When Greg Neville phoned me with an invitation to stroll through the rubble and remnants of what used to be Oceans restaurant in Murray, I passed. I don’t especially like to see restaurant “works in progress.” My preference is to experience new restaurants the way regular customers do: when they’re complete, finished, done and open for business. Plus'and maybe I’m just a softy'new restaurants often arise upon the ashes of old ones. Each time a restaurant closes'whether I liked the place or not'it signals the end of someone’s dream. Because I find that very heart-rending, I prefer not to forage around among the ghosts and empty tables of dead restaurants.
Still, I was stunned to see what Neville had done with the defunct Oceans in a mere two months, which was how long his renovation of the space took. I’m not talking about a minor renovation. At Neville’s new restaurant Pine, there is nary a trace of the restaurant that was once Oceans.
But Neville'who also owns LugÃ¤no, the Loggia, and Radda CaffÃ©'seized upon what was most appealing about Oceans in the first place: the natural pine tree groves and creek that border the eastern and southern perimeters of the restaurant. I never thought that this pretty setting at the junction of 900 East and Van Winkle Expressway was used to its potential. But with Pine, Neville has remedied that.
Working with his wife Julie to transform the dark and closed-in structure that was Oceans, the Neville team created a large, well-lit restaurant that is sleek and contemporary but also manages to provide intimate nooks for dining. That’s due in part to the clever multilevel layout of the restaurant. One large table for eight, sunk a few feet below the restaurant’s main dining floor, reminds a friend of Mary Richards’ hip sunken Minneapolis living room from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Meanwhile, the mezzanine seating at Pine offers a perfect perch for people watching.
Iridescent aqua wall tiles give Pine a soothing but modern feel while copper-glazed concrete floors, a Venetian plaster pass-through fireplace and the 30-seat “bianco Romano” marble bar makes me think that Neville’s LugÃ¤no must be doing very well indeed. Design and construction like this doesn’t come cheap. Did I mention the new 90-seat deck that overlooks Big Cottonwood Creek and faces the Wasatch Mountains? My prediction: This will be Salt Lake’s most rockin’ deck come springtime.
So you might find yourself wondering how Neville can afford to offer Pine customers a menu with nothing priced over $20. Beats me. But the prices at Pine are less than you’d expect in such an appealing and expensive atmosphere. For a mere $8.95, you can enjoy the Pine burger, for instance: It’s a half-pound of cooked-to-order Black Angus sirloin topped with thick-sliced bacon, avocado wedges, grilled red onion, cheese (Wisconsin Cheddar, GruyÃ©re or smoked Gouda) and a subtly delicious roasted tomato aioli. This mega-burger comes with fries by the way'and yes, you have to eat the thing with a knife and fork.
You could make a sensational light lunch out of Neville’s awesome steamed Manila clams ($8.95), served with potato chunks and slices of tangy Portuguese “linguisa” sausage in a yellow curry broth. The grilled garlic toast alongside is essential for mopping up all of that rich, fragrant broth.
I’m trying to remember if there was anything at Pine I haven’t enjoyed. I don’t think so. The five-spice duck confit with white grits and plum/onion marmalade ($7.95) is sensational. And frankly, I thought I’d seen enough seared rare Ahi tuna ($11.95) in restaurants to last a lifetime. But at Pine, this often pedestrian dish is elevated to new heights with ginger-infused daikon and radicchio salad, crispy wontons and ponzu sauce. At a recent Pine dinner, a flawless arugula salad ($7.95) with balsamic roasted beets, pine nuts, grilled red onions, shaved fresh fennel and Parmesan cheese was followed by an equally fantastic pork “Osso Buco” ($18.95) with roasted tomatoes, braised barley, wilted radicchio and garlic-citrus breadcrumbs.
But the knockout dish of the night was one recommended (unsolicited) by a happy customer passing our table on her way out. “The sole is out of this world,” she said. She was right: Neville’s pan-fried sole ($18.95) crusted with panko breadcrumbs and served with perfectly roasted Yukon gold potatoes in a lemon-caper and Chardonnay sauce is simple, but otherworldly.
Excellent service at Pine from pros like Berkeley and Cassie make you want to stick around for one of pastry chef Amber Billingsley’s scrumptious desserts. One of my dining companions thinks she goes a bit overboard with powdered sugar plate decorations, but I can easily overlook that when I dive into her rose-scented flan with candied orange peel, sweet pistachios and lemon “cat-tongue” cookie ($5.95). Yes, it’s as good as it sounds. So is the butterscotch crÃ¨me brÃ»lÃ©e with chocolate brownie cookies and fresh seasonal berries ($5.95).
Add to all of that a very well-conceived wine list and specialty cocktails like the Pine Bellini, “Rocket Pop” margarita and chocolate crÃ¨me martini, and you’ve got a new dining destination in Murray bound to become mobbed when the word gets out. It’s only a matter of time until there will be lines out the door and down to the creek, so I recommend getting in on the ground floor at Pine while you still can.