.K. and had attracted just this great administration around him. But things were much more rigid then. I remember saying to Jonathan Waxman in 1979, ‘Why don’t we cook chicken with cilantro?’ and he replied, ‘Because the French don’t use cilantro.’ We were cooking with blinders on, in a sense. To do things that are only French, or only American, just doesn’t make sense to me. We have so much to choose from.”

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Gordon got the chance to do just that himself when Bruce Paltrow offered to set him and Michael’s manager, Michael Grimsley, up in their own place--on the condition that it be in Paltrow’s favorite hideaway, Aspen. Gordon & Grimsley’s opened there in 1984. About 18 months later, Gordon bought his partner out and the present Gordon’s--a cool, California-looking place in pink and gray and teal with handsome big booths jutting out into the dining room on a rakish angle--was born.

Having a restaurant like Gordon’s in Aspen isn’t always easy, Gordon admits. “My food costs are high--about 40%,” he says (30% to 35% is more usual). “And while I can basically get anything I want, I have to order it well in advance. Also, it’s very hard to predict how busy we’ll be. When we used to be open for lunch in the winter, we would be pretty empty on good ski days. But one day, for instance, it rained, and the place was jammed all afternoon. Unfortunately, we used up all of our food for the evening, and I had to rewrite the menu at the last minute on the word processor.”

He also has prejudices to overcome: “One day,” he recounts, “a busboy heard a customer say to his companions, ‘Well, you obviously don’t order fish here, in the middle of the Rockies.’ I said to myself, ‘Well, how did he get here? Walk? Hasn’t he ever heard of airplanes?’ Then I went out and made the guy come back into the kitchen with me. I showed him all the fish, had him smell the gills, look at the eyes, the whole number. It must have impressed him, because he went back out into the dining room and his whole party ordered fish.”

Gordon’s, 205 S. Mill St., Aspen, Colo., (303) 925-7474. Closed Oct. 1 through Thanksgiving, and from the day before the ski lifts close (usually around April 18) to mid-June.


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