The Artistry of Lunch: SO Café
SO café finds its place in Aspen’s dining scene
When you step out of the glass elevator into SO, the café on the top floor of the Aspen Art Museum, the first thing you notice is the light. White Corian walls and concrete floors reflect the sunlight into a natural wood trellis ceiling that softens and cools the space.
Mountain air fills the room, thanks to the outer walls that are really giant sliding glass doors, which open onto the outdoor rooftop gallery.
For the first half hour after SO opens at 10 a.m., there are only a few people at the tables scattered spaciously throughout the café, sipping a cappuccino or coffee, tapping the keys on their computers, perhaps nibbling on a croissant.
Every seat offers a clear view across the rooftops of the city’s commercial core to the base of Aspen Mountain, from Little Nell to Norway, the trail above Lift 1A. The high perch of the café also offers unparalleled views through the glass walls of the Shigeru Ban–designed building of Aspen’s neighborhoods toward Independence Pass and Red Mountain.
By 11:30, the place is packed. Manager Mary Daly says the mix of locals and visitors keeps her job lively. On a Wednesday in late July, one-time city councilman and former Lenado Hotel owner Frank Peters is eating with a friend at a table near the outdoor roof and gallery. Aspen Valley Ski Club Executive Director Mark Cole and the team’s snowboarding head coach Miah Wheeler spend an hour talking over lunch. A half dozen women from a local nonprofit dine and meet near the top of the stairwell. Philanthropist Adam Lewis and family members fill a table near the back wall. An educator from Michigan brags to Mary about a former student who is performing at the Wheeler Opera House with the Aspen Music Festival and School. A family of eight push together a few tables so all three generations can eat together. Aspen attorney Andy Hecht and a companion enjoy a leisurely lunch.
Meanwhile, Allen Domingos, who runs SO with his wife, Julia, visits each table, sharing thoughts about the day, and the food, with patrons. Food at SO is an ever-changing topic of conversation: As the seasons change in Aspen, as the art changes at the museum, the menu at SO changes every week. “Our concept,” explains Allen, “was to use Julia’s creativity and do what we do best. We did not want a static menu; we wanted something that would hold our interest, and work as a tool to bring locals in here on a regular basis.”
What Julia Domingos does best is work with Allen and her chefs at Epicure, the catering company she and Allen have built over the last decade and a half, to create a new menu each week at SO from the freshest fare in the valley.
“It’s paid off,” Allen reports. “We have a number of people who come in at least once every week and a number who come in at 11:30 or noon every Tuesday to have lunch from our new menu.”
A Match Made in Restaurants
Julia trained at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in New York, and was the first CIA extern to work at The Little Nell restaurant in Aspen. “That’s when I fell in love with Aspen,” she recalls during our hour-long conversation at the café.
But it wasn’t time yet for her to move here: “Sight unseen I moved to New Orleans after graduating, because I knew I had to be there.” She worked at the Windsor Court under Executive Chef Kevin Graham. Allen worked at NOLA for Emeril Lagasse at the time, which is where they met. Allen, a Louisiana native, was getting his start in restaurant management.
“Growing up in Louisiana, food is central to everything—you talk about the meal three meals out from the one you’re having at the time,” he says. “I started working in restaurants at 18 or 19, and just loved the thrill of it. Then I met Julia and fell in love with her passion for food and cooking.”
In the early 1990s, Allen and Julia moved to Aspen, sleeping on the floor of a friend’s apartment at Hunter Creek and jumping into Aspen’s lively restaurant business. Allen worked as a waiter at The Little Nell, serving the likes of Aspen’s modern pioneer Fritz Benedict and Aspen Skiing Co. President Bob Maynard. Julia worked at Matsuhisa in the early years, when it was THE place to dine in town. They both got into the catering business as well, often ending up at Aspen’s hottest parties, serving the town’s old time and aspiring royalty.
In 2000, Allen and Julia left the restaurant business altogether and started Epicure. Over 15 years, they have established a place among Aspen’s premier caterers. “We like to be at every party,” says Julia. “That’s our MO.” As business partners and as a couple, they never looked back. They were raising a family in Aspen, working nonstop over summer and winter, and closing shop during spring and fall to travel and spend time with their children.
Then Heidi Zuckerman and the Aspen Art Museum invited them to create a café that suited the new museum. “We saw the building and saw what they were doing, and felt like this was an opportunity that we couldn’t say no to,” Allen says.
