"We're not really open yet," were the first words out of chef Jean-Louis Montecot's mouth when he first saw us at Caterina last night.

Yet, there were diners at several tables and a private party for the board of the UTA was going on in the banquet space.

Caterina is open; they processed my credit card just fine. That's proof enough for me. And I've always said, if they're charging for it, I can write about it.

What Montecot meant is that the restaurant hasn't found its identity yet. He and owner Ken Millo (owner of Cucina Toscana and Vivace) have certain ideas about what this new French bistro should be, and they're not necessarily the same ideas, but the final arbiter will be the customers. What they respond to, what they like and don't, how they use the restaurant, will ultimate determine the direction of the menu and ambiance.

To some extent, all new restaurants go through this adaptation. But if Caterina is anything like its new sister Vivace, the evolution will be more visible and more rapid than most I've witnessed.

Montecot sees Caterina as basically a neighborhood restaurant and that's probably a wise foundation. To that end, a bistro menu is what he has in mind. Currently, the place is only open for dinner, but he sees its future as an anytime place.

The old Sugarhouse post office is a beautiful building and it makes a lovely place to eat, even though only a small front area is open for the public restaurant. In warm weather, if we ever see any again, the front patio is set up for al fresco dining.

Right now, the menu is brief and made up of French basics, and the wine list is even briefer, with no particular French emphasis. (It would be cool if  this came to be a dominantly French collection, proving that you can so afford French wines. But we'll see.)

The surprise amuse-bouche was a martini glass of tomato water spotted with chartreuse parsley oil. (In case you don't know, tomato water is not tomato juice. It's made by breaking up tomatoes in a food processor and tying them up in a hanging cheesecloth. Over a few hours, a clear liquid drips out, completely colorless but tomato flavored.)

Proper chewing started with a charcuterie plate: grilled bread, cornichons, salami, saucissons and a small jar of what we were told was salmon rillettes–we couldn't confirm that, since it had virtually no flavor. And in this charcuterie-conscious age, I would have appreciated knowing some provenance for the meats.

The caramelized onion tart–just deep brown onions tangled in a pate brisee crust and topped with very mild goat cheese and spikes of chives–was beautiful. No surprises, no invention, but there didn't need to be. Some flavor combinations can't be improved upon, and since we have so few French restaurants in SLC, we can welcome classics.

The wild mushroom cake, a Montecot original the chef came up with by accident. The patty of mushrooms, cream and oatmeal, just enough to bind, was set off by a tomato coulis dabbed with some more parsley oil.

Entrees included truite amandine, made with local trout; a steak lyonnaise (with caramelized onions and potatoes); pork medallions cooked with apples, cream and calvados–again, French dishes we're all familiar with.

We tried the cassoulet, a seasonal specialty, and found it fine, but not as good as the cassoulet we recently had at Franck's, frankly) and a gorgeous navarin of lamb.

"In France," says Montecot, "Everyone knows what a navarin is, the way they know what a blanquette is. Here, there's just one word to cover those and boeuf bourguignon: stew." And it would be unfair to call this dish of lamb shoulder chunks, cooked with carrots, celery, and a deep-flavored tomato sauce, a stew. Even though the meat is braised.

Another standout was the dish of potato quenelles, like large, light gnocchi, topped with duck confit, grilled onions and a sprinkle of gruyere in a mushroom broth.

Maybe it says something about the dearth of French classics in the Utah restaurant landscape, but I was delighted to see taste tatin, clafoutis and peach melba on the dessert list.

Prices at Caterina are extremely reasonable–the most expensive entree was under $20, and dishes on the rest of the menu were all under $10.

I'm eager to see what the lunch menu will look like and what the dinner menu becomes, so I'll definitely be revisiting often and reporting on its evolution, just as I did Vivace. I expect service will get smoother, too, as the place finds itself.

Meanwhile, Caterina is off to a good start, for a restaurant that claims not to be open yet. Once it's found it's groove, maybe we can talk the chef into breaking out his accordion and adding to the atmosphere with a little French cafe music. We hear he's a mean man on the keys.