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  • Writer's picturethe_maestro

Utah triple-header – HSL, Pago, and a Champagne yurt

Hard to believe this is my first post about my home town!

I like to think that I know the food scene in Salt Lake better than anywhere else. The SLC food world is incredibly important to me––it's where I got my start as the ravenous foodie that I've become. Back in late high school and early college, I started to go wild tasting new things at good restaurants. I knew the three or four really great new American spots in town like the back of my hand, and I was branching out every day. These days, many of those old spots have closed or otherwise diminished in quality, but the overall quality of restaurants in town is constantly improving, and these days surpasses what was once the foodie haven of Park City.

A notable exception to the general decline of restaurant quality in Park City has been Handle, a small plates project at the very end of Swiss Alley off Main Street that has been garnering a lot of attention since its opening. I dined here once several years ago and thought it was quite excellent, though not to the caliber of the now-defunct Talisker on Main (weep), and a bit out of place in terms of its overtly industrial styling.

In my absence from SLC, the people behind Handle quietly opened a new place just on the cusp of downtown Salt Lake, perhaps recognizing that SLC was now where the foodie scene was strongest in Utah. HSL (or "Handle Salt Lake") is also a small plates place by design, but the décor is decidedly different. This place would be right at home in Miami––bright, tropical, plush, a bit over-the-top, but still modern and a shade industrial in its styling. The open kitchen, complete with wood-burning fire, adds to the buzzy feel of the dining room, and the bar churns out some of the best cocktails in SLC.

There was a summer when I returned to SLC to find the beloved and trustworthy Salt Lake Magazine Dining Awards peppered with several restaurants I'd not heard of. HSL was one of them, and happened to garner the readers' choice "Best Restaurant in Salt Lake City" accolade. That summer, I tried HSL for the first time and was quite impressed, and have dined there a time or two since to equal satisfaction. On this chilly Sunday evening in December, however, HSL was not in my plans. Instead, I was supposed to visit Pago, the "other" place that people elevate as the best restaurant in town, with friends Melia, JR, and Alli, but two of the three felt ill, and the plans were canceled. Never one to deny an opportunity for a great meal, I headed out, undeterred, for a late dinner for one at HSL, to be followed by a visit to Temple Square to see the annual spectacular Christmas lights.

By the time I arrived, I realized I had a bit of a headache and was rather fatigued, so I ordered only a handful of small plates alongside a "roulette" cocktail (bartender's choice). I told her to make something spirit-forward with whiskey, and she made me a "black manhattan" with Buffalo Trace bourbon and nocino (black walnut liqueur). Tasty for sure, and lasted me until the end of dinner without need of refill.

Their "seeded cracker" snack has always been a highlight, and this time was served with a cream cheese mousse and pepper jelly. The server asked how I liked it, and I responded "Top 5 seeded crackers I've had." The pepper jelly in particular was incredible, and the cracker quite tasty, albeit pretty darn salty. Helped de-escalate my hunger pangs pretty quickly.

I cannot say no to crudo, especially at a time when I am pining so fervently for a sushi dinner, so I ordered their hamachi crudo to go alongside the seeded cracker. This was served with some thinly sliced butternut squash, pomegranate seeds, and pickled jalapeño atop spaghetti squash in a ponzu sauce. I have to say that this dish was a bit disappointing. The ponzu was so dominant that I tasted almost none of the squash or pom, the jalapeño was just too spicy, and the hamachi tasted a bit fishier than I'm used to, as though it was lower in quality than should be served with a crudo. The heat from the peppers made me take a while to finish it, in fact, and while it was an alright dish, it was certainly not the caliber I expected based on my previous HSL meals.

Sigh... I was beginning to regret choosing HSL. These portions had all been WAY larger than I remembered, and the crudo had been disappointing enough that I was a bit wary of what was to come.

The server suggested the next dish, one to which I did not give a second look when first evaluating the menu, and told me it was the best thing on the menu right now. While he was not a fat waiter (see my review of Boka) he was still knowledgeable (and cute), so I took his advice. The dish was simple enough––a salad of chicories (escarole and radicchio) and broccolini with marcona almond purée and crumble, sherry vinaigrette, and slices of mejdool dates. I took a bite.

I took another bite.

I stared at the salad for about a minute and a half.

This was, bar none, one of the top ten things I'd ever eaten. I don't know how they did it with something so simple. The chicories had a subtle bitterness, but the body of the almond almost made that bitterness into a singing smokiness, while a bright, but slightly funky, sherry vinaigrette kept everything together. A bite of date, found well into the second third of the salad, almost knocked me out of my chair with its contribution of sweetness. This is quite possibly the most complete and balanced dish I'd experienced in a very long time, and from something I'd not have ordered or even looked at seriously had the server not recommended it. I had not two, not three, but four total people check on me while eating it, all giddy to see what I thought, and when I nearly wept with joy and effusive praise, all they could say was some permutation of "yeah man, I know."

