Log Haven – Salt Lake City, UT
It's hard to pinpoint a seminal dining experience that made me into the insatiable food lover that I am today, but the closest thing I can remember is my first meal at Log Haven, a mountain cabin oasis ten minutes up Millcreek Canyon on the east side of Salt Lake City.
My parents had an annual tradition of leaving us with a sitter and going to Log Haven around Christmas time, so it always held some mystique for me as a child, even though at that point I wouldn't have dared eat anything on their menu. Once I started becoming brave with new flavors and textures in high school, however, it finally came time to visit Log Haven with the family on a week when my aunt Cindy and clan were visiting town. No meal is more tattooed to my brain as a moment where I realized how much I'd been missing with food and became thirsty to explore more. I can still remember what I ate.
Log Haven has been around since 1994, but the beautiful cabin in which it is housed dates to the 1920s, when a wealthy Utah steel baron built a summer cabin for himself and his wife, which quickly became a landing place for social events for the elite in the city and those visiting the Wasatch mountains. It is, bar none, the most picturesque restaurant in Salt Lake City, deep in the wilderness but just ten minutes from town, and perched just above Millcreek Canyon Road with a panorama of the canyon's south slope. Since the 90s it's been not just one of Utah's most legendary dining destinations, but also a beautiful wedding venue.
Since that first meal in high school, I had visited Log Haven countless times and never had a bad meal. Maybe a miss of a dish or two, but never a wholly bad meal. The menu changed nearly monthly with the seasons, so there was always something new to experience, and it was a cherished destination for me, family, and friends for years.
Within the last few years, though, and accelerated by the pandemic, it seems Log Haven has kinda taken a bad turn. It has gone more commercial and less fine-dining, with far fewer menu shifts, some sloppy dishes, pigeon-holed token cuisine styles in a single dish (like southwestern, Asian, etc.) with little willingness to experiment and blend, a somewhat uninspired wine list, and even unforgivable sins like nametags on the wait staff and (words fail me) photos of their dishes on their website.
I visited Log Haven back in December, my favorite time to go owing to the Christmasy atmosphere, hoping to finally profile it on the blog, but I had one of the most disappointing meals, bar none, in my short foodie career. It was such a complete failure that I was ready to write off the place, especially because after talking to a few fellow food-friendly folks in the city, it seems my perception of the restaurant's decline is not unique.
When Mom and I were planning our trip to Utah to see Grammie Shirlee, Mom's first trip in six years, and she suggested a dinner at Log Haven, I was initially very hesitant, but then reminded myself of one of the Maestro's cardinal food rules: You should always allow a restaurant to fail twice in a row before saying adios completely––everyone has off nights. So, since Mom wanted to visit the spot so precious to her for so many years, I agreed to snag a table.
Could Log Haven redeem itself? Well, I'm blogging about it, so it must have, right?
It was full-blown fall color season in Utah. If you haven't experienced autumn in the western mountains, you are really missing out. This year, my first autumn visit to Utah in nearly a decade, the mountains were brimming with brilliant reds and oranges and goldenrod aspen groves, and we drove up to the top of Millcreek Canyon before dinner to see the show on full display. My aunt told us she'd never seen the colors so brilliant. Mom and I both agreed.
The sun was getting low when we arrived at Log Haven and made the short walk up to the beautiful, atmospheric cabin. With a fire burning in the hearth, a garland lining the ceiling, and low lights at every table, the ambience could not have been more magical.
We each started with their cocktail special––a tasty "garden" gin and tonic made with cucumber and basil. Very good, but again, an example of how their menu, drinks included, has recently become stagnant and not aligned with the seasons like it used to be. Though I'll always gladly quaff a good G and T, this is a drink for July, and not October.
After the G and Ts were drained, we opted for a half bottle of Pol Roger Reserve Champagne, a tasty and zingy, if not particularly remarkable, bottle that we enjoyed with our appetizers.
