Monday, November 29, 2010

Cakewalk

'A vegan bakery...how cool is that?'

We were headed downtown to meet some friends for a show. To avoid the disastrous parking slog that is downtown on a Friday night, our usual strategy is to park our car in a neighborhood adjacent to a TRAX stop and take the train into town. Normally we time it perfectly so that as we park and bop on over to the TRAX stop, we only wait a minute or two. On this particular night we were cutting it close. The train was due in a couple minutes, so we parked on 9th east and dashed out for the train stop...when my eyes came about a small bakery I had never noticed before - Cakewalk.

We only had maybe a minute before the train got there, but I just had to stop in. How did I never notice this place before? I jumped in, said hi, took a mental note of the cupcakes and other baked products in the display case...they looked great....told the staff 'I'd be back' and then ran right out to catch our train. Fortunately we made the train and got to dinner and the show on time. We had a great night but didn't have time for dessert. To make up for this obvious atrocity, I decided to pay a visit back to Cakewalk the next day.

Not being in such a rush this second time around, I now noticed that the bakery itself was entirely vegan....a minor detail that had eluded me in the rush of trying to make the TRAX train the night before. It appears that all items in the bakery are vegan-friendly; a  substantial number of the baked goods are also gluten-free. To remind you of what we're talking about, here are a few definitions:

Vegan. People who avoid either using or consuming any animal products are known as vegans. In terms of their diet, vegans choose not to eat any animals as well as dairy products or eggs.

Gluten-free. People who do not eat ingredients derived from wheat, barley, or rye have a gluten-free diet. People adopt a gluten-free diet usually as a solution to health problems caused by severe wheat allergies.

'Very interesting' I thought to myself as my eyes glazed over in sugar shock. I asked the guy at the counter what his favorites were and methodically picked a few out. I ended up purchasing a number of different cupcakes and a dillo (a vegan twinkie kind of thing). They packaged it up and I ran straight home. My spouse and I devoured them over the course of two days. For the most part, the cupcakes were all pretty successful. My personal favorite was the Boston cream cupcake - yellow cake filled with a soy-type-cream with a chocolate topping. Although I thought they could have been a bit more liberal with the creamy filling, the cake was moist and flavorful and when eaten with the chocolate top, it did resemble a nice Boston cream pie. It didn't feel at all that I was eating the vegan version of a Boston cream pie. Also of note was the wonderful peanut butter chocolate cupcake (the favorite of the guy at the counter). Rich, decadent, chocolate cake paired naturally with a sweet peanut butter frosting. The mint chocolate cupcake to be honest wasn't a favorite, if only because the mint frosting tasted a bit medicinal in quality...a little too much like mouthwash...but the chocolate cake again was fantastic. I also tried a dillo, a vegan twinkie if you will. I'm a chocolate lover (if you couldn't tell from my above selections) and the dillo with its chocolate cake filled with chocolate cream, covered in chocolate coating, shaped like a twinkie was pretty darn good. Cakewalk also makes a selection of muffins, breads, cookies, and pastries and also has a bakery (pick up only) location in Bountiful.

I always thought that having either a vegan and/or a gluten free diet didn't lend itself much in the way of being able to make/enjoy luscious desserts. I mean really, most desserts have eggs, cream, milk, or flour in some form or another. How can you make a nice fluffy cake without flour and eggs? Well you certainly can...and Cakewalk certainly does it well. Although I am not vegan or gluten-free (or likely will ever be), a tasty dessert is a tasty dessert...and I for one am glad I accidentally ran into Cakewalk.  A vegan bakery...and a good one at that...how cool is that?


Cakewalk ~ Salt Lake City, Utah
434 S 900 E
www.cakewalkbakingcompany.com
*** 


Cakewalk Vegan Bakery and Grocery on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Pampas' Bakery

'Best to keep an eye on this place...just don't look too closely at the decor.'

Growing up we often visited an aunt of mine in southern California. My aunt Florence is an amazing cook, whipping up the most tasty breakfasts, lunches, and dinners you can imagine. Although Disneyland or Universal Studios was often the planned "activity" of the vacation, in retrospect I would argue that the true attraction and highlight of our trips down south was her food (both for the adults and the kids). One of the things that my aunt introduced me to that I am absolutely in love with today - is the empanada. And my aunt made the best empanadas. The empanada originated in Spain but many Latin American and/or Spanish colonized/influenced countries have their own version of this stuffed bread or pastry. I thought that the farmer's market was one of the only places where you could pick up an empanada to go in SLC when...

I was meandering down a strip mall in Sugarhouse enjoying the artwork in a local gallery this past weekend. I noticed a bakery just below the shop I was in. It was about 3pm in the afternoon (time for my afternoon snack) so I thought a drop into the bakery was well in order. I immediately got the sense of deja vu (a glitch in the matrix?) when I dug deep to remember that this space was formerly occupied by the Italian restaurant Michelangelo's. I had a hard time connecting the space to Michelangelo's because the owners of Pampa's had really changed the interior. In a word, the decor is...well...bizarre. The place is oddly situated with a few tables, covered in plastic, on opposite ends of the restaurant separated by a humongous wooden bar. I wouldn't call the layout off putting, but my first impression was that the decor wasn't exactly calling me out to come take a seat.

What the interior design lacked was well made up by the warm and friendly service at Pampa's. I was greeted at the front counter by the owner who explained the Argentinian concept and walked me through several dishes and pastries. He was very proud of his Argentinian food and described the kind of flavors that were commonly found in Argentina. Unfortunately when he mentioned empanadas, I tuned everything else he said out. I knew what I wanted: 2 empanadas please! He also spoke really highly of a pastry filled with a homemade caramel that I also ordered as well. $4.00 later (can you believe how cheap it was?) I took a bag home with one chicken empanada, one beef empanada, and my caramel dessert.

Once I got home, I opened up the bag up with much excitement and immediately devoured the empanadas. The filling was still piping hot and the savory beef and onion mixture oozed out of the crusty bread when I took a big bite. The beef was robustly flavored with a slight hint of tomato, very moist and tender with onions and garlic. Although not done in the style of empanada of my aunt, I very much enjoyed this Argentinian version. The chicken empanada was also very tasty, a lighter dish than the beef option, stuffed with pieces of hard boiled egg. I really should have stopped there. I mean really, I was going to eat dinner in like 3 hours. But I just had to try the highly recommended caramel pastry. The pastry itself was light, buttery, and flaky topped with powdered sugar. It contrasted nicely with the caramel - a thick, sweet goo. I got about halfway through the pastry before I had to quit eating, to save myself from gluttony (too late actually).

Pampa's also offers a variety of Argentinian style dishes such as pizzas, sandwiches, pastas, and various Milanesa dishes. But there is something I just find so brilliant in the empanada; the meaty filling wrapped up in a baked buttery dough pouch is truly the perfect all in one meal.The kitchen is still getting its sea legs, so the owner encouraged me to come by when things really get going. If the empanadas are any indication of what good can come from the kitchen, Pampa's is bound to serve some truly great dishes. Best to keep an eye on this place...just don't look too closely at the decor.

Pampa's Bakery
2156 S Highland Dr
(801) 738-8058
***

Pampas Bakery on Urbanspoon 

Monday, September 27, 2010

Shahrazad Market and Restaurant

'I found the smells of different spices and herbs that permeated the aisles intoxicating.'

If you've never set foot in an international market, it's well worth doing. Not only do you see an array of products you've never seen before, but the people, the decor, the smells, and the overall vibe really give you a glimpse of the cultures behind the market. A friend of mine told me about a Middle Eastern Market on the West side of Salt Lake with a restaurant in the back. I must say his description of the place really piqued my interest, both as a lover of food as well as from the standpoint of an interested tourist on a virtual vacation to the Middle East. The Shahrazad Market and Restaurant is a great introduction to Middle Eastern culture and food. The market is simple, reminiscent of a large mom and pop operation - think Emigration Market... Middle Eastern style. I found the smells of different spices and herbs that permeated the aisles intoxicating. In fact, I found myself gravitating toward the back, past the deli cases of freshly butchered meats, to where there was clearly some food being fired.

