I know what you're thinking. "What food can be found in a small mining town in the western desert of Utah, outside of a couple of dives and fast food chains? Has John lost his mind?"
Maybe I have. It was certainly playing tricks on me during the meal. But oh, what a delicious insanity it was.
This last Friday, the Sostanza Restaurant opened its doors on Main Street in Tooele. Touted as “fine American Dining,” or “American Fusion,” I now have a new favorite restaurant. And it's only five minutes away from my house.
My wife and I were looking forward to this place since we started reading about it in the local newspaper, the Tooele Transcript Bulletin. I was a little leery, though. I mean, come on. This is Tooele! What are these two partners thinking? They were taking over a spot vacated by a long standing, but failed, Mexican restaurant. It goes against conventional business wisdom to do such a thing.
Then again, the head chef, Steve Berzanski, has impressive credentials. On the other hand, I've seen a couple of good restaurants with chef's of nearly equally impressive credentials open in this town and then close their doors all too soon, because they couldn't drum up enough business to stay afloat. Would this place be next?
MLW and I were planning on checking Sostanza out over opening weekend, but family events conspired against us. Knowing the following weekend would be busy, too, MLW and I went during the week.
Driving by the doors on the main street side, I wondered if it was even open. It looked dark and my inner pessimist started coming out of it's hiding place. Were they even open? Knowing we'd have to park in the back (there's no street side parking in downtown Tooele), we headed around to the dusty reverse of this section of Main.
“Okay,” I thought. “This doesn't look awful.” There was a nice enough entrance on this side and a lot of cars in the parking lot, too. Hmmm. That's a good sign.
The evening sun was to our backs as we walked through the parking lot and up to the front doors. From here, it didn't look like much, but I hoped that the outside was deceiving. Two sets of gray metal chairs and tables for outdoor dining blended into the surrounding concrete so much that I mistook them for debris left from cleaning out some other storage space.
Opening the doors was like moving into another world. The bright sun gave way to a comfortable, subdued interior. I could see rich olive tinted walls with dark paneling down the hall. Soft yellow lights blended with dark wood tables, beckoned to us. Beautiful prints, some abstract, some realistic, and the occasional mirror adorned the place. No element drawing attention to itself, nor allowing itself to be overtaken by another. It was in perfect balance.
I started to relax.
The hostess greeted us a little stiffly, politely probing to find out if we had reservations. We hadn't made any. I didn't think we'd need too. This was mid-week in Tooele, for goodness sake. It turned out I was right, but she did advise us to make reservations if we decided to come in on a weekend. Her unspoken, but mild chastisement had me wondering what the rest of the evening would be like. We were quickly seated.
(Note: I came to realize, later, that they had planned on reservations only for the first 30 days. No wonder the hostess was confused by us!)
The menu was smart and simple with just enough dishes to make you think, but not so many as to overwhelm either customer or kitchen. In my book, this a sign of a savvy restaurateur, not some crazy people opening a restaurant on a lark. The prices were certainly not the cheapest, but they were completely in line with other nice restaurants I'd been to in Salt Lake City and other places. In other words, quite reasonable for a fine dining establishment. On my middle-class salary I couldn't afford to go here every week, but I wouldn't break my wallet with an occasional visit, either.
All of the dishes intrigued me. Some were classics with small variations, while others looked quite original. I was looking to discover the signature flavors here, though, so I decided I would ask the waiter what he recommended.
That can be a nasty trick I know, and I pull it quite often. The wait staff should know these dishes, though. I don't expect them to know everything, mind you. But they need to have some ideas of what this food tastes like. I've yet to be disappointed doing it.
I wish I could remember our water's name. He had a bright disposition that immediately showed his excitement about the menu and was nicely attentive, but not overly so. I easily warmed up to him and started feeling even more comrotable as he took our drink and appetizer orders.
