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