The restaurant in the rear of the market is pretty simple with some nicely situated tables and a front counter from which to order. A placard above the counter spells out the menu - combination plates of kabobs, meatballs, different yogurt type beverages, some sweets, and some breads fill the menu. It can be overwhelming, especially for someone like me who doesn't know much about Middle Eastern cuisine. However the guys at the restaurant are really good at explaining the dishes and are genuinely interested in helping you to have a great experience. Moreover, the deli case contains some examples of the food, so you can always point to what you want if you see it.

We started off with a yogurt, mint drink called dugh (pronounced doog) - a really refreshing start to the meal. We quickly gobbled up some hot naan that came alongside. The naan (a leavened, flat type of bread) was served steaming hot with mint, parsley, goat cheese, and walnuts. We were told to rip some of the naan and then add in the above acoutrements, roll everything up like a sandwich, and then eat it. The warm naan melted the goat cheese and helped the mint and parsley to open up. The crunch of the walnuts added some texture to the gooey cheese, while the herbs left a clean, fresh taste in your mouth.  Absolutely delicious.

For the main course we had the chicken and beef koobideh (pronounced koo-be-day) and the lamb liver skewer. The savory chicken and beef koobideh are like meatballs shaped in almost a square shape. The skewered lamb livers are just like they sound - rotisseried livers on a skewer. These were all served with basmati rice, a side salad, and a baked tomato. We were told that the proper way to eat the dish was to take the meat off the skewer, cut all of the meats and tomato up, and then mix everything together, dusting the whole thing liberally with sumac (a middle eastern spice). The meatballs were tender, moist, and had a floral quality to them with the addition of the sumac. Mixed in with the rice and tomato, it was all together quite a filling meal. The livers tasted like most any liver I've eaten and were suprisingly tender and tasty. I devoured half my plate (which was humongous - see picture at left; we each got a plate like that) but still had a whole table full of treats ordered by my Persian friend who encouraged us to try a couple different things. To be honest, the rest of the meal is kind of a blur; I'm lucky to be able to share the little I can remember at this point. What I can I tell you though is that the meal was terrific; something about eating at the Shahrazad Restaurant made it feel like we were that much closer to a true Middle Eastern experience. 

Living in Utah, you often forget that we have great international food resources right at the tip of our fingers. There are a few really good Asian, Middle Eastern, Indian, Mexican, even African markets in town. What's really cool is that most of these markets sell prepared food items for take away or even dine in. These markets offer true, authentic food from the trenches...made by those people submerged in the culture. So if you're like me and you love wandering around these markets, but don't really know what to do with half the stuff...take advantage of the good home cooking offered at these places: grab a quick bite, take all of the ambience and culture in, and then let the food guide you through a virtual vacation...right here in Utah.


Shahrazad Market and Restaurant
1615 West 2100 South
(801) 975-9977
***

Shahrazad Market & Restaurant on Urbanspoon 

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Little World

'...don't worry. They also have a drive-thru.'

You walk in and are not sure what to make of it. Cooks in the kitchen seem to be yelling at each other in a high pitched Chinese dialect. A restaurant worker is seated at a table in the middle of the dining room cleaning green beans - placing the clean ones in a colander and tossing the refuse in a plastic bag, while another employee slurps up hot noodle soup at the same table (guess it's her dinner break?). By the looks of the customers seated at the various tables you might have guessed you just walked into the DMV; some of the patrons are loud and cheerful, while others give you a dirty look making sure you don't look that way again. The restaurant doesn't look at all clean, let alone sanitary. In fact it's a dirty dive but you can't let that fact stop you. Your first instinct is to turn around and quickly walk out, get in your car, and drive straight to the nearest P.F. Chang's. But you've come this far...you have to go through with it. If you choose to accept this mission, you will be guaranteed perhaps the most flavorful and authentic tasting Chinese food in Utah...and it'll be cheap to boot.

Not daring to actually set foot into Little World? Okay, so there's an alternative. I do like to encourage people to go outside their eating comfort zones from time to time. It is, after all, character building - giving you a perspective that you might not have considered or experienced. But I also understand peoples' limits. Divey, hole-in-the-wall places like Little World do have their time and place as well as some charm (kind of), but if the dining room described above reminds you more of a scene out of a bad horror movie rather than a place you want to eat, then do what I do...and order for take-out! Little World might be a dumpy little place but they serve really great Chinese food. What I love about Chinese food is the amazing depth of flavor in each and every dish, the pungent odors, and the complex textures. As a kid my parents would often bring us to a neighborhood Chinese restaurant for dinner. Back then, I equated Chinese food to a fancy night out. In college, Chinese food garnered a more everyday kind of feel for me. With Chinatown only a hop, skip, and a jump away from my school, noodles, steamed pork buns, and dumplings became important staples to my San Francisco diet.

Little World brings me back to the flavors of San Francisco that I consider to be authentic in Chinese style cooking. Sure you can still get your sweet and sours, beef with broccoli, fried rice, and chow mein here...but you can also get so much more. You can't get more Chinese than to eat duck and the BBQ roast duck reminds me a lot of walking through Chinatown glancing at all of those hanging ducks in the windows of butchers and restaurants. Slightly charred, tender and moist, this duck will satisfy anyone's poultry craving. For those wanting to break the habit of getting General Tso's chicken (which I must admit is really delicious here - glazed gooeyness with a sweet-heat to it) I encourage going outside of what you're used to. I love Little World's chicken with black bean sauce. Black beans in Chinese cooking refers to fermented soy beans (not the traditional black beans you think of in terms of Southwest food). The beans provide a starchy and savory sauce with very deep soy flavors. Chinese food is well known for this penetrating savoriness and the black bean sauce here delivers great depth. Instead of the standard chow mein, give your noodles a little twist and order the Beef Chow Fun. Big fat, short, and wide rice noodles are dowsed and slightly seared with soy sauce creating a scrumptious morsel packed with flavor. The soft yet crispy and firm texture of the noodles is what makes this dish so great.

Little World offers a multitude of options for dine-in or take-out. With the servings they provide, you can get dinner plus leftovers for lunch the next day, maybe even lunch and dinner the next day. Chinese food has become so ubiquitous that people really take it for granted. It's a default in food courts, hospital cafeterias, and college campus' across the country and across continents. The globalization of this cuisine has caused a really probing, deep, soulful food to become readily available and recognizable. Unfortunately in this transition, a sad sanitization of the food has occurred in order to fit a more general (aka bland) palate. Some of the stuff you get around town at different chains isn't half bad at all, but throwing bok choy on a plate with soy sauce doesn't make it Chinese. Little World plays to the deep rooted flavors we all know and recognize in Chinese food. Though the restaurant could use a serious makeover, the food makes up for the lacking ambiance. So what to do the next time you don't feel like cooking dinner or when a night "in" with your favorite DVD is on tall order? Call up Little World and show up 15 minutes later. If you're still too scared to actually set foot in the restaurant to pick your order up, don't worry. They also have a drive-thru.

Little World ~ Salt Lake City, Utah
1356 South State Street
801-467-5213
***

Little World on Urbanspoon

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Greek Souvlaki

Enter the gyro (pronouced yeero).

When I was a kid, my mom would often drag me to the mall where she went on frequent shopping excursions. I found solace in these endless marathon shopping sessions by spending time in the bookstore flipping through comic books and then eventually picking up a snack at the food court. A food court in the mall. Not exactly the kind of place where you might expect to be introduced to a new and exotic food. But picture it: it was the mid-80s and I was a 12 year old boy (bowl cut and all) searching for something to eat in a big indoor shopping mall in the east San Francisco bay area. My usual snack was a square slice of pepperoni pizza and a soda. I rarely diverged from this all too familiar habit, but it was in the food court that I was introduced to something I'd never seen before.

