Sunday, April 26, 2009

Alta Club

I was invited to dinner at the Alta Club for a University of Utah event. The Alta Club is a private social club located in a beautifully restored historical building in the heart of downtown Salt Lake City. The club offers membership to any working professional, including university officials, political leaders, and business executives. When we walked into the Alta Club it really was like a blast to the past. The club was developed in the late 1800s to be a social gathering place for the state’s elite. Honestly it felt a little weird being there. At one point, one of the members we spoke with told us that when she was younger only men were allowed through the front door and that their wives had to enter through the back. It also made me think about race: a non-caucasian person like me probably wasn’t even allowed into the club at all back then. But I thought to myself: it’s 2009 and the Alta Club has changed a lot….and here I am.

If you walk through the Alta Club you quickly notice that in some instances not a lot has changed…at least from the standpoint of décor. I must say there is something very elegant and luxurious feeling about the dated architecture, furniture, and paintings. Scenes out of the book The Great Gatsby flashed through my mind; it was like being in a different time and place - where status was celebrated - and I appreciated having the opportunity to be here. Another reason I was really excited to have dinner at the Alta Club was that my friend Heather from culinary school works as a cook in the kitchen and I got to visit with her. She was working pantry that night - preparing all of the cold items: salads and desserts. It was great to see Heather and catch up before the festivities began. It also gave me an opportunity to see the kitchen – it was nice to see that the kitchen was clean and well organized…a nice departure from some of the kitchens I’ve worked in.

Much like touring around the old building, sitting down to the dinner table was also a nod to history. The china had a floral pattern and the stemware was really dated. I mentioned to one of the people sitting at the table that it made me feel like I was eating in a palace in Russia or something like that. Dinner started and it was obviously going to be a basic banquet style meal. We weren’t given any options as to meal choices and we were all served at once. We started with a basic mixed green salad with vinaigrette. Nothing too fancy or complicated but it was good with fresh ingredients - a nice refreshing start to the meal. Just a side note: our server was kind of interesting. He seemed to throw each plate of food on the table in front of us, as if he was somewhat in a rush to get to his next table. It was a little odd, but entertaining at the same time. He was nice enough but it made me fear that the food might slide off the plate and hit me when he threw something in front of me.

Our entrée of grilled salmon, mashed potatoes, and mixed veggies came next. It was very standard fare. The veggies were plain, steamed probably with not much to them, but they were cooked to a nice ‘al dente’ which I appreciated. The potatoes were good but nothing to write home about - they did have a nice texture and flavor though. The grilled salmon was good and had nice grill marks, but for me it was a touch overcooked. I’m more of a ‘medium' or ‘medium rare’ person on my fish and my pieces of salmon were on the verge of being ‘medium well’. However what I did really appreciate was that the salmon came with a nice lemon wedge. I love that touch of fresh citrus juice with salmon. It changes the dimension of the dish, giving it a little acidic brightness to cut through the fattiness of the salmon. We ended our meal with a scoop of vanilla ice cream with a chocolate cream-filled cookie. It was kind of an odd dessert but it was a nice ending to dinner. I mean, who doesn’t love a cookie and some ice cream for dessert?

Overall I would say the food was pretty good but not very daring or imaginative. But I think if you look at the clientele of the Alta Club this would certainly fit in well with that demographic. You do after all have to cater to your customers. Moreover, banquet cooking can be difficult seeing as how you have to cook, plate, and serve everyone’s food at the same time; often times dealing with crowds of over 100 people. And I must say the food served at this banquet was pretty good compared to other banquets I’ve been to. On a whole I would be happy to have this meal again be it at a huge banquet dinner at a hotel or conference center; I’d be ecstatic to get this for dinner at someone’s home. I would however not be so enthusiastic if I got this meal at a fine dining restaurant. This did make me wonder then what a regular dinner was like at the Alta club if I were a member eating in their dining room, ordering off of their regular menu. Mmmm…perhaps I should look into becoming a member? It is 2009 after all and it would be interesting to see how much of the Alta Club’s menu has changed to meet the times.