I was pretty disappointed to see that the menu was by-and-large identical to the menu I selected from nearly a year ago, but at least I knew to avoid the tuna appetizer and elk entrée! The "Alpine Nachos" are a dish they used to dust off every ski season, and it seems are now a permanent fixture. Potato chips are covered with fontina (which it seems has replaced a much more interesting, and alpine, raclette) and parmesan cheese, speck, mushrooms, and green onions, and then drizzled tableside with white truffle oil. A delicious dish, but one that's nearly impossible to mess up. The Dungeness crab cakes, meanwhile, crusted with sesame and served with grilled pineapple and yuzu wasabi aioli, weren't much more than "fine," and caused me concern that I was geared up for another underwhelming meal at my old standby.
A refreshing take on a Caesar salad, which we split, perked things up a bit. The Romaine was crisp and fresh, the dressing garlicky and tangy, and the croutons satisfying. A classic but delicious salad, but again, not exactly difficult to do well.
While their wine-by-the-glass menu is fairly "meh," they do have some nice curated bottles for reasonable prices, despite being confined to the wines with the State of Utah's Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control stamp of approval. Domaine Faiveley is a wonderful producer of Burgundy, and I've had their pinots at some of the best restaurants in the country. This was an excellent entry-level Faiveley, a 1er Cru from the village of Mercurey called "Clos des Myglands," with an approachable food-friendly character, cherries and strawberries, soil and earth, and a hint of vanilla from the oak. Delicious, and a remarkable success with both entrées given that mom ordered steak and I ordered fish!
I was a shade worried that I was in store for another letdown from Log Haven after the appetizers, but all my fears evaporated when the mains arrived. Mom's main was an old standby at Log Haven––a filet mignon with bordelaise, toothsome grilled asparagus, and mashed potatoes filled with herbal Boursin cheese. The steak was certainly under medium rare, but it didn't matter. It was perfectly seasoned and delicious, and the asparagus, which can become very quickly flaccid if overcooked, still had vegetal crunch alongside its grilled char. The potatoes were fine, but could use some brighter elements to allow them to shine alongside the filet. Mom was very happy. Forgive the dark photo!
Meanwhile, I had a hard time choosing an entrée, since the thing that sounded most exciting, the elk, I knew was a miss from last time, and my second choice was Mom's first choice! With little help from the otherwise congenial server, who when asked for a recommendation just said "I'm the wrong person to ask because I'll eat anything you put in front of me," I cautiously zeroed in on the salmon. Both readers of my blog know that salmon is one of my favorite proteins, but it can go south so quickly, and was perhaps a risky choice for a kitchen that I perceived to be struggling of late.
My fears were unfounded––the grilled wild king salmon was of top-notch quality, and the first cut revealed a perfect flake with still-translucent, glistening flesh inside––the perfect temperature for salmon. The accoutrements were simple and rustic, with a salad of artichoke hearts, tomatoes, and peppers, as well as a crust of Tuscan breadcrumbs and a tomato coulis, and a pool of delicious parmesan polenta alongside. Not really autumnal, definitely lacking visual finesse, and hardly the most inventive dish, but overall nicely executed.
Maybe I had been too quick to judge! Dessert would be the tiebreaker, and we went with a classic semi-frozen soufflé of coconut, crusted with coconut and served with pineapple coulis. It's an institution at Log Haven, and just as good as I remember, though the out-of-season underripe raspberries were unwelcome interlopers on the plate.
Log Haven, despite my wariness, has mostly still "got it." However, there certainly are some loose threads that need to be taken care of here in order for this place to find it's former glory. Rotate the menu like they used to. Focus on seasonal ingredients. Inspire the staff to be passionate about the food. Get rid of the stupid nametags and photos of the food online.
COVID certainly hasn't helped, but I have been seeing the slipping happening for several years, possibly symptomatic of a general, slow-moving rot in the fine dining world in Salt Lake City that has led to many places drifting away from finesse and toward commercialism and the renewed dominance of chains. It's a peculiar trend that I'd be interested to understand––Salt Lake City was very much on the rise as a real food city in the mid-2010s and recently seems to have collapsed under the weight of chain restaurants, closures, and general mediocrity at some of the former bright stars. Perhaps, like in many cities in the wake of the pandemic, fine dining just doesn't have the same legs it used to.
Still, you cannot beat the ambience here, or the significance it holds for me and my family. Mom and I had a fabulous time walking down memory lane, and Mom even snapped a photo of me that I don't hate (a rarity!).