The most significant event to take place in Utah’s dining scene recently happened in January, when Butterfly restaurant opened its doors in The Gateway. This is the kind of place that foodies and food writers dream about.
The sensory pleasures that dominate dining at Butterfly begin as you enter the lovely old Union Pacific Depot building at The Gateway and circle through seemingly secret passageways to find the hostess stand. There, you’ll need to deal with a bit of red tape, since the Butterfly restaurant and The Depot concert-venue-cum-nightclub complex is a private club. For $5 you can pick up a temporary membership, but I’d really recommend springing for the $30 annual fee, because you’re going to want to return. And since Butterfly is essentially a restaurant within a nightclub/concert hall, that membership and a concert ticket are good for enjoying musical artists like Los Lobos, Little Feat, Isaac Hayes, James Blunt, Buckwheat Zydeco and Roomful of Blues.
But whether or not you ever make your way to a show at The Depot, you’re certainly going to want to take in the spectacular show that is Butterfly. As is the case in Butterfly’s namesake sister restaurant on the Embarcadero in San Francisco, a beautiful backlit blue wall defines the bar area to the left as you enter this roomy 8,000-square-foot restaurant. It provides a soothing and serene piece of eye candy that just gets sweeter as you make your way to either the sunken dining room'where crisp white tablecloths dominate the scene'or an upper mezzanine-type dining area perfect for spying on diners and bar patrons below. Can’t decide where to sit? I suggest asking for a table worked by Craig Smith, formerly of the Grand America and as outstanding a server as I’ve ever come across in any restaurant. Not that he’s unique'the service at Butterfly soars so high above the norm that even a server assistant/busser named Zach was able to enlighten me about menu and wine-list items, not to mention deconstruct certain sauces for me when I couldn’t quite ferret out exactly what I was tasting.
The food, the contemporary dÃ©cor, the unique lighting schemes (check out the no-two-of-a-kind lamps that hang from the ceiling)'everything about Butterfly screams fusion cuisine. But unlike so many restaurants where fusion really means confusion, the flavors at Butterfly are so well thought-out and nuanced that they are nearly incomparable. That, of course, is due to the kitchen creativity of founding chef and restaurant partner Rob Lam. Named a Rising Star Chef of 2003 in the San Francisco Chronicle, Lam synthesizes Asian and Western flavors like few can. Just try his ponzu-grilled hanger steak ($19) with Portobello-mushroom-and-sweet-pea stir fry, kissed with Cabernet jus de veau, and you’ll know what I mean. Of course, Lam spends most of his time at headquarters in San Francisco. No worries'executive chef Donald “Dino” Vazquez executes Lam’s creations to perfection.
First, as you take in the innovative menu listings with the assistance of a well-trained server, share a plate of sesame-coated edamame ($3). Better yet, order one just for yourself so you don’t have to share those yummy soybean pods with anyone.
The Kahlua pig appetizer ($9) is a fireworks show on the palate. The saltiness of tender, shredded barbecued pig and hoisin sauce is beautifully balanced by the crisp freshness of bib lettuce cups. You might have had one variation or another on the lettuce-cup theme in other Asia-inspired restaurants, but you’ve never had a lettuce cup as tasty as this. Share a pig-filled cup or two with your honey and maybe you’ll get a taste of steamed clams and mussels ($10) in return. They swim in a garlicky lemongrass curry that you’ll want to mop to the last drop with a piece of rustic sesame-grilled baguette.
From duck-confit spring rolls ($9) and smoked-salmon carpaccio with whipped crÃ¨me fraiche horseradish and wasabi crackers ($9), to a half-dozen freshly shucked oysters served with both traditional Champagne and Thai mignonette sauces, not to mention a Bloody Mary oyster shooter on the side, there isn’t an appetizer on the Butterfly menu that doesn’t hold great appeal. But if you really want to pull out all the stops, order the tuna poke tartar ($12). Small diced morsels of sushi-grade tuna are marinated in a sesame oil sauce (which turns the fish from bright burgundy to mud-colored) and served with a zippy wasabi blini, sieved eggs and a salmon-belly quenelle. It’s outrageously good.
Butterfly’s tea-smoked grilled quails'insert Cheney joke here'will bring tears to your eyes, beautifully presented with roasted beets, garlic-seared long beans, a soy-orange reduction sauce and fried goat cheese ($23). And even if it didn’t taste fantastic, I’d order the crispy fried whole fish ($32) again simply for the reaction it causes throughout the restaurant. It’s a challenge to describe, which is why customers throughout Butterfly were asking us and their servers, “What is that?” A whole flash-fried fish'in this case, Thai snapper'is shaped into a cylinder of sorts; the fish looks like it’s chasing its tail. In the center of the fish you discover homemade kim chee, pepper and sausage chow fun, and spicy black-bean sauce. And since the entire fish is scored into squares, it’s easy to eat right off the bone with chopsticks. The presentation of this dish is as remarkable as any I’ve ever seen. It’s almost merely a bonus that it’s also so delectable.
You’ll notice that Butterfly isn’t cheap. Things this good rarely are. But for a superbly trained and managed staff, exceptional service, second-to-none ambience and outstanding cuisine, Butterfly is the place to land.