Way back in the mists of time, my high-school English teacher was on a one-woman crusade against the word “nice.” Woe betide any student who might litter his work with such a thoroughly benign and inoffensive word. While functional, she argued, it adds minimal value to an accurate description.
After several visits to downtown’s La Jolla Groves restaurant, I found myself muttering the word “nice” more than once.
Situated in the Gateway Mall, slipping into the space left vacant by the now departed McGraths fish house, this La Jolla Groves location is the second of a locally owned mini-chain. The original operation is in Orem, guided by the same people behind Orem’s Chef Table and Malawi’s Pizza.
Inside the large restaurant, portioned into three large dining areas, the main talking point are the sprawling faux lemon groves — far less tacky in reality than you might imagine. The remainder of the space is pleasant and screams charm; at times it even treads on blandness — some of the songs piped through the PA could have put me to sleep.
The menu skews largely Italian in influence with one of the restaurant’s chief claims being healthier preparations. You might want to take that with a pinch of salt — not to mention further dashes of cheese, carbs and calories. Case in point: an appetizer of soft creamy polenta ($8.95), fried to a crispy golden finish before being copiously layered with Parmesan. Health food this is not, but it’s all the more enjoyable for it.
A grilled tomato bruschetta ($7.50) and shrimp cocktail ($9.95) are options closer to the health claims. The bruschetta comes as three rather average slices of crisp bread, topped with diced tomatoes, olive oil, balsamic and more Parmesan. The shrimp cocktail is equally demure: three pairs of interlocked shrimp surrounding a bowl of slightly spicy cocktail sauce. Neither will set pulses racing — perhaps the intended point.
The priciest item on the menu is the New York Strip ($32). This hefty 12-ounce portion of American Kobe comes served with broccolini, new potatoes splashed with sour cream and herbed butter. While cooked to temperature, the steak was a tad underseasoned and failed to deliver the bags of fatty juiciness I was clamoring for. I found the butternut squash ravioli ($14.25) from the pasta section a far more satisfying selection at half the price. The squash-stuffed ravioli are served over roasted root vegetables with a pumpkin cream sauce and finished with — you guessed it — a little more Parmesan.
The cilantro butter-crusted salmon ($17.50) recommend across several trips was the best piece of cooked fish I can recall. It came atop a smattering of standard Basmati rice and some mixed vegetables and was brought together with a cilantro-butter sauce. The sauce was a decent foil to the fish, but was largely unexciting and sober in comparison to the fine piece of seafood.
Lemon roasted chicken ($15.50) also was well prepared and moist on the bone. Thyme and citrus gently elevated this fowl, which is too often dry and listless. The rest of the plate was humdrum — garlic mashed spuds, squash and carrots were nothing more than plain and pedestrian.
For dessert, bread pudding ($6) was reasonable and brought to life with white chocolate and cranberry. But the tour de force was the La Jolla lemon cake ($6.50). A light lemon-infused cake is served with crème anglaise, berries and mint and encapsulated with a dome of spun sugar — one that offers delight as you crack through the crunchy barrier to scoop up citrusy cake and custard.
When compared with the national Italian mega chains, La Jolla Groves wins by a mile. But it does so in a safe, unassuming and steady style. It won’t shake your socks off, but it’s nice enough.
Tribune restaurant reviewer Stuart Melling blogs at gastronomicslc.com. Send comments to email@example.com.
La Jolla Groves
Food • HH
Mood • HH
Service • HH
Noise • bb
While this locally owned eatery in Gateway Mall offers a few surprises — including salmon, ravioli and lemon cake — the rest of the Italian-inspired menu lacks excitement.
Location • 190 S. 400 West, Salt Lake City; 801-456-9500
Online • lajollagroves.com
Hours • Monday - Thursday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Sunday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Children’s menu • Yes
Prices • $$
Liquor • Full bar
Reservations • No
Takeout • No
Wheelchair access • Yes
Outdoor dining • No
On-site parking • Yes
Credit cards • all major