Monday, May 23, 2011

And the Winner Is...

And the winner, for most innovative meal year-to-date, Forage Restaurant! In Salt Lake City. That’s right, Salt Lake City, Utah. Enough that it is in Utah, I know, but I’m not talking about Sundance and I’m not talking about Park City. While I’m at it, I’ve been in New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Portland, Chicago, and Los Angeles, this year among other places, some of the most interesting food cities in the United States and I’m telling you with a straight face that this little itty bitty restaurant in Salt Lake City, Utah, Forage, is doing some of the most creative, and delicious cooking in the country.

The menu at Forage is set, and there is no reason to be scared by that structure. If you have allergies or intolerances or religious guidelines, the staff wants to know, and they’ll change your dishes when appropriate. The five-course menu (more like 8 courses when you count the three substantial amuse bouche) is leisurely and you’ll like it that way, more time to take in the whimsy and mystery of the menu between courses.

My meal on a cool spring day started with the three amuses: roasted sweet corn croquette, soft scrambled egg in the shell, and red trout tare tar. The croquette was the first indication the mad science at work- a sweet corn soup somehow harnessed in a bread crumb casing so that it exploded in early summer harvest flavors when taken all in one bite. The soft scrambled egg was not for the texturally faint of heart- soft egg was layered back in its shell with maple syrup and sherry cream to be stirred and eaten in one strangely yummy yet texturally and visually unappetizing bite. The Utah red trout tare tar had that brassy mineral taste that comes with some fresh water fish, and it works. When bookended by two malt crackers and rolled in toasted buckwheat it was the first taste at Forage that I knew to be distinctly of the area.

Where Forage intrigues with the amuses it delivers on the mains. The parade of excellence began with a salad of wild herbs harvested from a nearby park, baby greens, and edible flowers, topped with garlic crisps and “curds and whey” delicately spooned over the salad tableside by the chef. The salad was as delicious as it was aesthetically beautiful, the sour-salty-milky curds and whey providing balance for the sharp, bitter, and floral notes of the foraged salad with just the right garlic bite from the crisps. Atlantic squid with potato confit, squid ink emulsion and sea vegetables were a revelation in which the sea somehow adapted the earthiness of the land. Tender squid married with its ink to produce an umami rich marriage perhaps more suited for a wild game tasting than a fish dish. Monkfish with Indian spices, spring vegetables, and buttermilk sounded more exotic than it delivered. The fish was tender, spicing subtle, and the final composition good if not quite on the level of what proceeded. But oh the aged Pleasant Creek skirt steak with potato “chips”, smoked milk, and wild watercress with a watercress broth. The skirt always has flavor but this beef pounced in my mouth. Combined with the smoked milk, herbal watercress and light crunch from the potato, this dish won for overall flavor and innovative combination of ingredients.

I could have just stopped there. My dessert of crushed rhubarb, toasted oats, Douglas fir ice cream, and wild berry blossoms was tart, palette cleansing and paled in comparison to the proceeding courses.

Did I mention you could eat this entire 5 (or 8 depending on how you count) meal for only $65? Forage might just be the best-kept fine dining secret in the country. Of course, with chefs Viet Pham and Bowman Brown recently winning Food and Wine magazine’s Best New Chef award this little Salt Lake City gem will not be a secret for much longer.

If summer plans are not yet finalized, and hiking or biking in Utah might be on the radar, I’d make Forage a priority. Get there while it’s hot, the greens are freshly foraged, the chefs are still as exuberant as they were for me on a recent visit, and Forage might just make your “Best of” list for 2011 and beyond.

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