The Domingos and Zuckerman traveled the world to explore dining at other museums. “We spent a whole day at MoMA eating at all three restaurants in one day,” recalls Julia.
“Chef Danny Meyer has three restaurants at MoMA and the café at the Whitney in New York,” says Allen. “His fifth-floor restaurant, Terrace 5, serves a plated lunch with very nice sitdown service. They are doing thousands of lunches a day—I mean thousands— with no back-of-the-house kitchen and with no flame. That was an inspiration for us.” In addition to great food, diners at Terrace 5 are surrounded by priceless paintings and sculptures. “It’s 20 paces away from ‘Starry Night,” Julia says.
If Julia and Allen took their kitchen and dining operation inspiration from MoMA, the aesthetic inspiration for the layout and space came from the Pompidou in Paris. “That is the closest in terms of aesthetics to what we have here.”
They furnished the restaurant to honor the lightness of Shigeru Ban’s architecture, designed work stations and counters that are mobile and aesthetically appealing, and came up with the name. “So” is part of the Japanese lexicon, and one day before a meeting on the restaurant, Julia found the symbol in an artist’s dictionary. Up to that time, a number of names had been tested and rejected.
SO café strives to source as much of its food and beverages locally as is seasonally possible.
Coffee, for instance, is roasted in Basalt by Rock Canyon Coffee. The teas come from Two Leaves and a Bud, also in Basalt. Beers on the SO menu are brewed locally by Aspen Brewing Co. and Roaring Fork Beer Co.
They buy their cheeses at the Avalanche Cheese Co. creamery in Basalt. SO’s beef comes from a variety of sources in the valley and around the state, including the Aspen Cattle Co. and Emma Farms Cattle Co. Pork is sourced from Tender Belly, based in Denver.
The croissants are made at Franck Thirion French Pastry & Café at the Aspen Airport Business Center, and the rest of the breads come from Harvest Moon Baking Co. in Denver.
Eagle Springs Organic near Rifle provides fresh greens year round, as do other local growers, many of whom see Allen throughout the summer and fall at the Aspen Saturday Market as well as other farmers’ markets.
“Heidi reacted immediately when I said ‘so’,” Julia says. “It is actually a Japanese brush stroke that has a couple of different meanings. So, I thought between the Japanese architect and the café being in the art museum, it was just a win-win.”
Food and Drink
Prep for lunch at SO occurs in Epicure’s commercial kitchen, in the basement of Mountain Chalet hotel. The food is then taken across town and dishes are completed at the café using hightech ovens known as “rethermalizers” and induction burners. The process and special equipment allows the food to be prepared without flames, in a way that does not threaten the art in the museum.
Is there a philosophy behind the lunch menu at SO café?
“Certainly,” answers Julia. “The philosophy is the whole aesthetic. Aspen Art Museum is a non-collecting museum. They change their works—we change our works. I also think our food has a bit of a feminine side, because I care about colors and presentation in a way that reflects that.”
The challenge of coming up with a new menu each week fits perfectly into Julia’s style of cooking and Allen’s talent for acquiring fresh ingredients. When a particular batch of fruit or vegetables or a tray of meat or anything else catches his eye, Allen is quick to secure it for the restaurant.
SO features seasonal salads starting around $12 with heartier lunch entrées priced from $14 to $18. There’s always a kid’s plate, usually with a cheddar grilled cheese sandwich at its foundation, for under $10. A warm butter croissant with a homemade flavored butter for $5 and a dark chocolate hazelnut brownie or some other dessert for $3 or so round out the menu.
Diners can choose from a list of wines by the glass or the bottle and five different beers, including two brewed in the Roaring Fork Valley. The wines are selected by Julia, Allen and local Master Sommelier Jay Fletcher.
“We pick wines that stand up on their own but can pair up with most anything,” says Allen. The list includes wines from Italy, France, Spain, South Africa and Napa Valley.
“They hired us for a certain style, and that doesn’t change much whether it’s here or at our other kitchen,” Julia says. “We get to create a lot of interesting side dishes here and say ‘Wow, that is really great. Let’s incorporate it.’”
“And the flavors have to be bold. I mean, look at this building—I love it here.”
GO FIND IT!
SO at the Aspen Art Museum 637 E. Hyman Ave., Aspen 970.925.8050 AspenArtMuseum.org