Chef Drew’s Top Dozen
In looking at the list of restaurants I’ve visited this year, I was surprised to see how many restaurants to which I gave a rating of 90 or above. Maybe next year I’ll be more discerning and less generous with such high scores.
So, in crowning my top 12 restaurants of the year, I’m going to throw out all previous scores and just choose from my gut. Going from 12 to 1, number 1 will receive my highest kudos not just for the food, but also the overall joy of the experience I had while dining there. Food and wine are like that; the whole experience forms the memory and the memory, over time, becomes the truth.
I put this place on my list because I love the little bit of heaven the owners have created in central city. I love the way an old house in a little island off Liberty Park has been made into a culinary palace. These two guys, Bowman Brown and Viet Pham, are working hard to bring the “new” nouvelle cuisine to Utah. Although I thought their portions were too small for most Utahns’ appetites, I do understand what they are doing and I respect their palates when it comes to both flavorful food and a memorable wine list. If you haven’t been there, Forage is new to Salt Lake City in every way.
Named for the beautiful city in Vietnam, Sapa is a place where travelers fall in love with the East. The owners of Sapa have built outdoor tea houses, replicas of the ones in the city of Sapa; in good weather you can dine under the carved wood of an ancient culture but enjoy totally contemporary and delicious sushi/fusion/Pacific Rim cuisine. Truly, Sapa was the place where I first enjoyed sashimi with all the delicious accompaniments and side dishes. I loved the lamb popsicles and the stir-fried beef tenderloin. I’ve been back to Sapa several times and the décor, inside and out, is stunning, and the trendy menu makes you feel like you’re in Seattle or San Francisco. Even though the food is contemporary, it’s still safe for the fan of typical Chinese food. Also, Sapa may have the best wine list of any Asian restaurant in Salt Lake City. I can’t wait to go back!
10. THAI GARDEN AND NOODLE HOUSE
I’ll always remember having lunch here with my boss, Davy Paul, and how much we were impressed by the owner’s steadfast adherence to authenticity! Every dish we had made us think that we were in the Far East. Ben, the owner, told us, “My place is called a garden, because when you’re in Thailand, you grow your food, go to the garden to pick your food, then go in the house and prepare and eat your food!” I’ve never forgotten her comments, and even though some of her dishes were a little strange, I know her food is the most authentic of its kind in Salt Lake. I still love and remember the Thai rice pudding dessert she serves.
9. J WONG’S ASIAN BISTRO
You know, I have these boys on my list because they have such great potential. Josh and Jason are two of the five sons of the owner/matriarch who also owns a family Chinese restaurant in Bountiful. Last year, the Wong boys made a salmon in red curry at the Asian Festival which was to die for. They were, in my opinion, robbed of the winning title. They make the freshest summer rolls (which in California are called heavenly rolls), and I frequently order them for my own catering events. J Wong’s Bistro is right downtown by the Salt Palace, and even though they need a little help with wine and cocktails, J Wong’s is certainly on my list of favorite places to eat and for ordering take out.
8. TIN ANGEL
Like Forage, Tin Angel is off the beaten path — it’s tucked away in the ancient West Side of Salt Lake. Situated in an old house like Forage, Tin Angel is quirky and off-beat, but has a lot of underlying class and reverence for good food. Tin Angel follows the directives of its chef and has a good wine list. The staff can also help you find a wine to go with the dish you’ve ordered. Like many restaurants that are in the know, Tin Angel is uses local products and vendors. I still remember the hot, toasted bread appetizer, delicious soups and the “Duck on Duck.” Tin Angel is steadfast in is nonchalant style — a planned deception.
Going to this restaurant is like opening an old picture book from an attic trunk. I love how (even though the space has been completely remodeled) you still feel like you’re going to your favorite, old neighborhood place. The bar is cozy and welcoming, and if I lived downtown I’d be there all the time. The food itself is pure and simple Italian: parmesan, pesto and pasta made from fresh local ingredients and with old time flavors, and served with classy presentation. Joe Canella runs the place to honor his father, and his mother is still around to make sure Canella’s remains the friendliest place in town. Go back and back — it’s the new-old place.
Probably the thing I like most about Pago is the understatement of the whole dining experience. Scott Evans, who has become my friend and who has excellent wine knowledge, is the owner/manager of this restaurant, one of the businesses lucky enough to be a jewel in Salt Lake’s 9th and 9th district. Pago is housed in a small, exposed brick store front which is intimate and cozy inside. The lack of seating makes it hard to get in and adds even more allure to this beautiful café. Scott has hired a team of successful chefs and waiters who are known throughout the valley, and he is constantly changing and rearranging his menu to showcase his staff’s talents and to focus on locally produced foods. Scott is the most determined of all the new restaurateurs in embracing the new idea of “Place” cuisine — meaning you get ingredients from close by and run with it. Pago is full of surprises and has an excellent wine list — Scott Evans is also a great sommelier.
