Culinary Karma | Dining | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly
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Eat & Drink » Dining

Culinary Karma

To Hell's Backbone Grill and back.


1 comment
  • Ted Scheffler

To paraphrase a cautionary note that the late, great Jim Harrison once said to me: "Dining in restaurants, like literature, is a crapshoot." Like Forrest Gump's big box of chocolates, you never know what you're going to get. This is mostly true, yet we still seek them out, because the tribal urge to eat, drink and share space and time with others is a primal one. Perhaps that's in part what leads us to restaurants to break bread. It's usually no fun dining—and especially drinking—alone. Wine is to be shared.

With a good four decades of serious gourmandizing under my increasingly tight belt, I still consider only a handful of restaurants not to be crapshoots, including Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Taillevent in Paris. Mario Batali's Esca is my favorite seafood restaurant, and Salt Lake City's own Takashi is the go-to for sushi and sashimi. Comme Chez Soi in Brussels, Le Bistrot du Paradou near Saint-Rémy, France and Le Fournil in Bonnieux inevitably super-satisfy. Oh, and then there's this truly off-the-beaten-path destination eatery in Boulder, Utah: Hell's Backbone Grill.

I've written about it in the past, so I won't rehash its challenging—and ultimately joyous—history here. Better that you turn to the fine book written by HBG's owners, Jennifer Castle and Blake Spalding, called With a Measure of Grace. Fans of HBG will be happy to know that Spalding and Castle are publishing a second book this fall, entitled This Immeasurable Place: Food and Farming from the Edge of Wilderness.

Revisiting Hell's Backbone Grill, I'm again reminded that this is a special place—a sanctuary, of sorts. The frayed Tibetan prayer flags that line the restaurant's exterior, colorful wildflowers, a contented feline named Jezebel lazing on the dining deck, Buddhist fountains and the overall vibe of the place say, "Welcome! Please join us." There's an "honor system" rack of goodies just outside the restaurant offering homemade jams, heirloom tomatoes and potatoes, herbs, pottery and more for customers to purchase. Just leave your cash in the jar. Enter the restaurant proper, and you'll most likely be greeted with hugs, whether you're a first-timer or long-timer.

If you believe in karma, as I do, this outpost eatery's success should come as no surprise—a place shining brightly enough to be written about in The New York Times and other big publications.

My family toured the restaurant's own farm recently, and was struck by the sheer volume of produce that it takes to run the restaurant; HBG still must turn to local farmers for items like carrots and potatoes, since its own farm can't keep up with the demand.

Yes, this is a special place. But it's not just about the setting and welcoming atmosphere; it's also about the food. Believe me, I wouldn't drive 4-plus hours to dine there if the food wasn't excellent. For breakfast, I love the super spicy chile migas ($13), a taste of Jen's New Mexico upbringing, with three farm eggs scrambled in red chile sauce, jack cheese and blue corn tortillas chips. At dinner time, steelhead trout ($29) with lemon-tarragon butter, basmati rice and organic veggies is superb. One of the most memorable chicken dishes I've encountered in a long time is "Lemony Cluck" ($29)—an impossibly tender, skin-on, pan-cooked Mary's chicken breast, sliced into thin medallions and served in a snappy lemon, shallots and herb sauce—simply outstanding.

Our current president—who I believe to have grown up unloved and unloving—became a brief topic of one evening's dinner there. In this spiritually rich spot, I found myself actually feeling compassion for a man with so much self-loathing that he can't possibly ever have a truly happy moment. POTUS needs to make his way to Hell's Backbone Grill. It would be good for him, and probably would be good for our country. After all, karma is a bitch.