The nice part about checking out new restaurants with my wife is that we can each order different things, and then share them. That way we get to try twice as many dishes one outing. Other patrons may look at us funny as we feed each other samples of our meal, but what do I care?
Don't bother me, kid. I'm eating.
I decided to order an interesting sounding edamame dish with carrots and flash-fried beets served with a thick, Asian inspired dipping sauce. MLW asked what edamame was and, to be honest, the waiter couldn't tell me. (They'll need to work on that a bit, as they get going.) To his credit, he didn't try and fake it; he just described what he thought it was. Vegetables topped with a large number of peas still in their pods. I'd never had edamame before and the regions of my brain that hold obscure knowledge like “what edamame is” were ignoring me.
The dish was presented in what looked like a small cocktail glass, but these didn't look like any peas I was familiar with. I tried eating them, pod and all. Not a smart idea. “This is kind of leathery and not very good,” I thought. MLW agreed. She'd never had edamame before, either. She could barely pronounce it. “What is this again? Eed-a-maim?”
Something in the back of my grey matter started stirring and I began to wonder if I hadn't gotten it all wrong. “I wonder if I'm just supposed to eat the peas inside.” They certainly didn't taste like peas. They were nice, but was this really how you're supposed to eat this stuff?
One of the owners, Terri Ellsworth, came by to check on us and, after I complained that they were a little tough she asked, “Have you ever had edamame before?,” a little concerned. I assured her I hadn't and she got slightly worried. “Oh, no. I'm sorry. We'll have to work on explaining this better. This is a traditional Japanese dish. You're not supposed to eat the outside, just suck out the beans.”
After mildly embarrassing me, my brain finally gave up it's food trivia to my consciousness. Edamame is soy beans, you idiot. I'd have to have a talk with my long term memory, later on. I'm not happy when it plays practical jokes on me.
I started wondering about the dipping sauce, too. I kept wanting to pour it on top, but that didn't make sense if I was just going to discard the pod. It would just make them messy. Then inspiration struck. I dipped the pod into the sauce and sucked out the beans, taking the sauce along with them like a kid sucking ketchup off a French fry.
Ooooh. This was interesting. The mildly spicy sauce perfectly set off the subtle flavor of the toasted beans. Knowing I had unlocked the secret of this dish, I dug in.
Or rather, I sucked out.
I started adding some of the flash-fried shredded beets and immediately realized why the chef had included them. They added a slightly nutty, earthy perfume and light crunch, contrasting the soft texture of the soybeans. Nice.
Still, I wondered if this appetizer was just a bit too hard to eat for the average Joe, at least not without some explaining. The owner was right. They'd have to work on it a bit for this one.
Oddly enough, I hit a point of food satisfaction about 3/4 of the way through. I had just had enough. Not too many, mind you. I very much looking forward to the entree, which is what an appetizer is supposed to do. I was just ... content. Maybe it was because I'd shared my wife's appetizer.
MLW had ordered the house chips. They were four kinds of potatoes – sweet, yukon gold, russets (I think), and purple Peruvians – thinly sliced and crispy, with just a touch of salt. The seasoning was light and I welcomed eating a potato chip where I could actually taste the potato. They came with what I think was rice vinegar on the side.
I tried a few of the chips by themselves, but when I dipped one in the vinegar I had another food revelation. This was an ingenious re-visioning of the classic salt and vinegar chips, elevated from classic pub food to the world of fine dining. I was impressed. I highly recommend them.
Next came the entrees. The portions were larger than I expected, but it occurred to me that may be a nod to the local patrons expectations of restaurant food. We're talking about a community that could easily be suckered in by quantity over quality, and may be disappointed if they don't take home a doggy bag.
My wife ordered pork medallions wrapped in bacon. They were served on a bed of garlic mashed potatoes and a mildly spiced gravy. By itself the gravy was okay. I couldn't identify the spices, which troubled my brain a bit. I thought my taste buds were better than that. The pork was cooked nicely, but it was a little chewy. By themselves they were good, but like the appetizers, mixed with the gravy and a bit of the mashed potatoes the flavors were transformed into something rich and meaty, taking the whole dish to a completely new level.
