I should say upfront that Casey Staker, owner of Zest, is a longtime friend and someone I respect immensely. My partner and I always requested him as our server at Red Rock Brewing Co., 12 years ago. It’s not just that he’s adorable, but also a consummate professional and even then he knew how to deliver service better than people who had been in the industry for decades longer. After a successful run as owner of W Lounge, he’s opened Zest Kitchen and Bar, 275 S. 200 West.
I’m kind of blown away with what he’s done to the old Hapa Taqueria and Acme Burger location. It’s been renovated with a beautiful bar, painted colors that don’t make you want to gouge your eyes out (ahem, Hapa!), and the esthetic is modern and clean with beautiful large pieces of food porn on the walls.
Before I get to the food, as an imbiber, I must start with the cocktail menu – a wonderfully inventive and refreshing beverage program that you might expect from a nightlife impresario like Staker. A jalapeno margarita that doesn’t skimp on the spice is wonderful but my favorite had to be the beet sangria. It’s made with organic wine, organic beet juice and other fresh juices. It won’t be for everyone, but it’s just so different and unique and honest-to-god healthy that everyone should try it once. It would make for a terrific brunch cocktail, but I’ll take it with any meal. A nice play on a whiskey ginger, the Ginger Spice with fireball whiskey, ginger beer, apple juice and candied ginger is a warming drink perfect for a fall evening. The wine and liquor list is quite impressive.
For the last year, Staker has been quietly experimenting with vegetarian and vegan recipes, and every menu item comes directly from his own test kitchen. From the many times I saw him walk through the kitchen I can tell each item on the menu is his baby. Examining plating and tasting – he’s a proud papa. And for good reason as each glutton-free menu item is lovely. I have a few favorites, but two that stood out are the pasta with a wonderfully rich tomato sauce, spinach and kalamata olives ($12) and the grilled eggplant with red bell peppers, roasted fingerling potatoes and roasted red pepper couli ($12). Both these dishes were wonderful, bursting with rich flavor and fresh ingredients. I’ll admit, I was skeptical of the concept when I first heard of Zest but I was bowled over, especially after tasting the stuffed avocado with Mexican-seasoned and crushed walnuts, romaine salad, pico, cashews and sour cream ($12).
Staker’s club roots carry over to Zest with a disc jockey slowly turning up the volume in the evening to more of a lounge/club feel later in the evening. I’m past my club days, so I’ll defer to my friends at City Weekly who said it “serves up a heavy dose of certified-organic ass-shaking.” However, I’ve been there earlier in the evening when the music had a vibe but wasn’t loud.
Salt Lake is home to some truly great vegetarian restaurants, but none do it with the level of class and casual elegance that Zest has going for it. Congratulations Casey, I’m looking forward to this new evolution.