Enter the gyro (pronouced yeero). A free sample persuaded me to try it and after a small bite - I was hooked. My then under developed palate told me that I liked everything going on in this Greek sandwich...even if I couldn't tell you back then what I liked so much about it. So here I am today and I have to tell you that I still love the gyro - and better yet - I can tell you exactly what I love about it. A great place to go for a quick, inexpensive gyro experience is Greek Souvlaki. We frequented this little gyro shop when I was a grad student at the U, but they've remodeled since those days and it's really quite nice on the inside. It's definitely a fast food kind of place, focusing on Greek delights. And the gyros here don't disappoint - luscious lamb meat, crisp tomatoes, a creamy yogurt sauce, a puffy hot toasted pita -the gyros here are delicious, savory, creamy, and crunchy. The perfect sandwich.

If you're looking to go outside the norm of the classic gyro there are a few options at Greek Souvlaki. One of my favorites is the Philly Gyro. The name Philly implies a cheesesteak feel and this sandwich certainly ties into this theme nicely. Sauteed peppers and mushrooms, and gobs of cheese top off this bad boy adding a depth of sweetness and earthiness to the classic gyro taste. If you want to go outside the realm of sandwiches, try out the Greek Spaghetti. The red sauce is oddly familiar but the addition of cinnamon really transforms the dish into something else. The cinnamon adds a heat or warmth to the pasta that is unexpected. Diving into it you immediately say to yourself, "Mmmm...what is that I'm tasting..."

There are a world of options for people who don't want to eat lamb (such as the chicken gyros), for vegetarians (like veggie gyros), as well as for those who want other classic Greek food (the kabob dish souvlaki, or filled grape leaves - dolmathes). For dessert the baklava is also great - crunchy layers of pastry with a gooey, sticky, nutty filling. An individual portion is small but filling and provides a great finish to your big, fat, Greek wedding...er...meal. Greek Souvlaki is Greek fast food at its best. It's not super fancy, but the service is fast and the food delivers an important one-two: taste and value.

Greek Souvlaki ~ Salt Lake City, Utah
404 East 300 South
With locations in Murray and West Valley City
***

Greek Souvlaki No. 1 on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Tiburon

'Sometimes "nice enough" isn't worth driving out of town for.'

To be honest, I rarely go outside city limits to try restaurants. Living in SLC, I find that we have a plethora of options that can fit any craving, price range, or style preference that anyone can ask for. But when I hear good things about restaurants, regardless of geography, I am more than willing to take a little drive to check it out. So many people I know who live outside of Salt Lake City rave about Tiburon as THE RESTAURANT for a fine dining experience. I've also heard so much about Tiburon over the years through various reviews, most of which were positive.  I thought this place warranted some investigation, even if I had to drive a few extra miles south to do so.

Having never been to Tiburon, I thought the restaurant was "nice enough", albeit perhaps a little boring. The outside has some definite curb appeal and I like the fact that they plant their own vegetable garden out back that is clearly visible from the parking lot. The interior was a tad on the smaller side; the decor was generically sort of nice but really just a bit un-memorable (literally - I couldn't tell you about the interior to save my life and I was there just a week ago!). I guess sometimes nice can be bland enough not to be noticed? We walked through the restaurant which was fairly crowded for a Wednesday night and got seated in what appeared to be overflow or patio seating. Again, "nice enough" I thought.

Darting through the menu, one particular appetizer immediately caught my eye...so we decided to get a head start on dinner with the kurabuto pork belly. Now this was a really great dish. The pork was braised tender and delicious, served with a creamy Brie (St. Andre's) and a caramelized onion jam. This appetizer was absolutely divine. The pork was crispy from a hard sear, as well as both tender and savory (as only pig can deliver) from a long flavorful braise. This tasty morsel contrasted well with the tart, creaminess of the cheese; the sweetness of the caramelized onions really unified the flavors quite nicely. It was a well composed dish: modern yet elegant - definitely fit for a fine dining experience. As I slowly devoured the appetizer, I thought that we were going to be in a for a true fine dining experience.

Unfortunately in scoping out the menu, nothing else really jumped out at me. Like the decor, I found the menu a little boring...nothing really earth shattering or mind blowing. I mean nothing sounded horrible, the menu just seemed a little mundane to me. Tiburon proclaims that they are well known for their elk - so I figured I would have to go with that. Interestingly, the entrees came with a house salad and an intermezzo sorbet to cleanse the palate. I'm glad that these came with the main course because the pricing is what I would consider on the higher end for this type of straight forward menu. Although the salad was "nice enough" it was not my idea of a gourmet salad one would expect from a fine dining establishment. Mixed greens were tossed with a light vinaigrette and topped with candied pecans, apples, and shredded mozarella cheese. I thought the cheese was a strange touch...sort of reminding me of a topping you'd see at an all you can eat salad bar. For this price point I think fresh mozarella would have been a more appropriate choice, coinciding with a true fine dining experience. The shredded cheese seemed like a chintzy corner cutting cost measure (say that three times in a row fast). Unfortunately it just made the salad look cheap. Cheese aside, the salad was "nice enough" (much like the decor) but it did begin to make me think that Tiburon and I had different ideas of what fine dining meant. 

For the main course we tried the elk - the house-specialty - as well as the pepper crusted steak. Steak "au poivre" is a classic French preparation for a steak loosely crusted with cracked and whole black peppercorns. Generally speaking I'm not a big fan of steak au poivre but I can enjoy it from time to time. The steak prepared as it was here was almost inedible for me. The pepper literally burnt my palate and would have prevented me from really being able to taste anything else if I continued to eat it. This could have been my own sensitivity but I do think they went a bit heavy handed with the pepper. Others at the table seemed to think it was fine and luckily I had the elk to fall back on. The grilled elk tenderloin was served with a creamy mushroom "duxelle" and a green peppercorn demi-glace.  The elk was cooked nicely, very soft and tender, not gamy at all - but for whatever reason the flavor didn't really pop for me. I was hoping that the accompanying preparations would help with that but these side sauces just ended up confusing me a little. The "duxelle" wasn't a true duxelle but instead whole mushrooms cooked in a cream sauce. I thought the sauce was lovely but I'm not sure why they felt the need to call it a duxelle which is typically a sort of paste made from chopped up mushrooms (as I learned it in culinary school anyway). The green peppercorn demi-glace was intensely sweet - really cloying on the palate. I actually thought it was a blueberry reduction because of the sweetness mixed with the size of the peppercorns (which I at first mistook for a berry of some type). I thought the sweetness of the demi-glace was too much for the elk - masking its flavor instead of enhancing it. I also found the two sauces a little confusing on the plate....almost like overkill. I would have been in favor of one really great sauce to complement the elk as opposed to two mediocre sauces that didn't marry very well on the plate.

Adding to the confusion of the mains were the sides of veggies served with both dishes. The veggies were actually the same for each dish, which I also found to be a little chintzy. I once worked in a hotel restaurant where we did exactly that - we served all the same side dishes and starches with any protein ordered. I hated it because it made it seem like we were just doing what was easiest and cost/labor effective - not necessarily what paired best with a particular protein. I got a little bit of that same feeling here...a feeling you shouldn't be getting at a "fine dining restaurant". The side of vegetables consisted of a couple of rods of asparagus, some carrots, and an odd smattering of spaghetti squash. I didn't really get the spaghetti squash. It was an interesting texture but it almost seemed like a random placement with not much thought going into why it was there. It also added to the overt sweetness of the dish with the demi-glace. The garlic mashed potatoes came as the starch on both dishes as well. Again "nice enough", but pretty boring.

