The Short List: SLC Eats [Downtown]

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People can think what they want about this adopted city of mine. We, like Buffalonians and Oaklanders, travel beyond our city limits with stereotypes and a barrage of lame jokes. The reality is, Salt Lake City is a bit of secret. Some of us like to keep it that way (those who already think there are enough California refugees in state limits) and some who love to preach the affordable cost of living, gorgeous landscape and the fact that not everyone is "of the faith."

I often tell my baffled out-of-state friends to think of SLC (all cities seem to have a hip or diminutive moniker, NYC, Sac-Town, Philly...) as a Chicago. A cultural — and in Utah's case, a political — capital surrounded by perceivably less enticing realms. The only difference: Red rock is infinitely cooler than acres of government subsidized corn.

Thanks to a variety of factors, we are a surprisingly diverse lot on this blue island in a very politically red sea. And despite the officializing of Jell-O as the state food, we regularly consume other cuisines. Some are of the innocuous chain variety. But a good deal are local endeavors that feature talented chefs, local products and even — get this — alcohol. Private club laws that plagued the city have gone the way of the covered wagon. I'll drink to that.

My day job means that I get to troll much of the state in search of the best molé, tom kha ga, frites, hand made pasta, micro brews, wine lists, pastries and more. I often get asked for dining recommendations through the day job, my work with Slow Food Utah and this blog. It's safe to say that downtown SLC has a high concentration of the good eats, all within walking distance of the public transportation. I even urge locals to use since parking is a nightmare. Plus, Trax trains are free within the downtown area. 

So, for curious readers and soon-to-be travelers, I offer what I consider my shortlist of good, interesting Downtown SLC eats. [NOTE: This is by no means a comprehensive list of what I dig in the state. For advice beyond city limits, i.e. if you have a car to take you into other neighborhoods and cities, contact me. I'd love to dish.]

For another perspective on the City of Salt, check out this thoughtful blog from a fantastic writer and food-lover.

Les Madeleines Patisserie [216 E. 500 South, 801.355.2294, www.les-madeleines.com]

Oh, there are plenty of pastries to drool over at Romina Rasmussen's small bakery. Made from scratch cupcakes with real buttercream in whimsical flavors (I like the New Yorks, Valrhona chocolate through and through). Key Lime bars. Butter toffee shortbreads. Pain au chocolat. Elegant croissants. Pistachio eclairs. REAL French macaroons in flavors like passion fruit, raspberry and pistachio. Cardamom cookies...I could go on.

Most offerings reflect her training and work at the French Culinary Institute, New York and Miami. They also reveal her love of world travel, often named after places she's visited and loved. But her trademark item is Kouing Aman ("queen ah-mon" that's beauty above), an obscure but addictive French Celtic pastry from Brittany, France. Deceptively simple with only five ingredients, this fleur-de-sel spiked dough is as popular and addictive as, say, crack. In fact, those who can't remember the name refer to it as "crack." Be advised there's a six purchase limit. Anymore, and you'll have to order 72 hours in advance since it takes that long to create a batch, start to finish. Call ahead, as they might be out for a few hours. They frequently sell out of these golden beauties.

Take TRAX to the Library Square stop and walk West or South across Library Square to 500 South.

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TAKASHI [18 W. Market Street, 801.519.9595, www.takashisushi.com]

If I had to choose my favorite restaurant in Utah, this is it. I know, sounds counter intuitive to rank a temple of raw fish in a land-locked state. But three words: Torched. Sablefish. Nigiri. The only way to explain it is sex on rice. Really. It exemplifies what Takashi is about. Great fish, handled well (in this case, this normally blah fish gets kissed with a torch enough to make it succulent), and most importantly, flawless sushi rice.

Sushi after all refers to the rice that carries the toro, ahi, hake and hamachi. Having said that, the nigiri is on par with offerings I had in San Francisco, L.A. and NYC. Takashi can stand against any restaurant, Utah or otherwise. I mean it. I'm willing to start a bar fight over it.

Specials listed on the pillared chalkboard in dramatic, colorful chalk art often feature items (wagyu nigiri, spicy miso braised pork belly) that Takashi is considering for the standard menu. There are cooked items like udon and tempura shisito peppers with green tea salt are equally good.

For the best experience, keep your dining group small and ask for a seat at the bar. They don't take reservations, so be prepared for a wait unless you come right at 5:30 p.m. 

Take TRAX to one of the Main Street exits. Market street is about 350 South.

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EVA [317 S. Main, 801.359.8447, www.evaslc.com]

Around the corner from Takashi is a more recent addition to the restaurant landscape. Eva offers small plates, at reasonable prices with a good degree of local ingredients and creativity. Sauteed Brussels sprouts with hazelnuts and cider vinegar, Phyllo-wrapped chorizo salmon, tri tip bruschetta and loukoumades (Greek donut holes) are perpetual favorites. For pizza lovers (they call them baker's pies at Eva), Pig Three Way's is a good way to bring together all parts of the pig -- sausage, prosciutto and pancetta. Specialty drinks and a good, concise wine list are especially good on their back patio or in the narrow and stylish dining room, reminiscent of the brownstones and older buildings that house similar restaurants in NYC and D.C. Odd isn't it that the places we love in SLC tend to remind us of other places?

