First Bite • Oquirrh

I‘m one of the last among my food-friend community to eat at Oquirrh. I’ve been reading posts with lots of exclamation marks ever since the restaurant opened in February. I’m officially six months late to this party.

(Note: Often, I’m the first to speak up about a new place—people have complained that a restaurant may not be “ready” to be critiqued until it’s been open six weeks. My answer is always the same, whenever I review: As soon as a restaurant charges full-price for its food and service, the food and service should be worth the price. The point is, it doesn’t matter, in Mary’s world, when a first write-up comes in a restaurant’s timeline.)

On slightly whiny note, I’ve been muttering about the recent “plateau-ing” of the Salt Lake food scene. With a California chain (Curry Up) replacing locally owned long-time Middle Eastern restaurant Cedars of Lebanon, the clone creep in Sugar House and local group Sicilia Mia taking the place of Paris Bistro and Aristo’s, it seemed like our local options were being bought up, that uniqueness was being replaced by imports and proven formulas.

But, like SLC Eatery, Oquirrh encouraged me on all fronts. Just from the outset, I like the name—where else are you going to find a restaurant called Oquirrh? It’s strictly, geographically local and even the locals can’t spell it or say it aloud.

I like the location—right in the middle of downtown (368 E. 100 South) where Vertical Diner used to be.

I like the owners’ resumes—Chef Drew Fuller did stints at Copper Onion, HSL and Pago; where met his wife, Angelena, who works the front of the house.

I—well, I don’t like, but I appreciate—the abbreviated hours (open 5 pm-10 pm, Wednesday through Saturday.) They show a respect for sanity and the owners’ time. I’ve known too many coke-addled, over-driven chefs in the centuriesImeaandecades I’ve been writing about food.

And I loved my food. The imagination behind it, the presentation and the taste. I liked the carrots, a riff on the popular perpendicular presentation at Pago. Carrots of several colors were roasted, cured in miso or braised, then planted vertically in a ground of carrot-top pesto with a brown rice chip to add back in some crispness.

Many of the presentations were equally whimsical, and it was a nice change to smile as we were being served. So many plates look pretentiously serious these days. Isn’t food supposed to be fun?

The chicken confit pot pie arrived with one leg sticking out through the golden-brown crust—it looked like the bird had taken a dive. The pastry covered the filling—a lovely, just-thickened broth with lots of seasonal mushrooms—and and lined the ramekin.

An entire leg of lamb was crusted with a curry mixture (marinated in yogurt?) and deep-fried, apparently after being braised, because the meat fell from the bone in tender chunks. The giant thing (Does anyone remember what “Brobdingnagian” means?) was accompanied by house made naan, vegetables roasted in garam masala and eggplant relish. I can’t see one person finishing this plate, but it made great leftovers. Better than cold pizza!

Maybe it was just us, but the meal was becoming fatter and fatter and our choice of pasta, thick tubes (with some tooth) mixed with chunks of butter-poached lobster and plenty of Pecorino didn’t change the trend. The celery leaves were almost a punch line, but the celery flavor did what it always does to lighten the load. Milk-braised potatoes were the meal’s Cinderella; few things could sound so humble and taste so spectacular. I’ve only encountered this technique—cooking in milk—once before. Marcella Hazan has a recipe for milk-braised pork, and the same thing happens” The milk cooks into beautiful curds as the food cooks.) These dreamy potatoes are quintessential comfort food, sweet and tender with the umami from the cooked milk lending the richness of cheese.

Oquirrh isn’t perfect—the space is almost too small and when it’s full (as it often is, because of all the lauding) it’s loud. I know this is a trend (again, remember the eighties?) and those who think conversation is an essential part of a good meal complain about it regularly, but evidently it’s better to be chic than heard. And if you and your dining companions are going to spend the meal taking pictures of it, texting them and checking email on your cellphones, you don’t need to hear anything anyway. (In the 80s, I figured all the slick, uncovered table surfaces were popular because you could cut your lines on them—no cellphones back then.)

In any case, minimalism=hard surfaces and minimalism seems to be sticking around. (It’s been a year since The Atlantic ran a piece called “How Restaurants Got So Loud” and I don’t hear things getting any quieter,

Dining conversation seems to have disappeared, I hope not forever.
I’d like to see some velvet drapes somewhere.

Or a rug?

In your dreams Mary. Along with those milk-braised potatoes.

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Mary Brown Malouf
Mary Brown Malouf
Mary Brown Malouf is the late Executive Editor of Salt Lake magazine and Utah's expert on local food and dining. She still does not, however, know how to make a decent cup of coffee.

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