Given the cost of the meal, I was fairly disappointed with Tiburon. I didn't get the sense of a true fine dining establishment and the food, while not horrible, was way off from a 5 star experience. If I paid a half or two-thirds of what the bill was, I think I would have been pretty satisfied - but when I shell out some major cash for a "fine dining" experience I expect the restaurant to meet some level of my expectation. Tiburon definitely did not. The one true star the whole evening was the appetizer of the kurabuto pork belly. It was a focused, well thought out dish with a nice layer of flavors. Its appearance was inviting and it was plated artistically - essentials to a fine dining experience. Given that this dish came out of the same kitchen as the entrees, there is obviously some talent in the kitchen. Unfortunately for me, I didn't see this talent come through in the main courses; I also found the attention to detail lacking in many aspects of the meal. Sadly, eating at Tiburon reminded why I don't often venture out of the SLC restaurant scene. Sometimes "nice enough" isn't worth driving out of town for.

Tiburon ~ Sandy, Utah
8256 South 700 East
Chef/owner: Ken Rose
**.5

Tiburon on Urbanspoon

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Fresco

"The intimate setting is inviting and comfortable..."

When I graduated from college many years ago, my closest friends and I invited all of our parents to celebrate with a quaint dinner we hosted at a local Italian place called Cafe Riggio in the Richmond district of San Francisco. The restaurant was a neighborhood place, close to our university, that we reserved for special occasions due to price as well as the special, intimate atmosphere the small restaurant fostered. The food was always wonderful and the feeling of celebration in the form of pasta, polenta, and risotto at our graduation celebration had a huge impact on me. It was a special place I'd never forget and it forever shaped what I look for in a special occasion restaurant - small homey, intimate, yet sophisticated climate with food to match...modern yet approachable.

Fast forward to life in Salt Lake City. I was invited to Fresco in the 15th and 15th neighborhood to join some friends for a celebratory dinner (this was some 8 odd years ago). I immediately had a sense of nostalgia for Cafe Riggio as I walked into the tiny Fresco dining room. Fresco is situated within an old house. By virtue of limited space, tables are close together which builds a quaint and intimate setting. In the winter this tiny dining room offers the only seating available but spring time sees the opening of a lovely outdoor patio until Fall. Although I can't remember a lot of the details of the dinner (this was a long time ago) I do remember the risotto having been the best risotto I'd ever eaten. Over the next few years, Fresco had quickly become my new go-to special occasion restaurant...fulfilling what I looked for in a place where I wanted to celebrate something memorable.

Unfortunately, I noticed a quality change in Fresco as the years passed. Although the ambiance and service were always great, I moved from loving the food one year to thinking it was overrated the next. The quality and vision of the food changed with the hands of a new chef that took the helm at Fresco every few years and I felt these changes were often for the worse. I visited Fresco maybe once or twice a year for a good four years to celebrate birthdays or major milestone events and I finally just got frustrated with Fresco's variability. My recommendation to others regarding Fresco at that time was that it could be good, but for the price it should be better.

In an odd series of events, I actually ended up working briefly in the Fresco kitchen years after I had stopped eating there. I did what's called a "stage" and worked for a brief few weeks on the line. The chef that I worked for was amazing and I enjoyed everything I did, learned, and ate. When I started reviewing restaurants I never felt comfortable reviewing Fresco because of my short lived connection to the place and my respect of the chef. However hands at the helm of the Fresco kitchen have changed since then and Martin Combs is now the chef. Coinciding with his arrival and his new spring menu was a graduation in my family; I knew the perfect place to celebrate this special occasion - and reservations for dinner at Fresco were quickly made.

We started with a simple bruschetta to open the evening: crisp bread slathered with ricotta, roasted garlic and peppers, covered with prosciutto, and a lightly dressed arugula. The flavors melded nicely with a sweet and savory combination from the garlic and peppers, a saltiness from the prosciutto, and a sharp bite from the arugula; the crisp bread did its job nicely to hold all of it together and provide a platform for everything else. It was a well constructed dish - a lovely layer of flavors. We followed with the cafe salad which was a nice basic salad with apples and mixed greens in a sherry thyme vinaigrette (I made this vinaigrette many a time when I was there), served with a tasty fontina crusted slice of baguette. While simple, and really not even that elegantly plated, the salad was a great prelude to the main event.

We shared two pasta entrees: the agnolotti and the rigatoni. The rigatoni was served with sausage and goat cheese. I must say it was just okay. The pasta was well cooked and individually the components were of great quality, but the marriage of everything wasn't there - the dish seemed a little disjointed...by no means bad, but a little disconnected...nothing really tying it together. The agnolotti however was quite the opposite. It was superb. The agnolotti was stuffed with ricotta and mixed in with a chicken jus and wilted greens. Crisp, perfectly cooked roasted chicken was served atop the agnolotti dripping its succulent juices all over the bite sized morsels of pasta. The perfectly seasoned chicken was crispy on the outside and tender and juicy on the inside; the agnolotti gave a contrast in flavor and texture with its soft, mild ricotta stuffing - all of which was tied together nicely by the savory jus. Wilted radicchio added a nice crisp, peppery contrast. It was just a perfect dish to me. I could have ended dinner there and would have been more than satisfied.

Of course having spent some time in the kitchen, there was no way I wasn't having dessert. While I "staged" at Fresco, I plated up intricately designed desserts conjured up by Fresco's amazing pastry chef Melissa Phillips - and there was no way I was not going to finish my meal in style. We ended with a warm chocolate cake and a chilled chocolate espresso soup with cinnamon whipped cream. The cake was warm, gooey, and delicious. The rich bittersweet chocolate was perfectly balanced - not too sweet or too bitter - and the chilled soup added a nice chocolate milk/coffee element. It was nice to wash down the warm cake with something cool; that little bitter zing from the espresso didn't hurt either. I was very content by the end of my meal and my time spent at Fresco that night reminded me of why this restaurant is great for special occasions. The intimate setting is inviting and comfortable and I must say that the current chefs' food certainly matches the ambiance the restaurant has to offer. Does this mean my next special occasion will be at Fresco? Well...I think it just might.

Fresco ~ Salt Lake City, Utah
15th & 15th
Chef/Owner: Mikel Trapp
Chef de cuisine: Martin Combs
Pastry Chef: Melissa Phillips
****

Fresco Italian Cafe on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Bayleaf Cafe

'...I could immediately tell it had been simmered with the right flavors.'

A Southerner, a Filipino, and a Utahn walk into a cafe...oh wait...that sounds too much like the start of a raunchy joke doesn't it? Okay, let's start over. Two friends and I went for lunch downtown to take advantage of the Dine-O-Round specials. We settled on the Bayleaf Cafe over other restaurants because although the Southerner and I (the Filipino) had been to Bayleaf before, the Utahn had not - and we were all very eager to try out the eclectic Asian menu that had intrigued us all. Plus at $5, the price was right for lunch and the time was now. So Bayleaf it was.

The restaurant occupies a spacious downtown location. The interior of the Bayleaf is clearly a work in progress; it isn't what I'd call a refined avant garde atmosphere....it gives off more of a homey, yet quirkey vibe. Speaking of homey, yet quirky, the menu definitely seems to have a few oddities at first glance. A distinctly Southern portion of the menu is complimented with an interesting selection of Asian dishes (huh?). The entire menu is then rounded out with standard diner style breakfast fare (double huh?!?). This combination does seem a bit confusing, perhaps even oddly unfocused to the average eater, but given the background of the co-owners who themselves are Asian (Filipino and Chinese) and from the American South, it does seem to make a little more sense...at least it does to me.

As a kid, I was treated to an odd mix of Filipino food made by my mom and American comfort foods created by my dad (who was a cook in the Navy). So I know a little about intersecting cultural bounds through the comfort of food. I think this interesting exposure to different flavors and food styles as a kid has really shaped my palate today and it certainly has opened me up to seeing food in a little different light. To me seeing Asian food alongside American comfort foods like meatloaf on the Bayleaf's menu is not only NOT odd, it's pretty damned cool. Now as a kid, one of my all time favorite Filipino foods to eat was a dish called adobo. Adobo is a Filipino dish of meat (chicken or pork usually) stewed in a combination of soy sauce, garlic, bay leaves, vinegar, and black peppercorns. It's the national dish of the Philippines and is probably one of the most popular and most recognizable Filipino dishes aside from lumpia (the beloved Filipino egg roll).