5. LA CAILLE
Unfortunately, as far as culinary excellence goes, this restaurant is not usually on a chef’s best list. However, I frequently go to La Caille for Sunday brunch or for the Basque Supper on Sunday night. (I haven’t been on a week night to order off the menu for a very long time.) But, for the experiences I’ve had, I have to say this place is not only memorable but transforming! Having lived for years in France and thus being a huge Franco-geek, I do love La Caille. In every detail you feel transported not only to France, but to the mystical France — the one you read about in books and the one you imagine in your most romantic dreams. The food is satisfying, home-cooked, beautifully presented and served, and although I nearly always take my own wine, La Caille does have one of the best sommeliers in Salt Lake: Joe Wright.
4. THE METROPOLITAN
Years ago, when I was living in San Diego and visiting Salt Lake, friends invited me to dine at the Metro. I was blown away by the ultra modern décor and the way contemporary style has been infused with what looks to be an old warehouse building. It was really cool then, and still is! Karen Olson is the owner and the relentless force for excellence at this restaurant. She has evolved, however, to stay alive in a city where it is very hard for restaurants to keep going. I remember when she served many small bites a la nouvelle cuisine and how folks would say, “You don’t get enough food!” But now, Karen’s chefs mix it up with plenty of fun, trendy small plates, while providing one great entrée plate with ample servings of meat and side dishes. I do think this single change has immensely helped the Metro, and I’m constantly sending people there. Karen also has a nice wine list and is very savvy in her choices. I love the fact that you can go there, sit at the bar, and have snacks and drinks — just like in the big city.
3. FRIDA BISTRO
Wow is my word for Frida Bistro. Stephanie, the general manager, has done her homework. Frida is a testimonial to the great cuisines of our neighbors to the south. Every culinary nook and cranny in Mexico is represented by unusual, creative and very tasty food that you can’t believe you’re eating in Salt Lake. You can order mojitos in such flavors as prickly pear and acai. My sister and I had esquite, real gorditas, tres verdes rice and true carnitas made in a copper kettle. Having watched Rick Bayless for many years on PBS, Frida brings to life the cuisine styles of colonial, old Mexico. If you want authentic Mexican food, go to Frida, soon.
Each time I’ve been to Spruce, I had such a magical evening. I went for the first time about a year ago, before the hotel that houses it changed its name from the Dakota to the Waldorf Astoria/Park City. Tucked up against the northern slopes of the Canyons Resort, the Waldorf with its highly-touted Spruce restaurant is just, simply put, my cup of tea. The walls have the glow of French limestone, shimmering with golden-beige tones, and are juxtaposed with a lot of very dark, ebony woodwork. The Chateau-style lobby has huge hearths and fireplaces, and the floors are covered with very expensive oriental rugs. The ceilings are ablaze with Baccarat chandeliers — my mouth, which grew up in North Ogden, couldn’t close itself! I’ve had the joy of going there several times, and once I took my sister, Lottie Ann, for her birthday. We had a vertical tasting of four white burgundies at the lovely wine bar — not something you get to do every day in Utah. The cuisine also lives up to the name Waldorf, and the impeccable service doesn’t disappoint. It’s pricey, but if you want the ultimate food and wine experience in Utah, you must go to Spruce and check out the voluptuous décor, the European reverence for wine and Utah’s most beautiful new hotel.
I’ve chosen Wahso, on Main Street in Park City, as my most favorite eatery in the last year. There are several reasons, but the main one is that each time I’ve been there I’ve been treated like a celebrity — and I think that’s the way they treat everyone who goes there. I love being seated in the little Victorian alcoves equipped with beautiful draperies that provide coziness and privacy. Every plate of food I’ve had at Wahso has been a work of art. The chef’s creativity, without sacrificing flavor and tradition, is astounding to me. Many restaurants do beautiful plating but usually at the expense of flavor or technique. This is not the case at Wahso! They have a young (and very handsome) chef who always comes by to talk with you, and you can tell by his immaculate appearance that he has the soul of an artist. Wahso has a lot of Asian elements in it cuisine, but they’re subtle; overall, the dishes are masterpieces of artistry and tasteful understatement. Each time I go to Wahso, I just have the chef prepare the menu for me because I know it will be spectacular. Chritian Frech is one of the Bill White managers at this restaurant, and he has a great mind for wine. I’ve had great experiences with wine pairings at Wahso, and for now, it is at the top of my list for great Utah dining experiences.
There are many other places that have impressed me this year. I do really like the new St. Regis where I recently was a guest, and the parallel wine tasting at Wild Grape was especially memorable. In fact, I could go on and on. One place where I’ve loved to go in the past and still consider an excellent option is Tiburon in Sandy, and I must mention Martine, where my protégée, Tom Grant is the chef. But these places will have to be reviewed in future articles. My thanks to QSaltLake and Michael Aaron for this opportunity and …