The only problem was that the dish was so large that I could not possibly finish it, and the next dish was still due to come out, and how the hell can you top the chicories?

You can't. The flatbread had a pumpkin seed pesto and burrata cheese, and little beds of barbecued winter greens, topped with too-tart pickled onions and balsamic drizzle. There were bites of this flatbread that were very good––those with more burrata and pesto and less tang/sweetness from the onion and balsamic, but a lot of it was just too damn sweet/tangy, and it was way too big for one person to finish. Plus, I missed my chicories.

I boxed the rest of the flatbread and closed out, still reeling from a headache and fatigue, and made a quick detour to Temple Square.

It's fairly unusual for me to post a review of a restaurant I've experienced already multiple times. I wish I'd been blogging for my first several meals at HSL, because those stood out. This one, however, stood out in that it seemed to be an off night, or perhaps I just ordered the wrong things. The chicories, however, will forever be at the top of the goddamn list, and by George I will learn to make that damn salad if it's the last thing I do. In fact, that salad is the only reason I decided to take the time to write this. Once I figure out the recipe, I'll be sure to post it.

Wanted to include some photos of my tour of the always beautiful Temple Square lights, which have been an object of childlike wonder for me since I was a kid, continuing to this day (even though they don't go as all-out as they used to).

Day 2:

I am ashamed to say that I lived in Utah from 1989 to 2011 and only went skiing twice. I was a nervous, intense child who was afraid of many things. My adventurous sister, to the delight of Dad, was a true fearless explorer, and spent much time hiking, skiing, and rock climbing. I was bookish, strange, a risk-averse worry-wart, and decidedly not outdoorsy. I have spent much time thinking I should reverse course and finally get into Utah winter sports, much in the same way as I got into hiking when I got into my 20s, but my time in Utah is always so limited, and skiing SO expensive, that I've not yet had the opportunity.

Park City, a historic silver mining town turned winter destination, is absolutely overrun with ski enthusiasts in the winter, many of them sporting pretty insane wealth. Many of my students at the swanky Harvard-Westlake School in LA had second (or third, or fourth, or fifth) homes in Park City or Deer Valley. Years ago, this meant that Park City was the "cultural" hub of northern Utah, with the best restaurants and bars, as well as a thriving art scene. "In Utah, but not of it." While some of this is still true, much of Park City has over-succumbed to its wicked tourist soul, and the overpriced new American restaurants that pepper Main Street have become even more overpriced, and driven out real culinary contenders like the famed Talisker on Main (RIP... my best meal in Park City ever).

Fortunately, new places have been emerging more recently that have tried to fight the commercialization of the food and bev scene here, but an increasingly cosmopolitan and diverse Salt Lake City is now the shining star for comestible delights in northern Utah, and Park City is playing catch-up, a serious reversal from affairs ten or fifteen years ago.

The resorts up in Deer Valley, a little higher and further up the mountain than Park City proper, tend to be particularly glitzy. I haven't done too much Deer Valley exploring in my day, except for a meal or two at the stalwart Glitretind at the Stein Eriksen. Have to stay as far away from Mittens Romney as I can! But here I found myself on my latest visit, at the ab$$$$olutely breathtaking Montage, in search of a yurt.

A yurt?

There is a place somewhere in the Wasatch mountains called the "Viking Yurt," a prix-fixe dining option accessible only by sleigh (yes, sleigh) in a traditional Mongolian hut. I'd read about this spot many times and was intrigued, and given the piles of fresh snow the Wasatch Front was set to receive in advance of my arrival, it seemed like a picturesque and festive idea. I stopped short, however, when I realized that the reviews were low and the prices were high at said yurt.

But dammit, I wanted to find a festive yurt!

Lucky me––Veuve Cliquot, the gargantuan Champagne house, had been setting up a little après-ski yurt complete with Champagne bar outside the Montage for the last several years, decked to the nines in Veuve colors and gaudy mountain décor from lifestyle (i.e., "holy-hell-how-does-anyone-have-this-much-money") brand Gorsuch (yes, same family). My dear friend Melia and I made our way up midday to check out the yurt. It was so over the top, but we had an absolute ball. We had a couple of French 75s with Nolet's Silver gin and Veuve, and then decided we would down a half-bottle of Yellow Label that they chilled for us in a bucket of fresh Utah powder.

