A report by Amanda Rae for The Aspen Times.
The first time that Farm Runners delivered a whole lamb to Capitol Creek Brewery, in July, chef Abhay Nair was out of the office.
“Hey, chef, I think they dropped this off by mistake,” Nair recalls a cook telling him by phone. “I was like, No, no, no, just put it in the fridge. They’d never seen a carcass in the kitchen.”
When Nair returned — likely from Aspen Public House, where he is executive chef also — he began breaking down the animal with a sharp knife.
“Everyone was crowding around me, like a fight in high school,” Nair says, chuckling. “Lamb is a little more expensive in that form, because you have to pay for processing and delivery. But the fact that (my team) understands where a ribeye or tenderloin is located and why these meats are the way they are … the education part was worth it.”
Since June, Nair has transformed Capitol Creek Brewery’s gastropub menu to showcase its new identity as a “curry house,” guided by the Caribbean-Indian flavors that Nair grew up with in the island nation of Trinidad and Tobago. Teaching a staff of mostly Latin American cooks a handful of novel techniques and introducing them to foreign flavors has been a most rewarding aspect of Nair’s new post at APH’s sister restaurant in Willits.
“We felt compelled to stay true to the menu (at APH),” Nair says. “Yesterday a guy came to the midvalley just for a chicken sandwich, because Public House is closed (due to Wheeler Opera House offseason construction). People come for the pierogis! That feels good.”
That Zane’s Tavern opened an outpost in Willits this summer offered even more reason for CCB to branch out from strictly American bar food. What’s more, “grain to glass” brewmaster Jerod Day’s 10 to 12 beers on tap provide a thirst-quenching counterpoint to Nair’s exotic (to our area) fare. “Turning people on to this slowly has been a positive thing in the last few months,” says CCB/APH proprietor Bill Johnson. “Abhay breathed life into our food program.”
Still, CCB serves a juicy double cheeseburger, kale Caesar salad, and “The Fried Chicken Sandwich,” the latter winking to fans of APH’s Southern-style, buttermilk-marinated, chimichurri aioli-topped behemoth. Nearly everything else has a unique twist: smoked habanero hummus; a salad with shaved radish, smoked bacon, crumbled blue cheese, toasted sunflower seeds, and truffled-bacon vinaigrette; the Indian-spiced quinoa burger; and three distinct curries (vindaloo, West Indies, tikka masala) served over vegetables or protein of choice (chicken, lamb, trout).
Nair’s fall menu at CCB, refined over nearly four months, provides continual opportunity for the chef to share fresh flavors and techniques with his eager kitchen crew — and diners seem to dig it, too.
Spicy Lamb Vindaloo Curry
“Sixty percent of my staff here ate curry for the first time…and these guys had never braised before,” Nair explains, continuing the lamb butchery story. Recalling owner Johnson’s love of hunting and the outdoors, this particular curry is “more like a hearty campfire stew, using Colorado lamb,” Nair explains. “Liquid from the braised lamb goes into the vindaloo sauce — the only one that’s not vegan because we use that lamb stock to stay traditional.”
From there, it’s cultural fusion, APH-style: Nair tops French fries with lamb vindaloo curry, cheese curds, and chopped herbs in a bestselling poutine and slathers braised lamb with house-made tzatziki, pico de gallo, and shredded purple cabbage “in a naan wrap instead of pita.”
Trinidad-Fried Chicken (TFC)
“(My cooks) were honest enough to say, ‘We don’t know where Trinidad is.’ Even that was an education,” Nair says. In lieu of chicken wings, Nair serves boneless tenders coated in a fragrant, golden tempura batter (thanks to turmeric and garam masala) with a flight of dips: Buffalo sauce, buttermilk-blue cheese dressing, and sweet-sour tamarind chutney.
“My mom used to make tamarind chutney because we had a tamarind tree in our backyard,” Nair remembers. “I want people to come and get something new! But identifiable, too.”
West Indies Curry
Also known as “Caribbean curry,” the green concoction is made with coconut milk and culantro (not to be confused with cilantro), a leafy herb that forms the “holy trinity” of Trinidadian cuisine along with Trinidad Pimento peppers and piquant native garlic. “We call it chadon beni — like a cousin to cilantro without the disinfectant, lemony taste,” Nair shares. “With trout, that’s a great meal on a cold winter day.”
Greens & Grains Salad with Cashew Pesto and Passionfruit Vinaigrette
“We’d scoop out the fruit to make fresh juice for Sunday lunch,” Nair says, reminiscing about passionfruit harvested from vines on his family’s property. A neighbor’s coffee and cashew plantation inspired him to make this alternative pesto in a cooking competition (which he won) at age 20.
At CCB, Nair combines both influences — and incorporates every bit of ingredient. “We use cilantro, basil and kale stems, blanched and puréed to give it body. We do a lot of recycling here.”
Truffled Potato Pierogis
Using a mortar and pestle to crush toasted spices instead of opening a jar of ground powder was an early lesson in Nair’s kitchen at CCB. Another APH favorite, these pierogis feature warm nuances from smashed cumin seed in the potato stuffing.
“My mom would make aloo pie only if I got a good report card or played a match of cricket and the team won — it was a reward food,” says Nair, who credits her tough standards as an exacting home cook to his own training style. “I always tell my guys: follow the recipe but stick to your tastebuds. Tastebuds are your real recipe card.”