Alta Club ~ Salt Lake City, Utah

100 East South Temple

Executive Chef Brian Edwards


Thursday, April 16, 2009

Hayai Zushi

Have you ever thought of a killer idea that might just be the next big thing? Drive-thru sushi is something that only a few brave restaurateurs have tried but seldom have succeeded at. To me the concept is brilliant. Sushi could really be the ultimate fast food. It’s healthy, delicious, comes in perfect bite sized pieces with a wide range of options and varieties, and has a loyal following. I wouldn’t hesitate to frequent an inexpensive drive-thru/fast food sushi restaurant. That is – if it was good.

Hayai Zushi coins itself as an innovative drive-thru (or dine-in) sushi spot. The concept is the brainchild of co-owners and business partners Keith Guevara and Peggi Whiting. Whiting trained with sushi master chefs in Japan and brought her newly acquired skills back with her to Utah. In the late 80s Whiting founded the first Ichiban restaurant in Park City, a restaurant that lives on today in its latest reincarnation in downtown Salt Lake City (Whiting hasn’t been involved with the operation since the late 90s). Upon reading the bio of Whiting and taking close inspection of their cool website, I had extremely high hopes for Hayai Zushi. Not only was the concept cool, but the fast-food restaurant had some immediate “street cred” (that’s ‘street credibility’ for those not cool enough to catch the lingo) given Whiting’s training and history with Ichiban.

A quick glance at the menu made my enthusiasm slightly wane. The only sushi offered was of the maki roll variety (raw fish served with rice and seaweed) but as I scrolled down the menu it became apparent that most of the rolls actually contained cooked products. The so-called “Sake Roll” is made up of cooked salmon and avocado. The flavors weren’t bad but cooked salmon tastes very different than raw. Cooking salmon takes away that cool, clean, and fresh taste that one usually associates with sushi. Many of the other menu items followed suit using deep-fried shrimp tempura or cooked crab in lieu of raw ingredients. They even have a “Hawaiian Luau Roll” consisting of grilled spam teriyaki. Um, okay so maybe not all menu items here could be billed as healthy fast-food. That said, the only raw fish present throughout the entire menu is any item that contains tuna. The quintessential roll – the spicy tuna roll – was…just okay. The tuna was mushy and lacked some brightness. However, there was a nice spicy kick that I did enjoy. Hayai Zushi also has a variety of specialty rolls. Basically all of these rolls are versions of their existing maki rolls that are then battered in tempura and deep-fried. I guess deep-frying is their specialty?

In addition to the sushi menu, Hayai Zushi also offers a series of rice bowls such as chicken teriyaki, tofu teriyaki, spicy tuna over cucumber and rice, and Oyako (a chicken and egg combo served over rice, slightly sweetened). In a word: unimpressive. Actually in a word: gross. The chicken teriyaki came in a bowl that looked like it had just been taken out of a lean cuisine frozen t.v. dinner box and was then nuked before it hit the table. The food sadly tasted the way it looked. The chicken was dry and was paired with an odd assortment of vegetables (edamame, corn, brocolli, carrots, peppers) that were clearly out of a frozen bag of mixed veggies. The chicken and veg mix was served over a scoop of white rice that was drenched – and I mean drenched – in an overly sweet, thick, and syrupy teriyaki sauce. Every bite dripped of the sauce and made for a very sweet, soggy dinner. I guess in the end it saves you some money. No need for dessert here – apparently it comes on top of your entree.

It’s obvious that Whiting and Guevara are trying to cater to a demographic that might not be your ‘average sushi lover’ since most of the sushi on Hayai Zushi’s menu isn’t even raw and the Japanese style bowls mostly consist of some version of teriyaki (an American construct but popular with the masses). They’ve also taken the fast-food mentality to heart, twisting the pristine idea of sushi into a horrible caricature; kind of like what McDonald’s did to the American cheeseburger or what Taco Bell did to Mexican food. I think Guevara and Whiting may have miscalculated a bit. I would say the average sushi eater expects a certain level of value, the right texture, and certainly the right flavor. I don’t see any of that here at Hayai Zushi. The next time I’m in the mood for fast-food I think I might just pass up Hayai Zushi and see what the next burger joint down the street is peddling…better yet, I think I’ll take my time to sit down at a not-so-quite-fast-food Japanese restaurant where the sushi is of higher quality…and where I know it will be worth the wait. Fast-food just isn’t worth it if it isn’t good food.

Hayai Zushi ~ Salt Lake City, Utah

307 West 600 South

Co-owners Keith Guevara and Peggi Whiting


HayaiZushi on Urbanspoon