On our waiter's recommendation I had the pan-seared half chicken with a red wine reduction, and herb butter. This was served on a similar bed of garlic mashed potatoes and what I think were julienned parsnips. I'm a little unclear of some of my root vegetables.
The chicken had been brined before hand and was perfectly seasoned. The richness of the herb butter melded with the moist chicken. The smooth texture of the mashed potatoes moved the flavors through my mouth like a lover's caress, finishing with a fruity kiss from the wine to the back of my palate. This was the pinnacle of the meal. I had gone in planning to only eat half, and take the other half home. That should have a been a simple task. It was half of a chicken for heaven's sake! Once again, I was wrong. In the end, I gave in to gluttony and devoured all but a small bit of the mashed potatoes.
Now, I've not been to every restaurant in Salt Lake City. I've certainly not been to every restaurant in Las Vegas, but I have been to many of them. My old job used to send me there quite often. Because I don't gamble, and I don't chase any women other than MLW, the only thing that interests me in Vegas is the food. She and I have enjoyed several restaurants there. This dish alone beats everything I have ever eaten in Vegas, hands down. If it sounds like I'm gushing, I probably am, but even MLW agrees with me. After she finished her pork she made me share the chicken with her. I was happy to oblige. I like to share good food and besides, I wanted to leave room for dessert.
Earlier in the meal, the other owner, Spiros Makris, had enticed me by explaining that he'd hired a pastry chef just for the desserts. I had planned on going all out this evening, anyway (hey, I wanted to review this restaurant, not just eat at it). Couple that with the very impressive food I'd already eaten, it wasn't a hard sell.
Our waiter came back out with a tray of desserts that included a tempting take on strawberry cheesecake, chocolate pot de crème, a beautiful bread pudding, a classic crème brulee, and an almond – marscapone tiramisu. MLW ordered the tiramisu, but I think I confused the waiter when I ordered the crème brulee. He had asked if we wanted to share and I think my answer of, “we'll end up sharing it anyway,” wiped the tiramisu from his mind. He only brought the crème brulee, and two spoons. I didn't mind, though. I was already full and MLW hadn't been sure she'd wanted to tiramisu, anyway. She had really just ordered it so I would have an excuse to try it.
After the foodgasmic chicken, I didn't think it could get better. I was wrong. A perfect capstone to the meal, this was the best crème brulee I have ever had in my life, and I've had a few. The very thin, perfectly caramelized sugar crust added just the right amount of crunch to the rich, cool, creaminess of the custard. The natural vanilla bean flavors were in perfect balance, not overpowering, but perfuming the dish with subtle tone.
And then it hit me. That was the key element in every dish we had eaten and enjoyed that evening. All the flavors were in perfect balance with each other. Just like the décor, where no one thing stood out on it's own - neither overshadowing, nor being overshadowed by, anything else - so it was with the food. Each ingredient, each flavor, a beautiful thing unto itself, and in perfect harmony with it's neighbors. Each contributing it's share and elevating the whole to something greater, and in some cases slightly sensual.
My wife and I did “guild the Lilly” a bit more than we normally would have, I'll admit, but we both left feeling wonderfully sated, and looking forward to our next visit. We didn't break the bank, either. Less than $70.00 for the two of us, with appetizers, drinks, and dessert. If we had been worried about the cost, we could have come away equally satisfied having chosen different dishes.
Get this. MLW and I once spent over $200.00 for dinner at the Paris in Las Vegas and didn't enjoy it nearly as much. I will never go to the Paris again. I have been spoiled by Sostanza.
So, if you're looking for amazing food off the beaten path, with hidden elegance behind the rough facade of a small desert town, come to Sostanza. Who knows? You might see me there.
4 1/2 zucchinis