Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Copper Onion

 'Overall, pretty impressive - given that they've only been open for 9 days.'

The Copper Onion is the latest of a trickling of casual, new American type restaurants to populate the Salt Lake valley. Chef Ryan Lowder, originally from SLC, comes back to his home city highly acclaimed - having trained at the CIA, doing stages under New York Chefs Jean George Vongerichten and Mario Batali, and finally achieving the position of executive chef at Mercat in NYC. Most people believe if you can run a successful restaurant in NYC you must know what you're doing. So expectations for his new restaurant located next door to the Broadway movie theatre in downtown SLC are quite high. Do the sensibilities of running a New York City restaurant apply to our own Salt Lake City culinary scence? I had dinner at the Copper Onion to find out.

The restaurant space is pretty decent and the decor gives way to a casual dining experience with a dimly lit ambiance. It's a great location, perfect for attracting off-the-street business...very smart. The menu also appeared to be very smart: a small, focused menu with a variety of choices made from local, sustainable sources. Prices for entrees range from $11 to $24...really a great value if you look at the type of dishes offered. Good location - check. Good value - check. Good food?

We started our meal off with a warm loaf of house-made rosemary bread served with honey butter. Rosemary perfumed the soft loaf, it's strong scent a perfect match for the sweetness and richness of the butter. We also tried the gran biscotto ham and d'affinois cheese to start. The ham was savory and tender, sliced thin like sheets of paper. The d'affinois, a rich cow's milk cheese, soft and silky, was reminiscent of brie - but not so stinky. It's creaminess was dreamy and rich. The plate of meat and cheese also came with a house-made buckwheat jam. I actually found the taste of the jam off-putting; the smell alone was not exactly the most inviting and spread on the cheese and meat - it made everything too cloyingly sweet. 

For our entrees, we decided to go with one standard menu item as well to try the evening's special. Carbonara is a classic pasta dish found on many menus featuring traditional Italian and more modern Italian-American items. At The Copper Onion they make their own pasta in-house and serve their carbonara with an egg yolk nested atop the hot pasta. In true Italian fashion, the hot pasta will cook the egg as you mix the yolk into the dish. The dish was good - nice and tasty, rich from the egg and cheese, and the noodles were delicate with a firm toothiness to them. As good as it was, it wasn't the best carbonara I've ever had though. I think the dish's main problem was that it was perhaps a little underseasoned. It's amazing what a little salt can do. Not bad though...

We also tried the special - piquillo peppers stuffed with braised short rib meat, served with fruit chutney, an arugula salad, and black eyed peas. I originally wanted to get the wagyu steak with fries, but I had an inkling for soft, tender, braised meat and the combination with the pepper sounded interesting. Generally I hesitate from getting the special at any restaurant since it's well known that they often come up with specials to get rid of excess or old food. But with the Copper Onion being 9 days old, I thought they just might be trying to test out new menu items. Moreover, the server did an exquisite sales job making me salivate at the drop of the description. And indeed the stuffed peppers were great. The braised short rib meat was soft and tender and the savoriness of the meat played well with the sweetness of the peppers and chutney. If anything the dish screamed for some moisture - a little sauce on each stuffed pepper would have moved this dish from great to superb...tying all of the components on the plate together. What added to the dryness were the black eyed peas which had a nice bite to them but again lacked some juiciness. The fruit compote was undecipherable to me (perhaps peach or pear?) but added a nice sweetness and density, while the peppery arugula on top offered a sharp bite, waking up the flavor with a splash of vinegar, as well as giving the dish a nice crunchy texture.

With an influx of guests just coming from a Sundance movie playing next door, the restaurant was packed. The staff was getting a little swamped and service seemed to slow down quite a bit. It took a while for us to get our check. We decided to save dessert for another day.  Overall, pretty impressive - given that they've only been open for 9 days. I'll definitely be back in a few weeks to check on their progress. It looks to me like the sensibilities and skills of this NYC chef are playing through quite nicely in SLC. Welcome home chef, welcome home.

The Copper Onion ~ Salt Lake City, Utah
Chef/co-owner: Ryan Lowder
Co-owner: Colleen Lowder
111 East 300 South

The Copper Onion on Urbanspoon


'Really, they made this here in Provo?'

I almost never get to Provo. I think I've been to Provo once where I've actually stopped for a significant period of time to watch a BYU vs. Cal football game over 10 years ago. (This of course excludes the 6 months I dated a BYU student in 2001...but that's a story for another time). When I think of cities that play host to restaurants that serve modern, unique food  - honestly Provo is not the first town that comes to mind. On a chance overnight stay in Provo over the Christmas holiday, I got the opportunity to drop into Communal, a hip and trendy dinner spot I heard was pretty decent. Pretty decent in Provo? This definitely warranted some investigation.

The name Communal stems from the philosophy behind the restaurant's serving practices. The food is served in smaller, family style dishes - usually in portions big enough for at least 2 people. The decor in the restaurant also matches this philosophy with one long row of conjoined tables and wooden benches on one side of the restaurant. Seating in this area is close quarters, giving a true communal feel; not to worry if you value your personal space though, there is more traditional style seating available as well. The restaurant sports a beautiful layout and an open kitchen: all very small, clean, and modern. Could we really be in Provo?

We started off our dinner with the melted onion tart. A crisp pastry was layered with caramelized onions atop which a frisee salad tossed with a bacon vinaigrette was placed. Over this a poached egg sat glistening like a jewel. The dish was quite nice. The sweetness from the onion was well balanced with the salty, bitter frisee salad. Once you sliced through the poached egg with your folk, the creaminess of the yolk tied the whole dish together quite it an overall great mouth feel. Really, they made this here in Provo?

To celebrate the Communal theme, we next shared two meat entrees, a starch, and a veg. We were excited to see two miniature family style servings of the pot roast and the airline chicken breast in cute, modern serving dishes. The pot roast was everything you'd imagine old school, comfort food to be. It was juicy, tender, and deep with flavors of bay, onion, and red wine. It was a real comforting dish, as only a well done pot roast can deliver. Paired with crisp wild mushrooms and a cheesy, gooey gratin, we had the perfect accoutrements to a complete meal. Yes - all here in Provo!

The highlight of the dinner for me though was the airline chicken breast. The airline part of the chicken breast refers to an old school butchering of chicken where the chef fabricates the breast so that part of the wing is still attached. Apparently this cut was first made popular when it was served on airlines in the 1960s. In any case, the cut isn't what made this dish interesting per se - it was the way the chicken was cooked that made it special. The chicken was cooked sous vide...or under vacuum - under constant, exact temperature in a water bath. The breast was sooo juicy and tender. The chefs must have also quickly pan fried the chicken on one side to get a crisp skin, because the skin offered a nice textural contrast to the juicy meat. Not your everyday chicken breast...airline, indeed. Sous vide, Provo?!?

I must say the food was great, the restaurant was intimate, the kitchen was open and this added up to a nice warm family type experience - a communal feel if you will. I love the concept, the menu is super simple and focused, and the chefs are even committed to using local, sustainable products. Are we really in Provo?

The food was so filling that we opted for no dessert. Instead we ended with a nice night cap finishing the wine we had at our table. Suddenly as if I snapped out of trance, I quickly glanced around the small restaurant and noticed that we were the only table drinking wine. We could hear the table behind us ordering drinks, saying that it was a special occasion so they wanted something nice. When the server came back to the table with a large bottle of sparkling apple cider, I just smiled to myself thinking - well, we are in Provo afterall....

Communal ~ Provo, Utah
100 North University Ave
Co-owners: Colton and Joe

Communal on Urbanspoon