I knew the space, of course, having dined many times at Vinto, which was comfortable and attractive. But a stunning makeover designed by Gray and Cody Derrick of City Home Collective has created an atmosphere that invites diners to relax and explore. And that's what team HSL's menu is all about: a playful adventure of seasonal foods, often used in novel ways, that are fun to share. To facilitate your culinary playtime, a well-trained staff that knows the menu inside and out will patiently answer all your questions and are there when needed, without hovering.
The wine selection is carefully curated to complement the menu ($10-$15 per glass, $40-$240 per bottle) and a modest selection of craft cocktails is available to start the party.
Certain things about the décor say luxury: the plush upholstery, marble-topped tables, and dramatic light fixtures. But it's welcoming, rather than highbrow, with a variety of seating options to suit diners' moods, from cozy round booths to stools at the bar, and casual couches in a lounge-like area in the front.
Over the course of four visits, beginning quite soon after HSL opened, I've seen a few kinks ironed out. But from the get go, it had a synergy that was impressive. It's become my new happy place.
The colors are muted greens and browns that evoke the natural world; on the back wall, that theme is dramatically highlighted by wallpaper in a bright, large-scale print of trees and birds. North- and east-facing windows fill the space with natural light that plays subtly with the colors as sun and clouds shift.
The menu, too, is always shifting depending on what is in season. One recent offering was a snap pea salad ($15) that was the perfect antidote for a hot summer day: The peas were raw and crisp, brightened by thin slices of radish, and dressed with a citrus vinaigrette. Dabs of blue cheese mousse added just a hint of decadence. Our party of six easily polished off two servings.
Handly (who shares credit on the menu with fellow chefs Craig Gerome, Tim Smith and Alexa Norlin) relies heavily on fresh, locally sourced products. The pork shank ($32), a tender hunk of bone-in meat seasoned "buffalo style," like those ubiquitous chicken wing, comes from Christiansen Family Farm in Vernon. Naturally, it was served with carrot and celery curls and a creamy dressing that tasted like ranch, dramatically presented on a wooden platter. It was big enough to share among our table of four, none of whom took our server's advice to hold the shank by the bone and swipe it through the dressing, although that is completely doable.
Another example: the coddled egg ($11) consisted of sourdough bread topped by a creamy schmear of nduja, a spicy salami paste from Beltex, a Salt Lake City boutique butcher. The whole duck egg perched atop the paste came from Summit County. It was different, rich and easily shared by two.
Other Utah suppliers, including Caputo's, Creminelli Fine Meats and Ranui Gardens, have played starring or supporting roles in various menu items. An Idaho company, Zurzun's Beans, supplied the heirloom beans for a ragu that also featured corn and wild mushrooms, all of it underwriting a dish of tender, moist halibut ($32). A sunny puddle of lemon emulsion was the yin to this dish's yang.
Every fine dining establishment must have a burger, and HSL's is exceptional. Here, a tender patty made of flavorful beef cheeks ($16) was served on a cornmeal-crusted bun that held its own against the elements: juicy meat that was perfectly pink, a house-made American cheese, tomato, lettuce and tangy cabbage slaw. A cute jar of house-made pickles completed the plate, along with a pile of steak fries browned in duck fat. While I prefer traditional skinny fries, the house-made fry sauce almost made me a believer.
Risotto is another menu staple, but at HSL it was paired with sweetbreads, an organ meat seen on few Utah menus ($28). Fried to a golden brown, these tender nuggets tasted faintly of liver and were an earthy counterpoint to a pillow of rich, parmesan cheese-infused risotto. Razor thin slices of truffle added visual interest and subtle flavor.
If a cow gland doesn't tempt you, there is a wealth of less exotic fare. A dish of plump mussels ($19) was a pretty classic take, perfumed with pernod fumet and garlic, and served with grilled bread. It's big enough for a meal if you're not inclined to share. And the chicken ($36) was two dishes on one plate: the breast was roasted while the leg quarter was cooked in fat to heighten its succulence. The fowl perched grandly on a bed of pureed celery root, with baby carrots, cipollini onions and lettuce for color. I took half of it home for lunch the next day.
Vegetables are main players on the HSL menu. One of the best dishes I sampled was cauliflower ($11) prepared "General Tso style." It was like the pork shank, in that the chef borrowed the seasoning for a familiar dish and swapped out the main ingredient for something surprising. Instead of chicken, a cornstarch slurry was applied to cauliflower, which was lightly fried and then coated with a sauce of garlic, soy sauce, vinegar and sugar. It's like veggie crack and not to be missed, even if you think you don't like cauliflower.
Root vegetables ($16) were roasted in a wood-fired oven. Melted leeks starred in a dish of tagliatelle pasta ($18), which also featured mushrooms and savory chunks of fried bread.
And I would be remiss if I did not mention the parsnip ice cream.
It didn't seem possible, really, so we had to try it. But here's the thing: it was one element of a dessert, solstice equador cremeux ($10) that also included chunks of brioche and caramel. When eaten together, somehow it works.
A celery sorbet came with the olive oil cake ($10), which also featured a rhubarb sauce, crystallized white chocolate and strawberries. It was a bit less exotic than the cremeux, but still exemplified the HSL experience.
It's all about teamwork, and making the best, freshest foods play together in novel ways. There will always be something new to explore. It could become your new happy place, too.