Take TRAX to one of the Main Street stops and head for 317 South.

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Caffe d'Bolla [249 E. 400 South, #B, 801.355.1398]

For caffeine freaks and connoiseurs alike. SLC's teetoling and caffeine-free stereotypes belie the coffee geniuses who have set up shop in the city. Most notably, is John Piquet's Caffe d'Bolla. Along with his wife, Yiching, he micro roasts high quality beans, sourced from all over the world. He talks coffee the way a sommelier talks wine.

This is not the place for lovers of Java/Espresso/Joe/Cafe/Etc. "Express," or "On the Go."  This is thinking man's coffee. You come in, order one of the daily brews or a finely pulled espresso shot and sit down and sip like a civilized person.

Caffe d'Bolla is one of the handful of cafes in the country that offer Japanese siphon brewing. This laboratory-looking contraption brews elegant cups free of grit (sorry, Greek coffee lovers) and full of nuance. Watching John measure and grind the beans, track water temperature and set the timer is akin to watching the rituals of a Japanese tea ceremony. Only this time, you sit at the bar, with a tall glass of water and a shot of sparkling water to cleanse the palate.

Plus, richly flavored, densely smooth gelato, spun in small batches, on-site and some of the best Boba Tea (tapioca pearl tea) in the region.

Take TRAX to the Library Square stop, Caffe d'Bolla is right across the street on the north side.

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Settebello Pizzeria [260 S. 200 West, 801.322.3556, www.settebello.net]

New Yorkers and Chicagoans have their pies and their heated arguments about the details that go into the perfect one. We Salt Lakers and our lack of pizza history more or less like to keep out of such debates. Mostly because our mouths are full of thin-crusted, beautifully blistered, yeasty wood oven fired pizzas.

Settebello (and its sister location outside of Las Vegas) specializes in "La Vera Pizza Napoletana," meaning the sticklers back in Naples (in committee form) have officially certified this Salt Lake restaurant as serving up the real deal. A simple San Marzano tomato sauce on a crust made with specific flour. Fresh mozzarella, fresh basil and a slick of olive oil. All this goes into the oven for just a minute or so (it's hellishly hot in there) until everything melts and amalgamates into one luscious landslide.

A few other variations and toppings exist (I favor pork in any form) but the Pizza Margherita not only pay homage to a queen and the colors of a then newly born Republic, but also to simplicity.

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Squatters Pub Brewery [147 W. Broadway, 801.363-2739, www.squatters.com]

Red Rock Brewing Co. [254 S. 200 West, 801.521.7446, www.redrockbrewing.com]

This is for all the visitors who claim it's so bloody hard to get a drink in this town. The Zion Curtain (the partition separating dining room and bar) is gone. And I'll gladly share the statistics and calculations that say the "weak" beer of Utah is actually a few mililiters away from being the beer that the rest of the country supposedly gets.

Not only that, our brew masters at these brewpubs have a lot of street cred on the competition circuit and among beer notables like Garrett Oliver.

Yes, they brew higher alcohol beers, like IPAs. And by God, they are good.

Squatters Brew Pub features what I consider to be some of the best nachos in the state. I rate the nachos because that's what I tend to crave after a pint or two. But the benefits of any brew pub anywhere in the country is the ecclectic menu that in Squatter's case can make the carnivore and the vegan in your dining group pretty happy. Fish tacos, seared ahi, and brew pub burgers are great choices to what's on tap. Definitely try the seasonal specials listed at the front of the house. Otherwise, my go-to is the crisp, aromatic and always good Full Suspension Pale Ale.

Red Rock is just around the corner and next door to Settebello. Be warned: this place doesn't serve French Fries. And some of their burgers come in pita pockets. But it serves everything else required of a house of brew -- rib-sticking hearty, unpretentious fare. Think wings, the cheesiest of cheese dips, sausage grinders and Reubens.

And if you happen to be in town on a Sunday and looking for a brunch options, boths places are open.

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Bambara [@ the Hotel Monaco, 202 S. Main Street, 801.363.5454, www.bambara-slc.com ]

Okay, so hotel dining isn't always up there in everyone's dining journals and blogs. But the Hotel Monaco's restaurant is a consistent recommendation because power lunchers and fanny-packed tourists seem to congregate, happily, here. Service is smooth and professional without the shtick. With chef Nathan Powers in the kitchen, flavors have been streamlined to showcase some flavors people romantically associate with the West and its real seasonal flavors. Elk and buffalo are just as normal as arugula from a local farm. Lunches are quick, elegant and reasonably priced for a sit down venue of this caliber. Dinners can be even more enjoyable with a pre- or post-cocktail at Bambara's bar.