I myself make chicken adobo frequently at home but always long for my mom's home cooking. So for this reason, adobo is comfort food to me. Unfortunately I feel like I can never make this dish as good as my mom - so I was really eager to try the Bayleaf's version out. My Southern friend and I decided to do the Dine-O-Round chicken adobo lunch dish; it came in a medium sized bowl full of steamed rice, topped off with the chicken adobo along with stir-fried veggies. Adobo was something new for the Southerner and I was impressed and excited that she wanted to try it for the first time. She said she really enjoyed it. As the adobo hit the table and I took a big whiff, I could immediately tell it had been simmered with the right flavors. My first bite of the chicken was what I expected; the flavor profile was easily recognizable to me as adobo: a tamed saltiness from the soy, slight garlic background, and a tangy-ness from the vinegar. The stir fried veggies gave some crunchy texture to the dish, as well as some much needed color. I liked it...and I'm not the easiest person to please. But the big question was, how did it compare to my mom's? Well again, I hold my mom's version in high regard - possibly untouchable. So in all honesty...well...my mom's is better. The flavors are just a little more robust, a little deeper. I mean who doesn't long for your mom's home cooking? Maybe it's that little extra bit of love that a mom puts in that makes the difference? But I would say that the Bayleaf's adobo is very similar in terms of flavor to the adobo I cook myself. And I think my adobo is pretty darned good. So there you have it. I think the Bayleaf's adobo is pretty darned good.

My Utahn friend had the bulgogi for lunch, a Korean beef dish served over the same stir fried veggies and steamed rice. Bulgogi has a characteristic flavor of soy and garlic with a hint of sesame. Again, the Bay Leaf's version did a good job at getting a nuanced flavor of bulgogi down. Although the Utahn agreed that the flavors could have been a bit stronger, the food was still quite delicious; the grilled meat had a nice smoky component as well. Our lunch that day inspired the Utahn to come back to the Bayleaf, where she and her husband tried the pot roast and meatloaf...doing American comfort food their next time around. In fact there are a multitude of menu items like these to choose from. I've been to the Bayleaf now a few times, but prior to this I've only experienced their breakfast menu which I've enjoyed. The Southerner tells me she does like the Southern menu, with the side dishes being the real stars at the Bayleaf Cafe; some of her favorites include the fried pickles, cheesy-grits, and the black-eyed peas (referred to as Hoppin' John on the menu).

In reading what others have said about the Bayleaf, I've noticed a trend where people either love it or hate it. A lot of the negative comments I've read focus on poor service, so I'm happy to report that our service was excellent. Our food came out in a timely manner and the owner even came by our table to check on how our meal went. He also spent a few extra minutes to chat with us. I'm not sure why, but he even brought out a complimentary dessert for us to share - the nanner pudding (Southern hospitality?!?). Nilla wafers topped with banana pudding, chopped bananas, and whipped cream. The pudding was cool and creamy, contrasting nicely with the slight crunch of the Nilla wafers on the bottom...the density of the bananas gave it some much needed body. Mmm...it was a fun end to a lovely meal...not overly fussy or fancy, but it was nice nonetheless.

Take a closer look and you'll notice a bit of clarity in what might seem to be a cluttered, unfocused menu. The menu is clearly centered around comfort food, whether it be comfort food from the Southern U.S. or from Asia. I'm really looking forward to returning to the Bayleaf Cafe. Even though the food may not top my mom's cooking, it does bring back a wonderful taste memory for me...a nostalgia if you will...and that makes me happy. So if the beginning of the story goes - a Southerner, a Filipino, and a Utahn walk into a cafe - I guess the punch line is: and they walk out satisfied.

Bayleaf Cafe ~ Salt Lake City, Utah
159 South Main Street
Co-owners: Seth and Haylen
***

Bayleaf Cafe on Urbanspoon

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Metropolitan

'...they still got it.'

Three things I like about spring: 1) an end to snow, 2) the weather is not too hot yet, but not freezing cold (it reminds me a lot of the weather I grew up with in the bay area), and 3) new spring restaurant menus. New spring menus mean that a restaurant changes their menu according to the seasons. Eating what's in season means using the freshest product out there; it's also a nice change to the monotony people might feel in a menu that stays the same year in and year out. I think we all get in a rut, eating what we know and love at our favorite establishments. The thought of something new on the menu allows a restaurant to grow and re-introduce itself to you. It had been a while since I had been to the Metropolitan...and I felt like it was time to get re-acquainted.

The Metropolitan offers a great space - the mix of materials such as exposed concrete, stainless steel, and polished copper all work together in a fluid modern concept. You can't help but feel sophisticated and chic in this place. The service is equally as bright, with obvious professionals aiding you at the front door, serving you pre-dinner cocktails at the bar, and executing near flawless service tableside during your meal. The experience is seamless at the Metropolitan; it's easy to be there...and the good news is that it's even easier to eat there. We started our meal off with an amuse bouche of a crisp potato wafer in a potato and leek puree. This duo of potato nicely reflected a deep, rich potato flavor in the puree with the crispy potato adding some nice crunch. We started our meal off with ease.

We continued with a plate of the artisanal green salad. The salad was lovely, lightly dressed in a creamy ramp dressing, topped with shaved fennel, crispy sweet potato, and smoked onions. The smoked onions gave a nice smokey background and almost a pickled kind of taste - adding some zest to the salad. This paired nicely with the licorice flavor from the fennel and the sweetness of the potato crisps. Ramps, which are relatives of the leek, really give this salad a nice bright, spring coating in the form of a creamy vinaigrette. This composed salad was really quite amazing....artisanal indeed.

We continued to be impressed with our entrees. The Utah trout was particularly satisfying, served over a pear and pistachio puree alongside some radishes and fiddlehead ferns. The trout was well cooked, although I thought the skin could have been crisper (I'm a big fan of crispy fish skin) and the pistachio and pear puree offered a rich, sweet, nutty, and creamy alternative to mashed potatoes. The soft texture of trout paired with a soft puree screams for some texture and that's where the fiddlehead ferns came in. If you've never had a fiddlehead fern, I suggest you try it...before it's too late. Fiddlehead ferns are only available for a limited time in the spring so I'm sure this is one entree on the Metropolitan's menu that will change in the next month. The fiddlehead ferns are a bit like green beans in that they don't have a strong flavor, but they offered a nice crunch to the otherwise soft accoutrements.

Also pretty amazing was the Wagyu beef. Wagyu is essentially the American version of Japanese Kobe beef, arguably the best beef in the world. At the Metropolitan, their Wagyu is served over fava beans and ciopollini onions, with mashed leeks and cashew butter. The beef, cooked perfectly medium-rare melted in your mouth. I hate to say it because it's kind of cliche - but it was like butter. The onion and mashed leek gave it an American steakhouse appeal but the cashew butter added a richness that brought this dish to another level. Could it get any better than this?

Indeed it did. Better came in the form of dessert: a red curry crepe served with caramelized bananas and chocolate with a dollop of yogurt sorbet on top. In a word: delicious. The bananas were sweet and silky, a hint of cinnamon gave it a Banana's Fosters feel. The use of red curry in the crepe batter was ingenious. The curry offers a slight bit of heat as well as that wonder factor. If the menu hadn't told me there was curry in the crepe, I would have never guessed it. It doesn't register on your tongue as the spice that you know from Indian or Thai food - but the crepe has a unique flavor that keeps you guessing and that's what I really enjoyed. The chocolate and yogurt sorbet melted into a sauce that really brought the entire thing together. A superb ending to a great meal.

