Can I use the same old line and say that Provo is the hippest place in Salt Lake City?
And getting hipper. Here's a sign of the times we saw Saturday night in Provo:
Saturday night was hopping in the heart of Happy Valley, and the newish Southwestern-inspired Black Sheep Cafe was packed. We were seated at a table for three right by the front window looking out on the street action. Lisa Barlow, owner of Vida Tequila, had arranged this dinner for us: five courses, each paired with a tequila.
But first, a beautiful pink margarita, made with Vida Blanco, cactus pear, lime and pomegranate, the rim dusted with rose salt. I generally prefer the basics when it comes to cocktails, in spite of all the creative energy being put into the shaker these days, but this drink had the perfect balance of fruit and acid and you could taste the cactusy twang of the tequila coming through it all.
So that was good.
First course, served with the cocktail, was the Black Sheep salad–organic greens dressed in a cactus pear and pomegranate vinaigrette that echoed the margarita flavor, garnished with the usual Utah sweet stuff (candied walnuts and dried cranberries) but rescued from cloying by slivers of red onion and spice-dusted cotija cheese.
With a shot of Vida's reposado came two perfectly cooked shrimp on a duo of grits, a schmear of blue and a matching one of yellow, acccented with a mild corn pico de gallo. I don't think I've ever had grits (polenta, whatever) made from blue corn before and the same mild earthiness that you can taste in the chips and tortillas. Grits and shrimp, of course, are a classic, and the southwestern spice emphasized the contrast of the fresh shellfish and nutty corn. The slight caramel overtones of the reposado underscored the sweet link between the two.
The reposado elided into the next course, a pair of hog jowl tacos that were nothing short of fantastic, And a little psychedelic-looking, all that purple cabbage over the red meat on the blue tortillas. The hogjowl shreds had been slightly candied to offset their smoky-salt flavor. Crumbles of cotija were scattered over the top.
The entree, at this point, let's be honest, less than eagerly anticipated, looked simple: a chimichurri-rubbed, medium-rare piece of buffalo strip with grilled asparagus spears and mashed potatoes with cotija and garlic. But the layers of flavor made this course surprisingly complex in the mouth, and the richness of the anejo tequila matched it well.
If we were less than hungry for our entree, we were appalled at the idea of dessert. I mean, we've all seen the MOnty Python wafer-thin mint bit. But this was a work visit, so we accepted a ramekin of chocolate mousse with a DQ-worthy whipped cap, and a cup of orange creme brulee with a refershing afterburn from habanero. The blanco tequila worked surprisingly well with the chocolate mousse–an unexpected complement.
Then again, everything about Black Sheep was unexpected–mostly, that a restaurant this lively and delicious is in Provo. Believing, as I do, that food and drink are one of the chief joys of life and that they matter far beyond the practical purpose of sustenance, I am still surprised that the home of "stone-cold sober" BYU can nurture a restaurant that so celebrates ephemeral earthly pleasures.
And don't tell me I'm biased. Until recently I was right. But I do love to be wrong in this case.