Tuesday, August 23, 2011

If You Ask People,

and we’ve asked quite a few, they’ll tell you that the food scene in Salt Lake City has flourished in the past five to seven years. That came as a surprise to us. We would have thought that restaurant growth would have coincided with the 2000 Olympics.

Today, we are off to a relative newcomer (opening in the spring of 2010), the Copper Onion, on the basis of a recommendation of Sam, the Mazza manager (see our blog of 8/21/11).

“Once in a while, though not often, I come across a restaurant that sparkles and shines so brightly that it actually makes my job difficult. Difficult, because it’s a challenge to do justice to all that is right in a single column. The Copper Onion—a new, gleaming gem of the downtown dining scene—is one such restaurant.... It’s not an in-your-face, flashy eatery. Rather, this is an attractive, modest enterprise, independently owned…. You won’t necessarily be bowled over by the design or decor—although, as I say, it is a very visually appealing restaurant and a comfortable one. You will be bowled over by the food.

“Former NYC chef (and native Utahn) Ryan Lowder now brings his personal take on New American cuisine to his own kitchen with an approach inspired by his passion for Utah’s outstanding farmstead ingredients and his experience as a chef cooking his way through Barcelona, NYC, and South America. The Copper Onion serves a wide array of vegetable side dishes and a menu designed to explore and share. An insistent focus on the freshest and best is paramount; sausages and burgers are ground daily, bread is baked and ice cream is made in house, offering casual diners an exceptional experience at affordable prices” (Salt Lake City Weekly).

The café offers a choice of inside and outside dining (left). While the patio was shaded, we chose instead to eat inside where the space is decorated with pale yellow walls and dark woods.

A long bar for both eating and imbibing spans most of one wall.

And the kitchen is semi-open and you can see the line cooks hard at work.

The lunch menu is a combination of small plates, entrees (pastas, meatloaf, trout filet, tri-tip steak), and sandwiches, sides, and desserts. And it is a menu that I would love to eat my way through, since each item sounds more intriguing than the last.

After considerable deliberation and numerous questions to our server, we decided to combine two of the small plates and two of the sides—with a bowl of corn jalapeno chowder to start. While the chowder was ostensibly Chuck’s, numerous spoons full made their way across the table and into my mouth. Full of corn and bacon—along with potatoes and jalapenos—the contrast between the sweet corn and smoky bacon was food heaven. And the judicious use of the jalapenos only hinted at heat.

With the chowder, we ordered the ricotta dumplings from the list of small plates. These were three ethereal pillows of goodness—light, creamy, and flavorful from lemon and thyme. Adorning each were a sprinkling of candied lemon peel and sharp cheese. Am I eating a slightly sweet appetizer or a slightly savory dessert? Whatever. These were marvelous.

For our main course, we shared another small plate (the spicy corn) and two sides—shishito peppers and snap peas with sofrito.

The fresh-off-the-cob corn was just barely warmed and came dusted with a spicy seasoning (paprika?) and the same sharp cheese that came on the dumplings. The corn was mixed with an aioli that was light on garlic and didn’t engulf the flavor of the corn.

The Japanese shishito peppers “are very much like their Spanish cousins Pimientos de Padrón aka Padrón peppers. The flavor is mild, but once in a while you might bite into a spicy one, which is where all the fun is!” (blog.sigsiv.com). They were barely fried in olive oil and then liberally sprinkled with good coarse salt. I could have eaten these like potato chips or popcorn. One tasty pepper after another. All after-noon. Maybe with a good cold beer.

And the snap peas. Who knew that peas could taste so good? They were grilled so that one side of each pea had a char like a roasted red pepper. And then they were seasoned with sofrito, “a culinary combination of aromatic ingredients which have been cut in very small pieces, and slowly (at least for a quarter of an hour, but more usually half an hour) sautéed or braised in cooking oil. Within the context of Spanish cuisine, sofrito consists of garlic, onion, and tomatoes cooked in olive oil, and is used as the base for many dishes” (wikipedia.com). Again, the seasonings or enhancements (in this case the sofrito) enhanced, rather than overwhelmed, the flavor of the crisp, grilled pea pods.

To finish, we decided to try the restaurant’s homemade soft-serve ice cream. The day’s flavors were banana rum and salted caramel. Which to choose? Both of course. The banana rum (front in the photo) tasted more of rum than bananas. The salted caramel just hinted of salt which intensified the cooked sugar flavor.

Well, another 5.0 Addie meal in Salt Lake City. Is this a great food city, or what?

Tomorrow is our last day in SLC and we are off to lunch at the Number One restau-rant on tripadvisor.com and one of what the local visitors’ guide calls a “Salt Lake City Essential.”

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