The dessert, the entire meal really, kept me on my toes, taking food I was familiar with and giving it a little unique twist - turning everything into something a little more special. To me that's what New American cooking is all about: a modern interpretation on classic American flavors. The Metropolitan is a master at its craft. In my mind it was the first and is really still one of the few forerunners of modern, cutting edge food here in Salt Lake City. The Metropolitan has long been Utah's model for New American Cuisine and their new spring menu is a reminder to me that sometimes the tried and true places like the Metropolitan...they still got it.

The Metropolitan ~ Salt Lake City, Utah
173 West Broadway
Principal Owner: Karen Olson
Executive Chefs: Chris Durfee and Justin Shifflett
*****

Metropolitan on Urbanspoon

Friday, April 2, 2010

Hatch Family Chocolates

'We all have our weaknesses in life...'

I have a confession to make: I'm a chocolaholic. I need to eat a piece of chocolate every day...even if it's just a little bite.  I know I have a problem...I'm addicted but acknowledging you have a problem is the first step right? There are a number of places to go to get my chocolate fix around Salt Lake City but one of my favorites is Hatch Family Chocolates. Located in the Avenues neighborhood of SLC, this family run chocolate shop offers a variety of chocolate confections, as well as ice cream, coffee, and espresso. If I'm in the neighborhood (or sometimes even if I'm across town) I'll swing by this candy shop for some sweet relief.

One really cool aspect of their store is that all of the chocolate is made and dipped by hand. That means if you've got a chocolate covered caramel, they not only roll out the caramel by hand but then they dip individual pieces into different chocolates by hand as well. Now that's dedication and true artistry - not to mention time consuming. Most chocolate places use a conveyor belt system to "enrobe" their candies in chocolate giving them an endless supply. I like the fact that at Hatch, it truly is a hands-on affair for these chocolatiers. It also means that everything in the cases is pretty fresh; however, that also means there is a limited supply of particular candies. So they can and do run out of candy quickly...therefore, if you see what you want - get it.

There are different chocolates that fill the cases but some of my favorites include the dark chocolate caramels, the haystack, orange creams, and the chocolate covered dates. I love the bitter taste and chalky feel of dark, dark chocolate. It makes for a great contrast with the sweetness of Hatch's smooth, soft, rich and creamy caramels. Orange and chocolate is another great combination and not only are the flavors paired nicely in Hatch's orange creams,  the thick layer of chocolate is also a great textural contrast to the orange cream's gooey center. Although I mostly indulge in dark chocolates, I also believe there is a time and a place for milk chocolate. Hatch's haystacks offer a nice milk chocolate bite amidst crisp, toasted coconut - another classic flavor combination. And an interesting fruit filled delicacy to try is the milk chocolate covered date. It's a date stuffed with nougat, covered in chocolate and walnuts. It's sweet, savory, and fleshy all in one bite. It's got some fruit in it, so it's healthy right? In addition to an array of different chocolates, Hatch also serves up some specialty desserts. Need a last minute dessert for a dinner party? Pick up a few of Hatch's chocolate pot de cremes. These creamy little chocolate puddings go a long way to end any meal just right; they also work as a great afternoon snack...with whip cream or without.

Neighborhood chocolate stores are becoming a thing of the past. So it's nice to see a shop like Hatch's doing well. It's perfectly located in a place where you can drop by, get a sweet treat and move along. And I often find myself doing just that. It doesn't take much for me to fill my chocolate addiction. Just one of Hatch's little creations usually is enough to curb my craving. But when I enter the shop and get the whiff of all that chocolate in the air, I usually end up stocking up on a few things. We all have our weaknesses in life...and I am an addict after all.


Hatch Family Chocolates ~ Salt Lake City, Utah
The Avenues
390 4th Avenue
Co-owners: Steve and Katie Hatch
****

note: Steve, Katie, and the gang at Hatch Family Chocolates appear weekly (every Tuesday night) on the cable channel TLC in their own reality show/documentary series called Little Chocolatiers.


Hatch Family Chocolates on Urbanspoon

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Pagoda



'...it unfortunately was pretty sad.'

I've always been fascinated with the exterior of the Pagoda restaurant in the Avenues. The beautiful Pagoda like structure and the exquisitely kept landscaping out front has always caught my eye. I'm a sucker for aesthetics, so every time I drive by the Pagoda I feel like the restaurant is calling my name - and I always have the urge to drop in to try it. This has been going on for the past 10 years. Why, then have I never stepped foot into this restaurant if I've been so curious? How did I withstand the urge to ever have a meal there? Well the answer is simple: everyone I ever talked to about the place has told me it sucks. "Sucks ass" - I think that's an exact quote. Recently though, the original owners of Pagoda have sublet the restaurant out to someone else. When I heard that Marlene Noda, formerly a manager at Ginza, took over the reigns at Pagoda - I seized the opportunity to finally eat at this classic Utah establishment.

I wish I could say the aesthetics inside of the place match the fun exterior. The interior in fact was much the opposite of fun - it unfortunately was pretty sad. Upon finally entering the restaurant, I was surprised to see what must be the original furniture (which was probably purchased in the late 50s/early 60s?) still occupying the dining room. The dining room itself is very, very dark. Somewhat odd, generic-looking Asian-type screens are scattered sporadically around the tables to break the room up but the mix of this more chic decor alongside old, beat up vinyl black chairs is a little unsettling. In fact, it gives off a little bit of a convalescent home-trying to be hip-kind of feel. Not at all appetizing.

A friend and I had lunch at the Pagoda and began by sharing the self-proclaimed house specialty sushi roll - "The Pagoda Roll". Big mistake. The roll consisted of either tuna or salmon (I couldn't even tell what fish was in it) rolled in traditional Maki style with rice and seaweed (I think there might have been cream cheese or avocado in it as well, who knows?) that was then battered and tempura fried and topped with a flavored mayo (aioli) and soy.  Ack.  The flavors were so muddled. It could have been chicken in there for all that mattered. A few hours later, both my friend and I felt a little sick in the stomach. We both think it was thanks to this house specialty.

To try a variety of things for lunch, I decided on getting the "Daniel-San" which was a Bento box consisting of the famous Pagoda BBQ ribs, gyoza, a California roll, tempura onions and white rice. This is a lot of food, but for $14.95 it seemed a bit steep to me for lunch. This priced seemed even more steep after I actually tried the food. To be fair, the ribs were the best out of the bunch - soft and tender with a sticky and slightly sweet sauce. Nothing totally superb, but they were good. The gyoza, little Japanese potstickers which I normally love, were a little off tasting to me - a bit too gingery, the texture of which was a little mushy. The tempura onions were unmemorable, crispy yet pretty bland; I've definitely had way better. To top it off the California roll was uninspired; krab with a k is just crab with a p. Overall the Bento box was limp, definitely lacking some major personality. I think I would have been happier with just a plate of the ribs and rice. My friend who got the "Noda-san" (vegetable tempura with chicken teriyaki, a tuna roll, and rice) also commented how unimpressive it was. In fact he mentioned that the teriyaki at the Smith's grocery store at 8th and 9th is a lot better...and cheaper. Too bad they can't just stick a big ol' pagoda inside of there to attract more customers.

To top it off, we wanted to talk a little with Marlene about her move from Ginza to Pagoda, as well as to see if there were any major changes coming to the restaurant under her supervision. We asked the waiter several times if she were available and although he insisted she was coming out to speak with us, she never showed. The restaurant wasn't busy at all, so it would have been nice to get a hello at the very least.

It seems this new Pagoda has got some problems - problems that the beautiful exterior unfortunately can't help. I guess it's true what they say...it's what's on the inside that really counts. For their sake I hope Pagoda has a major overhaul coming up. The place has so much potential with such a great exterior; it's got curb appeal as they say. Finally eating at this Utah classic was essentially anti-climatic for me. Like their Bento box, the restaurant was poorly executed, limp, and seemingly soul-less. I drove past Pagoda the other day on my way to the chocolate shop in the Avenues and, not surprisingly, I no longer had any desire to drop in.