For dinner, we decided to get a last-minute table at the SLC stalwart Pago after having canceled our reservation the night before due to some the tummies among members of the dining party. Pago was an exciting spot when it opened a decade ago because it was right on the cusp of the emerging nationwide obsession with locally-sourced, seasonal, farm-to-table establishments, and one of the first spots in region to fully embrace that philosophy, which it still does today. Peak seasonal ingredients are sourced from local farms whenever possible. The wine list, curated by Utah wine legend Evan Lewandaski, is one of the most impressive in the state, and combines classics with some really off-the wall options––I had my first skin-contact "orange wine" here.

I'd had a handful of excellent meals at Pago before the reputation started to dull a bit, but that seemed to happen after I'd moved away. These days, however, it's regularly at the top of the list of critics' and diners' lists as one of the most excellent and steadfast establishments in town. The tiny dining room, with fewer than 12 tables, is nestled into a building just off the 9th and 9th intersection, one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in town.

I was so happy to be joined by some wonderful dining companions for this dinner. Melia and JR are old debate pals of mine (I even debated Melia when I was in high school!) and are among my absolute dearest friends––it doesn't hurt that they are both also ravenous foodies, and our adventures when we get together are almost always culinary in nature. We've cooked gourmet meals for and with each other, dined at stellar establishments in SLC and in Austin when they'd visited, and consumed countless bottles of wine and gin cocktails.

While we were well-aware of the renown of Pago's wine program, we also had a magnum of 2015 Brewer-Clifton chardonnay that I brought to Melia and JR from Santa Barbara this summer sitting in their fridge, so we decided to open that. Bright, with a good amount of citrus, but a bit of age and heft, and opened up to reveal some apricot and other stone fruit aromas. An excellent Santa Rita Hills expression of cool-climate chardonnay.

And yes, we absolutely finished the bottle.

We went full-speed on unhealthy fare for this meal, but damn it all sounded good.

Our healthiest dish was a "winter wedge salad," consisting of slow-roasted cabbage coated in a creamy/cheesy poppyseed sauce, sunflower kernels, and pickled apples. I am loving slow-roasted cabbage these days, and this was yet another excellent manifestation. The sort of funky sauce, which I think included blue cheese, coated the toothsome, smoky cabbage leaves, and the apple provided a necessary tang. The chardonnay worked well with this dish, especially highlighting the apple.

Now, bring on the gluttony! Our first exceptionally fattening dish came in a hot cast iron skillet: a poutine of roasted sunchokes and potatoes with mushroom gravy, cheddar curds, and pickled Fresno chilis. Absolutely decadent. The root veggies were perfectly cooked, and the mushroom gravy was not as heavy as I expected, making the dish go down surprisingly easily with a few gulps of chardonnay. The key, however, was the spice of the chili, which took the dish to the next level and beyond a run-of-the-mill poutine. Delicious! We fought over the last bites.

Ok, PAUSE the gluttony. I was expecting this dish to be much heavier than it was, but it turned out to be perfect as a little palate cleanser between the heavier dishes. We had some burrata cheese with an herbal pesto sauce and fresh orange and grapefruit slices, with some ground pistachios to complement. Exceptionally fresh, and the herbal and bright citrus helped clear the "fog" of the heavier dishes that preceded and followed. I do wish there had been more burrata, however, since the amount provided was really a pittance relative to the volume of citrus on the plate.

The first thing that stuck out to all three of us on the menu was the next thing brought––a gnocchi meant to resemble a “loaded” baked potato. This seemed a little gimmicky to me when I read the menu, despite thinking it sounded absolutely delicious, but Melia and JR overcame my snobby fear of gimmickry. The gnocchi were baked with sour cream “purée” (really just sauce), chives, cheddar curds, and bacon. Decadent and creamy, but much like the poutine, they managed to execute a rather heavy dish into something that didn’t feel too weighty as you ate. Very impressive, and of course excellent with the bolder elements of the chardonnay, which by this point was starting to express some lovely apricot and peach phenols.

JR had to motor before the last course, so Melia and I were left on our own to devour a plate of tagliatelle (and the rest of the Brewer-Clifton) with a simple garlic cream sauce and pickled fennel, cabbage, and mushroom chips. We saw “egg yolk” and were hoping there would be a whole egg yolk atop the pasta to break and let slowly seep into the sauce, but it seems the egg yolk was a part of the sauce already. Alas! The dish was delicious, however––simple and robust, with a magnificent amount of garlic.

We declined dessert and were treated instead to a waiving of our corkage fee by our wonderful server, Paco, which was much appreciated, and we each walked out of the restaurant less than $40 poorer. Wonderful for this quality of food!

We meandered our way, weaving a bit, two blocks west to our dear friend Alli’s abode, where we got to sit and catch up with her and husband Jason for a good couple hours. It was so wonderful to spend some time with friends, and that’s why my visits to Salt Lake City are always so special. The friendships that have endured since the time I lived there remind me of the power of the love and care of others, and how those enduring friendships create a network of support that continues even when long distances apart.

Until next time, my homeland!

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