In a normal year, a fair number of folks from this end of the state might be traveling up north for some holiday shopping and cheer. The local business men and women make the trip month in, month out. The truth is, Salt Lake has always been our taste of the big city, our connection to culture. Having said that, I do recognize that in my twenty years away from this place, Las Vegas has replaced Salt Lake in many ways. I have been shown the wine stops. And I look forward to getting to know more of Vegas’s fine culture. However, a couple months ago when a serious case of big city blues hit, I headed north to visit my brother in Salt Lake and wrote the following.
It’s restaurant night. In fact, it’s nice restaurant night. That was determined a few weeks ago when I was feeling stressed and realized I was in need of some city life—for me, a fine meal that I didn’t cook. A night out. Some service. A wine list that I’ve never seen.
Man, those are some very short sentences. Has cowboy country already got me that good? I do need some fine culture. What happened to my long sentences?
My brother is busy tonight. Ah, too bad. It’s been many years since I’ve been to Salt Lake, and I have no idea where to go for a nice meal. Google tells me that my old haunts are gone. The New Yorker. Rino’s Italian Restaurant. Rino’s was a place up on Parley’s way close to my college apartment owned by an Italian immigrant who grew his own vegetables in the backyard. It was my first great experience of fine dining. Ever. Rino used to serve the food himself and chat with the guests. The history on Google tells me his restaurant closed in the early 2000s, but that he kept on serving his pasta sauces at the local farmer’s market up in Davis County where he lived.
I end up choosing Pallet. It’s downtown on 3rd West and Pierpont and reminds me of a neighborhood corner restaurant in San Francisco. It has windows on two sides and a bar to the back. It’s cozy, an active vibe, and calm all at once. The cozy comes from the low lighting and the wood floor. The vibe from the music mix, the patrons, the bar, the downtown setting. And the calm from the "Dutch Master"-esque paintings on the brick walls—museum quality landscapes and portraits.
The service is prompt, but I don’t feel hurried. I tell her I need a little time to take in the menu, and I try to remember her name, Katie. I also allow myself to be lost in thought about the brother I’m visiting and continue to take in the restaurant: the paintings and the other patrons. I’ve been gonna take this trip to Salt Lake for a long time. I used to come regularly for work, and then that all ended. I was glad to never return.
It’s a different city with all the new restaurants. I found the place on Trip Advisor, but I had to ignore many of the comments. Comments that went like, “the lighting made me feel I was at a “blind tasting” restaurant—no one could see their food, or “portions weren’t huge, but I guess they were adequate”. Blah blah blah. And then there were comments such as, “Please, please, please, come to this restaurant. As good as any NYC bistro” and “hands down best restaurant in Salt Lake City.”
I’m facing Pierpont Ave. It used to be a street. Now it’s a parking lot. I’m thinking about how the city has changed, and the restaurants are all different when Katie returns. I have eyed down the appetizers.
In an upscale restaurant, I will ask the servers for suggestions. Not all waiters have strong opinions. Katie does. She recommends the "Blistered Shishitos."
“Do you know what shishitos are?” she asks.
“No,” I reply. “Are they mushrooms?” I venture.
“No, they are mild peppers.”
The dish is fantastic. These small roasted peppers emerge from an elegant reduced cheese sauce lightened with citrus garnish and nuts. It says lemons on the menu, but I could swear I taste zest of kumquat. It’s a cheese sauce, but one might not know it’s cheese—it’s more the texture of cream. I was concerned about the spice of the peppers, which I told Katie. I do not care for spicy food. It masks the flavor, ruins the wine, and troubles my stomach. Katie assures me the dish is not spicy.
So many restaurants out West tend to spice up their dishes. It’s not only the Mexican tradition. There’s a current Asian fusion trend going around. I was recently in Bozeman at a terrific modern restaurant where the largest and juiciest duck breast I’ve ever had was served on top of this super spicy curry sauce. Fortunately, the curry was not poured over the duck.
Why do Westerners love spicy food? I know, it’s that no-nonsense kick in the ass. What the shishitos have going for them is the lively heartiness of a spicy western dish, but without the heat. Katie’s recommended wine pairing is a German Sylvaner. It is bright and refreshing with a long grassy finish. It’s quite unusual. Germany has a variety of gorgeous white wines, but for some reason, most of these wines don’t make their way to the States. Even to California. The sweet ones usually—the Rieslings and Gewurz. And we can get the peckish Gruner Veltliners. The Sylvaner took me back to my trip through Yellowstone and the high Rockies this past July at the height of wildflower season. (Sylvaner in German means “the forest.”)
Yes . . . remembering mountains. That moment in a restaurant when the images of one’s summer or recent past come flooding joyfully back. Isn’t this when you know you’re in a good restaurant? You relax in a way more than you do at home. Layers and layers peel off, and you feel connected to some complete part of yourself. Some inner part. It’s the same thing with travel. It can be transcendent. And the music here at Pallet is just right—the song at the moment is an updated Nora Jones which takes me back to a restaurant in Pasadena, California on a very special night when I first heard Nora. How often does a great restaurant introduce new good music?
For an entree, I go with the scallops. Here, too, the Asian trend shows up. The full round scallops are set in the lightest of sweet lime infused coconut milk sauces. Pallet is a farm to fork restaurant and the dish is lightened with an array of fresh veggies interfacing between the fish and the sauce: peas, tiny bell-shaped red mild peppers, fulls stems of crunchy herbs. The scallops are deep browned in a way that fully satisfies this meat lover. What’s more, Katie encourages me to go with red wine, the Barbaresco. This choice was a bit tough for me, I admit. Barbaresco is typically a heavy dark red. And one usually goes with a white for fish. This is the thing about fine dining with good service. It’s a chance to open up. To do something new that we don’t do at home, that we haven’t done before. And, so far Katie had good recommendations. So I went with it. And it was amazing. It was a very light Barbaresco. Salty grilled fish—primitive and earthy as any smoked beef—with Italian red wine. Every good meal is an adventure.