Pagoda  ~ Salt Lake City, Utah
26 N. E Street ~ The Avenues
Owner: Marlene Noda
**

Pagoda on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Ruth Chris Steakhouse

'Ruth Chris Steakhouses...they ain't cheap'

To be honest I don't normally eat at many chain restaurants. I count myself lucky to live in a city where there are many locally owned and independently operated places to eat - and I really enjoy supporting local businesses (that is - as long as they are good). So you typically wouldn't find me at a place like the Ruth Chris Steakhouse but my mom happened to send me a gift card to Ruth Chris for my birthday and I'm never one to turn down free food (I think this goes back to my days as a starving graduate student and sometimes it's hard to break life-long habits, like say, devouring a free buffet of food when you think no one is looking....but I digress).

The first Ruth Chris I've ever been to was the local downtown Salt Lake City location. The space was formerly occupied by the Gastronomy run restaurant Baci; Ruth Chris had converted the space giving it a great ambience, complete with an elegant "business-casual" feel and beautiful decor. Right from the start you could tell that the servers were well trained and that this was a tip-top production, a tightly run ship. Our server had a great knowledge of wine, our steaks were perfectly cooked, came out in a timely (but not too quick) fashion and were delicious, and everything added up to a great evening. That is until we were told that the gift card given to me by my mom was invalid. Well actually it's a longer story than that, but suffice it to say - we thought we were getting a free dinner and we wound up having to pay an almost $200 bill for two people. Yikes; this is something you should know about all Ruth Chris Steakhouses...they ain't cheap. A steak alone (literally alone, you don't get anything with your steak except steak - it's served a la carte) is a minimum of like $25; add in drinks and side dishes and/or salads and you're easily close to $100 for a single person.
 
Obviously there was a mistake somewhere along the convoluted path from my mom's original purchase to the issuing of the gift card, and like any person on a mission to get my free food back, I had many very productive (and I might add enjoyable) conversations with general managers both in Salt Lake and in California (where my mom is from and where she purchased the card for me) to try to fix what was broken. In the end, Ruth Chris not only sent me a gift card for the original purchase made by my mother, but they also doubled the amount for all of the trouble that was caused on their end. Very classy indeed. This chain was starting to win me over.

Due to mis-management (unrelated to my own gift card debacle), the Salt Lake Ruth Chris ended up closing for good (incidentally, the space is currently occupied by another high end steakhouse chain called Donovan's). So in order to take advantage of this newly issued gift card, we headed up to Park City where the only other Ruth Chris in the state of Utah is located. The Park City Ruth Chris is housed within the Hotel Park City. The space is equally as lovely as the Salt Lake venue was, with a smaller, more ski-lodge feel...appropriate for a hotel restaurant residing in a ski town....and thankfully the interior was not an exact replica of the downtown Salt Lake location. The service again was excellent, they had a great wine list, and a very nice ambience. And what about the food? Just like my first experience, the food was awesome.

We started with a very large Caesar salad, not too heavily dressed, served with big slivers of Parmigiano Reggiano. The salad was quite satisfying with a tart citrus flavor curbed by the nice saltiness of the cheese and anchovies. This could have been a meal unto itself and in fact when we got the main course, I wish I hadn't eaten all my salad - I almost had no more room for the main event. I had the New York strip, medium-rare; it landed right in front of me sizzling on a hot plate laden with melted butter. Our table shared two side dishes - the whipped potatoes and the sauteed wild mushrooms. Each dish was magnificent in their own right but the steak was the definite star. The steak, perfectly cooked, was tender and moist, harboring a robust, deep flavor just enriched by the puddle of butter it rested on. The potatoes were smooth, velvety and creamy - and the mushrooms were delicious with a nutty, earthy, flavor. Both of these sides complimented the steak giving the meal different textures and flavors...add in great service and ambience....and again Ruth Chris serves up a lovely evening. And better yet, they accepted the gift card this time around no questions asked. Thanks mom!

Certainly there are high end chains out there that do really great food and strive to excel at customer service - and the Ruth Chris Steakhouse definitely falls into this category. The fact of the matter is that good food is good food, no matter if it's from a chain or a local place, or from a hot dog stand or your grandma's kitchen. But even given the great experiences I've had at Ruth Chris, these still haven't changed my fundamental philosophy about supporting local restaurants. Sure that means you won't find me eating every week at the Ruth Chris (I couldn't afford it anyway!) but if I had to recommend a great steakhouse in Utah....solely based on the food...Ruth Chris would definitely be in my top three.


Ruth Chris Steakhouse ~ Park City, Utah
Hotel Park City
****

-new SLC location under construction




Ruth Chris Steakhouse on Urbanspoon




Ruth's Chris Steak House on Urbanspoon

Monday, February 22, 2010

Les Madeleines

 'Les Madeleines makes the best macaroons.'

When I was a kid growing up my aunt Rose used to always make macaroons for Christmas. She made hundreds of tiny little macaroons - crisp on the outside and gooey on the inside. I always ate tons but for whatever reason grew an aversion to them over the years. I think I just overdosed on macaroons every Christmas or perhaps just longed for something new and different. It's interesting how times change and something that revolted you as a child excites you as an adult. Fast forward to current day where I find myself drooling over any glass bakery case which prominently displays delectable macaroons. I'm not sure what my problem was but now I love macaroons. I LOVE them.

Simply put - Les Madeleines makes the best macaroons. They're light and fluffy like cake with a texture and flavor that only dried coconut exudes. The macaroons are uniquely scented with orange and one end is delicately coated in chocolate giving a sophisticated feel to this little morsel. Les Madeleines also makes classic French macarons. You've probably seen these colorful cookies that look like little sandwiches. Also quite good. On the day you hit Les Madeleines the content of their glass bakery case may vary. They have also been known to run out of things and not replenish. So be forewarned. When you see something you want, get it. Also be on the lookout for their classic black and white (or half moon) cookies (just like in New York!). I can only describe these as more of a cake or shortbread that is shaped like a big cookie and iced with half vanilla icing and dark chocolate icing. It's more or less like a cookie-brownie-cupcake type thing, but is absolutely delicious.

If you're not up to eating sweets (blasphemy?) try to drop into Les Madeleines for lunch. They have a small assortment of lunch items. My favorite is the sesame chicken salad wrap. House made chicken salad is wrapped up tightly in a lettuce cup and again tightly wrapped in a rice-paper-cellophane wrapper. Alone the sandwich is a little dull, but dipping it into the sesame/miso vinaigrette really evokes a wonderful flavor, elevating the sandwich a couple of notches on the taste meter. Edamame is served on the side, a really healthful and fun alternative to potato chips. I also normally get a fresh limeade to wash it all down with. Les Madeleines is a favorite lunch stop of mine where I can pick something up quickly and then head back to work so I can work through lunch in my office. It's a sad life I know but that sweet treat for dessert (a macaroon or black and white perhaps?) helps me to finish off lunch with a smile and energizes me to tackle the rest of my day.


I just love pastry shops and bakeries. Although I myself am not much of a baker, I really appreciate the artistry involved in such an endeavor. My aunt Rose would stay up long nights to finish her macaroons for the Christmas holidays. If you've ever made macaroons, you know they can be a sticky mess. So I know a lot of skill and a lot of love go into making these little things. I for one was always grateful for my aunt's industriousness...and I for one am grateful that I can find a little bit of my aunt in the macaroons at Les Madeleines.


Les Madeleines ~ Salt Lake City, Utah
216 East 500 South
Chef Romina Rasmussen
****


Les Madeleines Patisserie on Urbanspoon

Wild Grape

'Hit or miss.'

