Tuesday, May 25, 2010


'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

Tiburon on Urbanspoon

Thursday, May 20, 2010


"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