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Desert Bistro – Moab, UT

I gave myself a fairly open itinerary in Utah so I could sort of go where the wind blew me, as it were, originally planning to rent a camper and groove around on my own in the desert for two weeks. Well, the camper-rental service I planned to use (the cheapest one, and the only one I could really afford) didn’t have anything that suited my needs, so I instead rented an SUV and mapped out an itinerary for the trip which involved me going south after six days in northern Utah and staying (mostly) in hotels. It’s pretty damn cold to camp down here this time of year.

My first southern Utah stop on this little voyage was Moab, a place I often overlook for the national parks in the southwestern part of the state like Zion and Bryce (much more conveniently located because of their proximity to I-15). Moab is in the southeastern quadrant of Utah, and is far enough north that it only takes just a shade north of three hours to make the trip from Salt Lake. The town is the launchpad for adventures in parks like Canyonlands and, most notably, Arches, which I visited before dawn one 15-degree morning to beat the crowds and get a sunrise shot of Utah’s most recognizable landmark, Delicate Arch. En route, I remembered how the elevation affects my ability to hike inclines!

Seeing my photo of the arch on Instagram led my cousin Andrew (nickname Jam) to shoot me a message and see if I had dinner plans. Jam’s been living in Moab for several years working as a chef at Desert Bistro, which has a reputation as Moab’s best restaurant. Jam, knowing me to be a fellow foodie, offered to comp a dinner for me that night, so I took a short one-block stroll from my hotel to the Desert Bistro to dine outdoors on their well-heated back patio.

Desert Bistro prides themselves on the best ingredients, and often they are ingredients that are hard to get in such a remote part of the desert. Of course, they’ll source the quintessential “western” type of proteins locally/regionally, like bison or lamb, but they have to fly seafood in fresh from Hawaii or the east coast (United flies from Denver to Canyonlands Field every day, just fifteen minutes out of town). This attention to detail has allowed the restaurant to thrive in an increasingly-busy and increasingly-fancy Moab dining scene.

Jam came out to greet me from the kitchen and declared, “Whatever you want, it’s on me, cousin.” Such a nice gesture, and was so good to see him! I am on a roll with seeing family I’ve not seen in a while on this trip!

I started the evening with their outstanding margarita, utilizing fresh squeezed lime juice (of course), Herradura añejo tequila, and Cointreau. Rich, refreshing, and perfectly balanced. An excellent permutation of a classic.

Bread came out just after, which was a seeded wheat bread “baked by Dylan’s mom every morning.” Not sure who Dylan is, but his mom sure bakes a mean loaf of bread! The warm bread was served with three accoutrements––a rosemary honey butter, olive tapenade, and combination of lavender canola and pumpkin seed oils with fresh lavender atop. All three were really tasty, but the butter was my favorite, and it just absorbed right into the warm bread. There was almost too little of it, but that’s probably for the best since it stopped me from preemptively stuffing myself with too much bread!

Chatting with him online earlier in the day, Jam was raving about the scallops, which they’d just gotten in from Nantucket, and WOW was he right. Some of the biggest, most gloriously plump scallops I’d ever seen. Desert Bistro sears these massive things and pairs them with an absolutely fantastic lemon and chipotle beurre blanc. The coolest thing, though, is that they served the scallops with a vessel full of the sauce, which included an entire chipotle pepper, still infusing the beurre blanc with spice. I was instructed to remove the pepper when the sauce became the perfect level of heat, which was a cool trick. I ended up leaving it in a while, letting myself experience the evolution of the flavor of the sauce with each bite. The scallops were perfectly cooked and worked so well with the tart, rich, and subtly smoky/spicy beurre blanc. An absolute hit. I paired this with a pedestrian but quaffable dry Riesling from Pacific Rim in Washington, a winery more known for their late harvest Rieslings than dry ones. The pairing was good, but the last few sips of margarita were even better, with the weight and roundness of the añejo tequila speaking well to the smoky pepper. The course of the night, for sure.