Hit or miss. It's not the best way to describe a restaurant's performance. Inconsistency is a restaurant killer. I mean really, who wants to go to a restaurant and at the end of the evening get hit with the reality that they just wasted their good, hard earned cash on a crappy meal or on sub-par service? Not me anyway. So - I've been to the Wild Grape at least a dozen or so times these past two years to try to figure them out...and unfortunately 'hit or miss' is the way I'd have to describe their food (and service). Sometimes it's good and sometimes not so good. In fact a big reason it's taken me so long to write this review is because I've got mixed feelings about the place. There are times when the stars align and I just love it and then other times I wonder why the heck I ever went back. Below I recount some highs and lows from a few experiences to exemplify what I'm talking about.

Low - flat iron steak with truffled mac n' cheese, topped with lightly dressed arugula. The steak was perfectly cooked medium rare but unfortunately both the steak and the mac n' cheese underneath were stone cold...not even room temp, but stone cold. Did the cook think that he could plate the dish up 30 minutes before the other dishes for the table were ready? And how did the cold food pass the chef/expeditor? In any case, amateurish performance at best. MISS.

High - Sunday prime rib dinner: perfectly cooked medium rare prime rib with mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables. The meat was tender and juicy, made even more succulent served in its savory jus. I'm picky when it comes to prime rib because I think my dad's prime rib is the best ever - and biting into this meat made me think of my dad's food. Taste memory: it's a powerful thing and it's what every dish should strive to evoke in some way, shape or form. And this prime rib had a dramatic effect on me. Hard to believe that this dish came out of the same kitchen on the same night as the flat iron steak above.  HIT.

Low - Sunday brunch. Bad service, dirty tables, dry potatoes, and the absolute worst beignets and huevos rancheros I've ever had. Dry seemed to be a pervasive theme as both the beignets and huevos seemed to lack any moisture. Seriously - not good at all. Everyone knows that brunch is a time when a restaurant basically puts up their "B team" line up of cooks (since the really good cooks are needed for dinner). But on this particular Sunday it seemed like they staffed the Wild Grape kitchen with rejects from the reality TV show "Worst Cooks in America". How can a restaurant serve elegant, eclectic food for dinner and then crap for breakfast? Either inconsistency is a goal for this place or someone's just not paying attention. In any case - MISS.

High - seared salmon over gnocchi with spinach puree. On a recent trip back to the Wild Grape I decided to give the salmon a try, mostly to see if the Wild Grape could redeem itself. On a past trip, I hadn't been too enthused about the fish dish I ordered. So yeah, of course on this night - the salmon was EXCELLENT. It was cooked a perfect medium. Whoever cooked that piece of fish definitely knew what he was doing because the sear on that sucker was amazing. The fish was served crispy skin side up over caramelized gnocchi with a lovely bright green spinach sauce. The salmon was topped off with orange and lime rinds giving it a nice brightness of flavor and the spinach rendered a freshness to the dish. The gnocchi had a crisp texture but were light and fluffy - absolutely lovely. Definite HIT.

The menu changes seasonally, which means you may never see some of the above menu items on your own visit, but this gives you an idea of the style of food they serve. Other mentionables? Butternut squash soup - not my favorite. Wild Grape house salad - really nice. Lamb burger - just okay. Chocolate Smores Tort - great. Mmmm...so where does this leave us? I'm not exactly sure but you see what I mean? Sometimes the Wild Grape is on their "A game". Other times it's like they're not even in the building let alone the game. But don't you just sometimes really want to like a place? Even if it's not the best?

I have mixed feelings about the Wild Grape. They do some great things, have a great wine list, and nice atmosphere. But then I've also gotten some really bad dishes, rotten service, and have just wanted to get the hell out of there after a meal. Ugh. So do I like the Wild Grape? Would I recommend it? It's hard for me to say...and I guess it  just shouldn't be so hard to decide if they're good or not. You shouldn't have to wonder if you're going to go to a restaurant and get a good meal or if the service for that matter is going to stink. And when I go to the Wild Grape, I guess I just always wonder.

Wild Grape ~ Salt Lake City, Utah
481 E. South Temple
Chef: Phelix Gardner
**** (on a good day)
** (on a bad day)

Wild Grape Bistro on Urbanspoon

Friday, February 12, 2010

Chow truck

'...you can't miss it - that is if you're looking for it...and believe me...YOU SHOULD BE LOOKING FOR IT.'

I love street food. Yeah - you heard me - street food. You know...street vendors. Hot dog carts, taco carts, pretzel stands - that sort of thing. I don't think we celebrate street food enough in the U.S., let alone here in SLC, UT. Personally I feel like food always tastes better when you're outside in the fresh air anyway...and there's something communal and almost intimate about the food cart experience - whether its standing huddled around in line with strangers waiting to place your order or parking it on a nearby bench or sidewalk to eat with friends. So I was really excited to see the Chow truck in SLC, a new venture where moving taco truck meets gourmet Asian cuisine.

The Chow truck is a food truck reminiscent of most taco trucks found on the street or lunch trucks found on construction sites. This truck however is bright yellow, so you can't miss it - that is if you're looking for it...and believe me...YOU SHOULD BE LOOKING FOR IT. At first glance you could be at any other lunch truck in the state, with an ice bar up front holding a variety of drinks and other candy bars and such to grab, but as you glance through the menu you see that you are indeed in for a unique dining experience. You won't see any boxed up turkey sandwiches here as the menu represents casual street food with a gourmet twist; instead, think Asian tacos. You order through a small plastic window where owner of the Chow truck, SuAn Chow, takes your order. On this day, we tried the spicy beef tacos, the pineapple-ginger pork tacos, the fried root chips, and the special of the day which was a pulled pork quesadilla with a mole sauce. As we ordered we could see Chef Rosanne Ruiz (formerly of Vinto) in the truck's tiny little kitchen putting our orders together...and the food came out in a flash.


To put it bluntly - the spicy beef tacos were amazing. Often times for me, tacos are all about texture rather than taste, but not this time - the flavor in this taco was very pronounced. The beef was tender and savory with a hint of heat. This blended well with the cool slaw and the crunchy topping of fried wonton strips. The cilantro pesto really tied the whole thing together nicely offering a blast of brightness. It was like eating a Southeast Asian taco which was somehow oddly American. It was absolutely delicious...all packed into one little taco. The pork tacos were also quite good with flavors a little less pronounced - more hints than distinct flavors of ginger for example, with some sweetness from the pineapple bits on top. However, the flavors weren't too subtle that you couldn't taste anything, but present enough so that you didn't feel like you were just eating something ambiguously crunchy.

Speaking of crunchy, the root chips provided a really nice alternative to plain potato or tortilla chips. The chips consisted of a mixture of fried yukon golds, purple potatoes, carrots, yams, beets, and lotus root. Each chip had a distinct flavor, some sweeter than others, some more savory but each with a distinctive crispness as well. We rounded our meal off with the special of the day - a pork quesadilla served with a mole sauce, cucumber salsa, and cilantro pesto. The pulled pork in mole provided a deep, rich, meaty flavor in contrast to the bright flavors in the tacos. The mole did tend to overpower the other subtle flavors of the dish but such is the case with mole.

The Chow truck menu is small and focused with variations of their 5 main tacos in slider or salad versions. It being a truck and all, the Chow truck moves from location to location but you can track where it will be via their website or by twitter. Or you can JUST LOOK FOR IT as you're driving and drop by for an impromptu lunch or dinner. Street food is a widely celebrated tradition in most parts of the world from Latin America to Europe to Japan or India...with vendors selling food specific to their respective lands. But as unique as the food in every place is, the locals share one common feature - they will always know which carts serve the best food. And I think I've just found the best damn taco truck in SLC.

Chow truck ~ Salt Lake City, Utah
Currently hosted at these locations: Trolley Square, Twilight Lounge, Eggs in the City, Key Bank, and REI
www.chowtruck.com
Owner: SuAn Chow
Chef: Rosanne Ruiz
***.5


Chow Truck on Urbanspoon