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Downtown SLC Farmers Market [@ Pioneer Park, on the corner of 300 South & 300 West]

People, and we Utahns are just as guilty of this, tend to forget that not so long ago, this place was mostly agricultural land known for its succulent stone fruit and Green River melons. These days, we're resurrecting that reputation at this farmers' market, the largest in the state.

Chefs and the food savvy hover in when things are still quiet -- around 8 a.m. for the choicest picks. More lazy souls like me wander in whenever they can find a parking spot. It's best to take Trax or walk. Then take in the high population density clamoring for lattes, local Spotted Dog Ice Cream, Junior's Tacos and the season's best Siberian garlic, Alberta peaches, Bing cherries, black currants, sweet corn and Bear Lake raspberries.

Take TRAX to the Gateway and head south along 400 West until you reach 300 South. Or simply, follow the masses.

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Bruges Waffles & Frites [336 W. Broadway, 801.363.4444,www.brugeswaffles.com]

Just across the street from the market is the tiny Bruges Waffles. Hot July might not like seem the optimal time to bite into a dense, sweet waffle. But, bite people do. In sundresses. In T-shirts. Or in button downs and ties during the week. One reason: The aforementioned waffles. A distant, more sophisticated and lusty cousin of the sterile Eggo. Choose vanilla or cinnamon batter, then plain, chocolate or whipped cream and strawberries.

Another reason: Belgium-native/Owner Pierre's last name is Vandamme. Totally unrelated to fallen action star Jean Claude Van Damme, but still, a very cool surname, ranked up there with "Wolfe" and "Hardcastle."

The other reason: His frites. That's fries to you and me. Made from real potatoes (Pierre will gladly pick up a tuber and shake it at you to demonstrate that it is in fact, real) once fried, the salted exterior shatters like perfect potato chips under the teeth and melts into a fluffiness that made Russets so popular in the first place. The large size can feed a village so if you're going at it solo, try to the medium or small instead. The dipping sauces include ketchup but when in Bruges, do as Pierre and his fellow Belgians (perhaps not all named Vandamme) with mayo, plain or in any seasoned guise. The Samurai has a nice kick, while aioli is simple, garlicky and good.

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Caputos

Caputo's Deli [314 W. Broadway, 801.531.8669,www.caputosdeli.com]

Just across the parking lot is this classic Italian deli. One side hosts the sandwich operation that always draws the lunch time crowds with the signature Caputo cold-cut concoction. There's also plenty of pasta salad, poached salmon and locally produced Tiramisu and other desserts. The other side houses the award-winning specialty foods market.

This is a prime spot to find local foodies stocking up on hard to find artisan cheese like cave-aged Capucetto Rosso or the allium-scented Lagrein (made from the milk of a few cows) or fine salumi like Utah's own Creminelli Salumificio or Crumb Brothers bread, whose well formed, bronzed crusts talk of their time in the oven and the years its bakers spent in California and Europe to transplant the near-holy experience of literal bread breaking.

This is also a prime spot to find pontificating visiting foodies who love to admonish the Cheese Cave (one of only a handful in the country), the extensive extra-virgin olive oil and vinegars bar or the world's largest artisan chocolate selection as "not as good as what we have back home." Silly, Utahns.

If I'm around buying chocolate or cheese, this is where I love to chime in. "Actually, it's better here because the cheese continues its life span coddled in that cheese cave, this salumi doesn't have MSG or nitrate crap and this place lacks the poncy attitude that makes 'good food' so off-putting to the masses. So, you can take your Supermarket-quality, falsely branded artisan chocolate and crap attitude back to your highly taxed home, because that means more Gran Riserva Prosciutto for me."

[Author's note: If you happen to be around when I engage in this sort of tirade, please feel free to say hi. Utahns are generally known for their nice-ness and I usually love fellow food lovers and have been known to be pleasant. Kind of. I'll just plead my non-native Utahn status for such outbursts.]

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Tipica ... A Caputo Project [314 W. Broadway, 801.328.0222,www.tipicacaputo.com]

This is what happens when Tony and Matt Caputo join forces with chef Adam Kreisel. The beloved deli transforms to an urban space like that of clarklewis in Portland, OR. The menu is concise shaped by seasonal ingredients and a cadre of risotto, pasta, and incredible vegetable sides. The wine list is just as intriguing and concise making decision making an easier, less stressful task. Wednesday through Saturday, the Northern Italian inspiration runs rampant at dinner with Piemontese beef and porcini ragout over fresh pasta or emerald green strands of slurpable bucatini spiked with pureed arugula, tarragon and the intense shred of 2-year old Parmigiano Reggiano cheese.

For dessert, Caffe d'Bolla makes an appearance with its venerable gelato (Utahns, like Italians, take their ice cream seriously. I don't know why it's taken this long for gelato to become popular here) as does an incredible selection of cheese from the award-winning market and the handmade Chocolatier Blue chocolates.