I decided to add a salad course, since road trips are often scant on vegetables, and Jam recommended their butter lettuce wedge salad, which came with their house-smoked duck bacon, cherry tomatoes, yellow bell peppers, gorgonzola crumbles, and a gorgonzola dressing. I dove in without taking a photo, mostly because I found myself in a conversation with the folks one table (twenty feet) away from me, but while I tend to prefer salads with fruit/acid components, I did enjoy the wedge, particularly the fantastic duck bacon. Forgive the photo, as I only realized I’d forgotten to photograph it about two thirds of the way into destroying it!

I was in the mood for some red meat, so I asked Jam what his favorite thing was, and he said the lamb is the dish that they are “most proud of” and the thing that they always have on their menu. Jam himself seemed to have a significant hand in developing this dish in particular, though he said they all have a tight-knit role in co-developing their dishes. This lamb came pasture-raised in Colorado, and the rack was crusted in rosemary, pistachio, and a bit of chopped arugula. There was a LOT of lamb––four massive chops, cooked to just south of mid-rare, and each bite was fantastic. The rosemary was present (and glorious) but not overpowering, and the mustard seed cream sauce featured a glorious creaminess but also acidity that balanced the dish beautifully. The lamb sat atop some roasted fingerling potatoes and sautéed asparagus. A truly fantastic dish, but there was just so much of it! I absolutely stuffed myself, wanting to make sure to savor as much of Jam’s gift as I could, but I still had plenty left, and no refrigerator to store it.

I paired the lamb with the most interesting-looking red on their list––a Jefferson cab from Alexander Valley, a wine region I’m very keen to explore. Frequent readers know I like cooler-climate wines, and Alexander Valley fits this bill: it’s nestled in the hills between northern Napa and Sonoma counties, where its elevation and slope keeps the grapes relatively cool. I find that these cooler-climate wines are significantly more expressive and nuanced, and this cabernet was one of the best CA cabs I’ve had in some time––fairly gentle oak profile, with lovely spice, leather, and silky blue fruit. Delicious and perfect with the lamb.

When the time came for dessert, I wasn’t sure if I had much left in me! That generous helping of lamb absolutely stuffed me. So, while much of the dessert menu sounded excellent, I opted for their in-house sorbet selection, which this evening was raspberry and lemon.

For a digestif, I landed on an amaro distilled by Waterpocket Distilling, a local spot, called “Notom,” the remote dirt road that runs north-south along the Waterpocket Fold, which happens to be one of my favorite places in the Utah desert (and hence, the world). I grooved on this amaro, a drink I’m starting to really dig these days, which has a slightly aggressive bitterness from the anise, but also a lovely peppermint and exotic galangal essence. A perfect way to end the meal.

Desert Bistro was fantastic, and I highly recommend it if you’re in town. Tell Jam that Steve sent you! Was great to see my cousin, one of the family members I see most seldom, yet with whom I have much in common.

The next day, after a killer hike to the timely-named Corona Arch, I motored further down SR 191 to the farther reaches of southeastern Utah, an area I hadn’t traveled since I was quite young, and “camped” (set up an air mattress in my SUV) at the rim of the San Juan River gorge at Goosenecks State Park. The moon was so bright that I could see the canyon almost clear as day when the last bits of sunlight diminished below the horizon. Absolutely wild.

The thing I love most is the silence. I was a good ¼ mile from the other two parties camping there, and sitting in my very cheap Walmart-acquired camp chair at the edge of the cliff, the almost deafening silence was only pierced by the distant whisper of the river below. The orange remnants of the sun put the towers and fins of Monument Valley in silhouette, and as the massive amber moon rose behind me, I felt a resounding, and almost haunting, sense of solitude, only made comfortable by the knowledge that I had a full tank of gas to get me back to civilization.

This trip takes me to some truly wild places next. Who knows where I will go next? Oh wait, YOU will if you keep following! Stay safe, all!

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