Couples routinely flock to restaurants that have the most romantic reputations, just the way monarch butterflies flock to the sylvan high mountains of Mexico. The reasons for both are the same: Setting and location are key.
Ambience is of the utmost importance. Many restaurants in the state provide the right mood; one that appeals to many diners is Martine.
The vibe is urbane, meaning that those who wish they were actually in New York City with its hip locales can revel in Martine's exposed-brick glory. There are two levels of dining space in the brownstone building. From the exterior it looks narrow, but inside, it's far more expansive in feel. Dimmed lights barely fill out the soaring ceilings. Dark wood makes up the booths, chairs and tables that are punctuated with white tablecloths.
Martine is the most elegant and sophisticated sister of Stella Grill, Desert Edge Brewery and Red Butte Café. That is, when it comes to dinner. For lunch, Martine is different altogether with a more express feel and casual menu. To reap the most romance from this downtown Salt Lake City restaurant, it's best to visit in the evening hours when the stars and moon are out.
There's something simple and appealing about a solitary votive paired with a single fresh rose. Not only is it lovely, but also it's practical. In all likelihood the table will be loaded with plates of tender Moroccan braised beef with cardamom couscous ($8) and a seasonal salad with chopped fuyu persimmons and blue cheese vinaigrette ($5).
When we visited on a recent Friday evening, it was busy. Servers decked in white button-downs, long bistro aprons and black ties ushered small plates and entrée platters to waiting couples and large groups. The hostess that night appeared harried, rushing to set up tables for those with reservations. Once tableside, the service was far more attentive and friendly.
When it comes to the food, Martine's flavors are Mediterranean and you see examples of local ingredients being put to good use such as Creminelli sausage and salumi and Morgan Valley lamb. The concise menu consists of small plates on one side and entrées on the other. A tapa of traditional Spanish tortilla (potato omelet, $8) was soufflé-soft, baked and draped with a silky slice of prosciutto. Among the cubes of tender potatoes were chunks of red bell pepper and Manchego cheese. The flavors were simple, pronounced and much appreciated by our table.
But the kitchen has a tendency to sabotage otherwise fine dishes with heavy-handed sauces. Calamari served over seared polenta ($8) showed good execution -- the tiny tentacles and rings were mighty tender. Unfortunately, lime juice overwhelmed the seafood. It tasted more like a cocktail than a savory, light dish. Tender wild boar ribs ($13) also were overpowered by a pomegranate sauce.
Each entrée comes with the same vegetable medley -- oven-roasted plum tomatoes, mushrooms and, on that evening, al dente Brussels sprouts, which were some of the best examples I've had locally.
But again, oversaucing downplayed the fine meats the kitchen uses, including the Salmon Creek pork chop ($25). Wonderfully seared, the cut was incredibly juicy and well seasoned. Its sauce, though, somehow managed to overwhelm it with an odd lack of flavor.
Two Morgan Valley lamb chops ($29) were perfectly cooked to medium-rare. I would have been happy enough with simple pan juices to soak into my potato-ricotta roulade. But the brandy cream peppercorn sauce did little else than hide the lovely bronzed sear of the meat. A bottle of 2006 Pasanau Priorat ($48) from Martine's varied wine list did a better job of complementing the earthy, meaty flavors.
The dessert menu is just as concise as the main menu, and this is an occasion to splurge. The mocha frangelico panna cotta ($7) was intensely flavored, if a little high on the gelatin content. Although the chocolate decadence ($7) is rich, Martine, like many other restaurants, succumbs to using chocolate with monotone flavors. I long for the day when kitchens use more nuanced and complex chocolate.
Until then, I rely on Martine's not-too-sweet grilled gingerbread dessert ($7). You taste the slight heat of ginger from the toasty, spice-hued slices. A judicious slick of caramel sauce and the cooling effect of house-made gelato (more like ice cream in texture) round it out.
If you happen to linger over coffee or after-dinner drinks, I can tell you that the melted, mingled remnants of caramel and gingerbread are just as delicious from finger or spoon.
Bottom line » Sophisticated urban setting and good ingredients create this downtown Salt Lake City favorite. Choose among small plates and entrées such as the Spanish tortilla from the concise menu. Grilled gingerbread is a signature dessert.
Location » 22 E. 100 South, Salt Lake City; 801-363-9328
Hours » Monday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Tuesday to Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., 5 to 10 p.m.; Saturday, 5 p.m. to close
Children's menu » No
Prices » $$$
Liquor » Full service
Corkage » $10
Reservations » Accepted
Takeout » Lunch only
Wheelchair access » No
Outdoor dining » No
On-site parking » No
Credit cards » All major