I can normally flick open the menu of any given restaurant and have it sussed in seconds. Shishito peppers, sliders and what’s that — some formerly inedible green thing made lovable with bacon — gotcha, we have a small plate tapas-inspired restaurant on our hands, case closed.
Indeed, it’s not much of a further stretch to infer the contents of a menu simply by glancing around the general surroundings. Should you spy an array of suitably trendy Edison lightbulbs dangling in the distance, you can bet all the heirloom beets in the world there’s a PBR hiding out in hipster bonhomie on the drinks page.
Not so at Bistro 222, where I found my Sherlock-esque powers of deduction wanting. I even tried to enlist our savvy waiter one evening as an improvised Watson of sorts, and he didn’t fare much better either. Elementary this was not.
Situated on the ground floor of Main Street’s shiny new 222 building, the restaurant flaunts a stylish minimal feel. Half the restaurant is flanked by floor-to-ceiling windows and is decked out in steelish modern grays with pops of mixed colors throughout. Should you eschew the front area’s excellent people watching, the chic banquettes and booths are perfect for a discreet romantic date, too.
Bistro 222 sports a full bar, offerings starting with a handful of thoughtful cocktails such as the delightfully herbaceous Basil Flower ($8) — a mix of Hendricks gin, St. Germain liqueur and muddled basil. One summery sip, and you’ll instantly forget the past few chattering months of winter. There’s a sizable 120-bottle wine list and also a complement of several craft beers, including the first of several nods to local producers with selections from Epic such as Cross Fever ($9) and Spiral Jetty ($9).
While the menu openly flirts with Italian cuisine, it’s far from interested in a committed relationship. You’ll find dalliances with French cuisine, the Mediterranean, Morocco, Japan and America.
In refusing to be pinned down, the menu offers flexibility, though. If you want to keep things light, start with a wonderfully garlicky Little Gem Caesar Salad ($7). A side sliver of crisp bread stands in for the missing croutons adding texture, thankfully without ever threatening to crack a tooth. Pizza from the wood oven is of the thin-crust variety, and a Margherita pizza ($11) I sampled was pleasantly restrained with just a daub of San Marzano tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and basil. Still keeping things light, a pan roasted Idaho sturgeon ($25) was well executed, too, coming with celery root puree, pickled mushrooms and caramelized fennel.
Hungrier? The calamari ($9) appetizer is meatier than you might expect, using strips of sliced calamari steak, lightly sauteed with garlic, rosemary and lemon. A smoky ailoi was an unexpected highlight, but the dish missed the seasoning mark. On trying to remedy the matter, I discovered one of the very few (and only minor) flaws I could unearth at Bistro 222 — no salt and pepper on the table.
Moroccan lamb meatballs ($10) were spot on, though, a juicy trio sat in a wonderfully rich sauce, sweetened with fennel and topped with olive oil yogurt — more of that crusty bread stood to attention on the side.
If you have a caveman-like hunger and want to go even bigger, the bone-in ribeye ($49) is the menu’s most expensive and grand item. Just to make sure you get your full caloric intake, this Fred Flintstone cut weighs in at 22 ounces and is served with fabulously rich, brown butter Brussels sprouts. Creamy cauliflower gratin also comes served in a side skillet — almost intimidated to share the same plate as the steak and sprouts. The Niman Ranch cut of beef was beautifully juicy and the red-miso garlic rub was sparingly used, merely adding umami rather than trying to grab the limelight itself. Anyone debating the price, just walk around the corner to one of the upscale steakhouses downtown and check bone-in prices — and remember, those guys price steaks without a single side dish.
It’s almost a crime that the cassoulet ($18) I sampled one evening was just a nightly special — especially considering chef Michael Jewell’s bio lists the dish as his favorite. Despite the dish’s wintery sensibility, I’d happily eat this stew of white beans, duck confit and sausage in the dead of summer. If you see this dish, order it; if you don’t, send angry letters to the chef and ask why not (apologies in advance to chef Michael Jewell for angry letters).
Dessert is one of those recite-at-the-table affairs, as if to test and terrify servers (who, I should add, were, without exception, top notch at Bistro 222). A chocolate lava cake ($7) with salted caramel gelato was an immediate “yes please” on my first visit, but was sadly dry and more hardened basalt than oozing magma. That gelato, though, was a hit, and a more simple preparation of salted caramel gelato ($6), with pine nut brittle and chocolate rosemary sauce, was far better.
Among this United Nations of flavor, things could easily descend into anarchy and confusion. Remarkably, and despite the eclecticism, the menu works as a whole. If there’s a unity, it’s one of great dishes with bags of flavor — and downtown SLC can be happy to have another fine eatery in its midst.
Stuart Melling also blogs at www.theutahreview.com
Food • HHH
Mood • HH
Service • HHhj
Noise • bb
Is it a bird, is it a plane, is it an Italian restaurant with global influences? Well, um, maybe. What Bistro 222 certainly offers is a chic downtown hangout with excellently crafted cuisine. Recommended dishes: lamb meatballs, cassoulet, pizza.
Location • 222 S. Main St., Salt Lake City, 801-456-0347
Online • www.bistro-222.com
Hours • Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Children’s menu • No
Prices • $$$
Liquor • Full bar
Reservations • No
Takeout • No
Wheelchair access • Yes
Outdoor dining • No
On-site parking • No
Credit cards • All major