On paper, democracy looks like a good and desirable thing. In practice, though, it can be an icky stomach-turning process, more or less akin to seeing sausage being made. In democracies, Hollywood actors and professional wrestlers who’d have a tough time earning GEDs get elected to run the country. These dopes shouldn’t be allowed to run water. But hey, they were voted into office by the people. This is the same democratic process that results in franchise eateries with bottomless salad bowls being voted in restaurant polls as “Best Italian” and Celine Dion winning “Best Female Vocalist.” I recently logged onto the CitySearch Website to discover, for instance, that Shula’s Steakhouse placed No. 1 in four different restaurant “Best of” categories including “Fine Dining.” I don’t think so. Nor do I think McDonald’s is the third best restaurant in Park City.
Yes, sometimes democracy sucks. So to kick off the new year, I’m suspending democracy. What follows is Utah’s culinary best of the past year, the “Best of 2003.” Of course, City Weekly already publishes an annual “Best of Utah” issue. So that name is spoken for. We’ll call these awards The Teddies—a list of the truly noteworthy and deserving restaurants in 2003, says me. No votes were counted, no campaigners or lobbyists were considered, no ballot boxes were stuffed and the people had no say whatsoever. Take that, democracy.
If you read last week’s dining column, then you already know where to find the Best Pizza in Utah. It’s in Provo at Brick Oven restaurant, near BYU. You’d think that three years into the new millennium we wouldn’t have to travel all the way to Provo for an acceptable brick-oven pizza, but we do. Note to wannabe restaurateurs: Create a decent pizza and they will come.
Ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall? It’s closer to 199 bottles of beer on the wall at The Bayou, which is why this State Street pub wins the 2003 Teddy for Best Beer. If you find another restaurant in Utah pouring Pinkus Organic Munster Alt and Melbourn Bros. Apricot Ale, I’d like to hear about it.
There are Italian restaurants such as Lugano, Fresco, Mr. Z’s and Michelangelo that I like very much. But there’s only one Italian restaurant in Utah I really love: Cucina Toscana. The Cucina combo of eye-catching atmosphere, professional service, killer Italian cuisine, and Valter Nassi—the best guest-greeter around—adds up to Cucina Toscana being the Best Italian Restaurant in the state.
Great french fries are sooo easy to make. So why does almost no one do it? It’s merely a matter of cooking fresh-cut (not frozen) potatoes in the right kind of oil (preferably peanut) at the correct temperature (initially around 325 degrees with a second dunking at about 365), but finding a good order of fries in Utah is about as difficult as purchasing porn in Parowan. In fact, you need to travel to Susie’s Main Street CafÃ© in Coalville for Utah’s Best French Fry. And while you’re in the neighborhood, motor over to Wanship’s Spring Chicken Inn for the Best Fried Chicken.
The single Best Dessert I had in 2003 wasn’t the swankiest, didn’t involve “molten chocolate,” and wasn’t an homage to tall arty architecture. It was a banana cream pie from PiÃ±on Market and CafÃ©. Sometimes less is more.
This year’s Best Cookbook really isn’t a cookbook at all. In fact, it’s a book about not cooking. Raw by Charlie Trotter and Roxanne Klein is a gorgeous tribute to things left uncooked, a colorful celebration of raw food. Lest you think this is a book about carrot and celery sticks, remember that one of the co-authors is six-time James Beard Award winner Charlie Trotter. Which means this amazing non-cookbook is filled with recipes for dishes like carpaccio of artichokes, Bleeding Heart radishes, carrots, and golden beets. Eat it raw.
Of course, if you’d prefer to eat raw food in a restaurant setting then I suggest seeking out Salt Lake’s Mecca of the raw and the uncooked. If you’re eating sushi and sashimi anywhere other than at Shogun, you’re missing out on Chef Takashi Gibo’s scintillating sushi skills, which is to say that you’re missing out on Salt Lake’s Best and Most Artistic Sushi. And why would you let that happen?
The Teddy for Best New Restaurant in 2003 actually goes to an old restaurant: Urban Bistro. When the UDABC gave Urban Bistro a wine and beer license in 2003, Chef/owner Ric Esparza used the opportunity to remake his 7-year-old restaurant, turning it into one of the most appealing and comfortable eateries in town. Urban Bistro has the kind of friendly neighborhood vibe that big money and fancy designers can’t buy. That Chef Esparza’s food is so terrific is just a bonus.
Best Restaurant Trend of 2003: Shrinking wine corkage fees.
Although a blind man could see that Log Haven’s rustic mountain restaurant ambiance is second to none in Utah, my editors will insist that I include the tired old disclaimer that I have a personal relationship with a Log Haven employee, so there it is. It doesn’t alter the fact that Log Haven is Utah’s Premier Destination Restaurant, for tourists and locals alike. That’s due quite simply to top-notch cuisine and restaurant service, combined with the Best Restaurant Ambiance to be found not only in Utah, but in many other states to boot.
I loathe the moniker “comfort food.” All good food should be comfort food, right? But I know what the term means: It usually refers to uncomplicated but delicious home-style dishes like meatloaf, macaroni and cheese, and fried chicken. For me, comfort food comes in a slightly more Continental form. When I’m off duty, not reviewing restaurants, and looking to relax with the most comforting dish I can find, most often I wind up at Au Bon Appetit plunging into an order of steamed mussels with pommes frites. It’s the Best Comfort Food I know of.
People often ask me about my favorite Utah restaurant. And that’s a tough one. There are lots of restaurant that I like very, very much. And my opinions about which one is best can change from month to month and from visit to visit. But here’s my bottom line: I get reimbursed for most of the meals I eat out by those who employ me to write about them. So when I think about my favorite restaurant, I think about where I’d spend my own money on dinner. In 2003, the easy answer to that question was Park City’s Chenez restaurant. Looking back on the year, I’ve eaten many wonderful meals in many wonderful restaurants. But none have surpassed the enjoyment that I’ve experienced at Chenez, bathed in the warm hospitality of owner Joe Jafarian and his staff, the restaurant’s unsurpassed elegant ambiance, and the exquisite classic French cuisine of Chef Greg Vincent Grass. That’s a triple threat hard to beat, and why my pick for Best Restaurant in 2003 is Chenez.
Quote of the week: To eat is human. To digest is divine.—Mark Twain
Send Food Matters tips to firstname.lastname@example.org. Hear Ted over the airwaves on Thursday’s Sound Bites and each Saturday on Weekend Shots with Bryan Schott, both on KSL News Radio 1160.