Salt Lake magazine announces its Best Restaurants of the year every February (if you want to cast your vote in the Readers Choice portion of the awards, go here–you’ll become eligible to attend the gala awards ceremony at the Leonardo in February.)
So I don’t bother with a year’s end list of best restaurants–that designation requires serious comparisons, careful judgments about consistency and an unemotional assessment of a restaurant and what it contributes to the Salt Lake culinary community.
That’s my excuse and I’m sticking with it.
But I will end the year–like every other Tom, Dick, Harry, Heather, Leslie, Stuart and Ted– with a look back.
Please consider this a list of taste memories. I can’t promise you that you can experience them for yourself; these may have been one-offs, a single flash of kitchen brilliance, a particular personal hormonal state or weird unmedicated mood of my own that made something seem particularly delicious at a particular moment.
You’ve probably got your own taste memories of 2011, and I’d love to hear them, if you’ll share. Meanwhile, these are mine, a baker's dozen, in no particular order. *An aborted late-summer Cache Valley camping trip was even more discouraging because the tarp and cooler we’d left to mark our claim to a site (no tags in the service box) while we went to dinner were stolen when we returned. But the long U-turn to SLC was made sweeter when we stopped at Callaway’s at 9 p.m. for one of the best raspberry shakes ever.
*A six-hour dinner at The Parisshowcasing wines from Maison Latour (courtesy Eric Debonis and Francis Fecteau, not to mention the nice folks at Latour) left one dish indelibly linked to the limbic system. Oeufs en Meurette, eggs (these particular ones were from Clifford Farms) were poached in a rich red wine sauce, perched on a toasted crouton and bolstered by lardons, cipollini onions and mushrooms. There was nothing particularly eccentric or complicated or rare about any of these ingredients or preparations but neither was there anything that needed to be added, subtracted or changed.
*We had dinner at Cucina Toscana on a less-than-best night: In spite of personal attention and lavish shavings of fresh white truffle, two entrees of pasta arrived cold and a recommended fish dish was dull as ditch water. However, the apparently modest plate of fresh, perfectly cooked, hot pasta with ham and light cream that Valter Nassi brought to the table to show off the restaurant’s catering ability was Tuscany on a plate. Utterly simple. Utterly perfect.
*Another wine tasting with Francis Fecteau, this one featuring the wines of Dalla Terra at a reception at Bambara. Chef Nathan Powers unexpectedly served THE pumpkin soup of the century–a chowder, with complexly layered subtle flavors, each eliding into the other in a pastel-like blending. The creamy liquid had notes of nutty sweetness and spice-haunted butter all topped with bacon-scented foam Amazing, and made more so by the glass of Inama, Soave, Collio Berici, Carmenere Piu 2008, it was created to accompany. That third thing happened, the extra miracle that's created at the joining of two destined lovers or perfectly matched flavors.
*Unheard of among local Mexican restaurants, Frida Bistro presents a wine-pairing menu on Tuesday evenings. It's inexpensive, around $55 for four courses, and should completely abolish any lingering mistaken notion you may have about the lack of sophistication, complexity and elegance of Mexican food. Think about it: Mexico has had an established cuisine far longer than most Americans could pronounce it. Proof: delicately cooked shrimp laved in a subtle chipotle cream sauce rather shockingly paired with a Flare Moscatel. Well, maybe I should have said the lollipop lamb chops in blood orange reduction with Volver Tempranillo. At any rate, you should get the picture.
*An early fall hike was the perfect set-up to an unexpectedly resounding bowl of deep-flavored chicken soup adorned with a puffy parmesan dumpling at Ghidotti’s.
*Pastry Chef Raymond Lammers presents the thinking person’s indulgence in the Vista lounge at Montage. His chocolate flight dessert includes Cacao Barry chocolate with a Lactee Caramel filling, Amano Madagascar dark chocolateand the ultra-rare Maranon, Fortunato No. 4 chocolate from Peru, each brilliantly paired with wine. Sip, savor, discuss.
*Stephen Brown’s inventive and often daring dance and theater performances help keep imagination and humor alive in the Utah arts scene, which is so often overly academic, not to say pedantic, and seldom smile-inducing. His first-ever fundraiser fed the other senses as well, with wine and food nibbles provided by several of Utah’s finest. My favorites were the bread pudding popsicles from Communal–dense little cubes of warm caramelized comfort on a stick.
*And speaking of Communal,their block of pork shoulder seemingly braised forever in tomato then carefully coated with crisp buttered ciabatta crumbs was another indelible dish of the year. Besides that, I had fun at this dinner with some very talented people.
*And speaking of Communal again, its sister restaurant Pizzeria 712is as notable for its “antipizza” course as it is for its pies. The selection of small dishes suggested to precede your pizza varies with the season, but the fresh corn, roasted in the pizza oven and dusted with chile, makes you want summer to last forever. Instead of this year’s measly 7 weeks or so.
*Among friends and frequent readers, I am known to be a brunch crank. I don’t like buffets, and say so frequently and vehemently. I don’t need, and more importantly don’t want and don’t even want to look at a ridiculously vast selection of dinner-appropriate seafood, meats and cakes to break my fast. But a couple of so-called brunches this year may have softened the diatribe, particularly a Mimosa-lubricated German buttermilk pancake at Oasis Café. It’s a single, oven-baked egg pancake, thick and light, topped with a nice blueberry compote. To make the whole thing even better, Oasis doesn’t even use the stupid word brunch. They call it, properly, breakfast.
*Sometimes, your favorite isn’t the one designated the best. That’s why there’s a Miss Congeniality award. A Best All-Round award. If we had such a Dining Award, more appropriately perhaps called Mary’s Favorite Restaurant Award, it’s likely I’d give it to Pago. Scott Evans’ ideals for his little restaurant have always been impeccable, and since its opening the place has more and more lived up to them. It will be interesting to see how the food will change with a new chef in the kitchen, but it’s certain that Evans’ standards won’t slip and the fare will remain unpretentiously conceived, locally sourced and simply presented. Like the unforgettable Croque Monsieur.
*At the chef competition at the Downtown farmers Market this summer, Chef Jerry Liedtke of Tin Angel took the prize, but Chef Matthew Lake of the new Zy had the peach: barely warmed in butter, garnished with nothing fancier than more perfectly ripe local fruit. See. Above.
Happy New Year.