Dining out: Communal: Simply elegant, never snobbish
Provo » As a general rule, Utahns don't like pretension. However stylish the haircuts, however trendy the threads or IKEA-outfitted the house, snobbery doesn't attract locals, especially in restaurants.
Communal's brand of food may be new to many, but the restaurant's laid-back, beautiful approach in service and ambience are attractive. And hard-core foodies need not break into a sweat when they find themselves in the area and there's not a decent slice of prosciutto in sight.
That same philosophy applies to the menu. There are a few references to ingredient origins, but the descriptions don't read like biblical verses where a Niman Ranch pork chop begat the Allred Orchard apples that begat Jacob's Cove Heirloom tomatoes.
Instead, there's just a subtle nod on your check to local vendors who supply rich eggs, flavorful cheese and chocolate, and even their polenta and flour. That Niman Ranch pork chop ($17) was juicy, still attached to the bone (I suggest attacking it with your fingers and teeth when the rest of the meat is gone, as it's the best part) and paired with chunks of tart apples that held the pool of maple-based sauce on the fine line between perfect and too sweet.
The kitchen's technique of simplicity and balance is hard to pull off. One or two dishes like a side of polenta ($5) were good, but bland in comparison. Still, one of the best dishes is the simplest -- a seared red trout filet scented with the perfect amount of salt, lemon and herbs. Just a really good piece of fish handled by people who know when and how much they should fiddle with such a good thing.
You'll be thankful for the pool of butter gathering at the sides of the fish. No frills. No obnoxious sauce art that does nothing for the taste of the dish. And when I tasted the fish it made me think, fervently, truly: The sauce drizzle must die.
My companions one evening, including a Provo ex-pat, concurred after the salad course. One had the rich tones of a hot pork belly-studded dressing on a sturdy lacework of frisee and crisp apple slices ($8), and the other, a polar opposite, tasted of winter sun from citrus, toasted nuts and tender, wince-free arugula ($7).
When the enameled cast iron pot -- about the size of my old Easy Bake Oven cake pan -- appeared filled with tender white beans, sausage and chicken ($9), skeptical facial expressions melted into ones of pleasure.
As suggested by the restaurant's name, the subsequent meal was comprised of shared starters, our own meat entrees (a la carte) and a few sides like the potato leek gratin ($5) to share. We were polite and did as suggested, but really, we would've been happy keeping to ourselves that tender steak -- cooked medium for that beautiful contrast between deep pink and seared brown -- with a parsley-sharp gremolata butter ($13). Not for lack of food -- the portion was more than enough -- but because it was so good.
Communal is the second restaurant for the chef/owners of Pizzeria 712. Located in a corner building in a historic part of Provo, the owners have updated the interior with with salvaged dark wood, local artists' work, including that of painter Brian Kershisnik, and a private dining room with a window that looks straight into the open kitchen.
Beyond that are comfortable and stylish chairs and tables, plus the namesake communal table (where you sit with your friends and other dining parties; think neighborhood picnic but with much better food) running parallel with the kitchen.
For those readers who use the "bathroom" rule when judging restaurants (for cleanliness, etc.), you'll be impressed with the Alice-in-Wonderland-meets-retro wallpaper and doll-size fixtures of the smaller bathroom.
On the micro level, the aesthetics are well thought out. Flatware is substantial and unique, and the glasses are elegant, with sharper angles for the Tinto Roble red ($7.50).
Indeed, you can get a glass of wine or microbrew beer here, so Communal has been a welcome addition for travelers staying in nearby hotels and new residents seeking libation with their meal. The list, however, is limited. But with a reasonable $6 corkage fee, bringing bottles won't hurt your wallet.
The chocolate bread pudding studded with chunks of the locally crafted and world-renowned Amano chocolate ($7) punctuated a pivotal, culinary moment.
"I could live here," my friend purred as she put down her spoon with a satisfied motion. As the server arrived with the bill and to take away the empty dessert plate, my Utah County ex-pat chimed in. "This meal was awesome," he ruminated, impressed with his hometown. "There wasn't anything like this when I was around."
In the big picture, there really wasn't. But with Communal, it's one hell of a good start.
Provo's Communal offers a striking dining destination, with gorgeous updated décor and flavorful menu built around seasonal, well-made ingredients. Order meat entrees such as flank steak with gremolata butter a la carte and share the vegetable and potato gratin with your tablemates.
Location » 100 N. University Ave., Provo, 801-373-8000
Hours » Tuesday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5:30-10 p.m.; Saturday 5:30-10 p.m.
Children's menu » No
Prices » $$
Liquor » Wine and beer
Corkage » $6
Reservations » Yes
Takeout » No
Wheelchair access » Yes
Outdoor dining » No
On-site parking » No
Credit cards » All major