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DIning out: Ambitious Wild Grape not without some flaws

Published May 19, 2009 4:57 pm

SLC restaurant delivers energy and atmosphere, but overshoots with technique.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It ended with a lemon pot de crème ($6). It wiggled and was inverted flan-like on the plate without its namesake pot that typically contains a thick, pudding-like custard. Instead, half of the thin form had already collapsed into a landslide of eggs, cream, sugar and lemon.

The server saw my quizzical look and suggested I try it anyway. "It's not supposed to be like crème brûlée," she offered. "We know," my dining companion, a pastry chef, countered. "It's just that it looks like scrambled eggs," she said pointing to the small curds, a result of excessive heat.

Politely we tried it and predictably we asked for something else. The peanut butter-spiked "chocolate delight" ($8) arrived with less drama. Not bad, but unremarkable, despite its luscious description on the menu.

On the whole, everything at Wild Grape New West Bistro's menu reads beautifully. You'll find yourself ogling generous and eye-catching plates on neighboring tables. But there's never that "ah ha" moment, the synthesis of flavor, texture and temperature in a single bite. The kitchen so overshoots with technique, ingredients and uniqueness that it misses the point entirely. Diners want food to taste good; at Wild Grape's price tag, consistently great.

Since November 2008, regulars have put down roots at the attractive horseshoe-shaped bar and adjacent high tables, through chef changes and inconsistencies. Wild Grape's greatest appeal is wine-centric in nature.

The well-devised wine list offers an ample selection of by-the-glass options, various wine country terrains and smaller labels, not to mention special wines matched with entrées. Wine Wednesday specials and the occasional winemaker's dinner give diners plenty to be happy about. It makes sense, considering owner Troy Greenhawt's past experience at wine-savvy Fleming's and the work of General Manager Stephanie Hatfield-Bailey.

The expanded dining room pulses with a lively energy that was badly needed after the departure of the beloved Avenues Bakery and Bistro. The resulting vibe is decidedly grown-up, gorgeous and, unlike the food, doesn't take itself so seriously.

The south floor-to-ceiling windows add scenery and warmth. Booths and tables offer more traditional seats; patio diners can soak in that early summer sun, attended to by a mostly attentive and informed staff. Kitchen voyeurs can request the "chef's counter" where they can witness chef Phelix Gardner along with sous chefs Sean Smith and Anthony Scarborough feed the bantering crowd. The volume can get loud with the chatter, laughter and clinking of glasses. Everyone's having such a good time, are they really paying attention to the food?

We did. Most dishes were perplexingly devoid of flavor. A perfectly tender Niman Ranch New York strip steak with a bland baby potato and Dungeness crab hash ($28) was anonymous under a thick veil of hollandaise that tasted nothing of the Meyer lemon promised on the menu. A normally luscious and deeply flavored chicken liver mousse ($11) was gray and water-logged, the only palate-provoking elements were the tart note of house-made rhubarb compote and cornichons.

What worked were dishes with simple touches. Spinach and fava salad ($6; $9) with delicate seasonal beans, tender leaves and a warm bacon vinaigrette was tempered with the vinegary tang of marinated onions. House carrot soup ($7) revealed a pleasant punch of za'atar, a Middle Eastern spice blend of ground sour sumac berries and dried thyme.

What didn't work: the Provençal gnocchi ($15) made not from potato nor pâte choux , but simply from a tasteless paste of flour and water, then pointlessly fried and served in an equally insipid mélange of squash. The pleasures of poulet rouge ($19), tender and crisp, were diluted with a tasteless and spongy mushroom duxelle stuffing. An otherwise brilliant pork belly ($13) was doused with a sickly sweet sarsaparilla barbecue sauce, the meat's velvety fattiness was lost. To get at its wonderfully seasoned Beehive cheddar grits, you had to navigate around the sweet moat.

A $13 local artisan cheese plate wasn't completely local nor artisan. Served too cold with crostini of a generic baguette, I wondered how other patrons hadn't called them out on this bit of greenwashing, demanding Crumb Brothers bread with a ripe MouCo Camembert from Colorado or a wedge of Utah's Nicoletti Kasseri to go with the resident Beehive cheddar. Wild Grape sets its altruistic standard high on its own Web site and should be lauded for it. But more importantly, they need to practice it -- at least in simple cheese plate form -- to diners who may or may not know the difference, but are nonetheless thinking they are paying for the quality associated with these terms.

Wild Grape has sophisticated ambitions, but its flavors have yet to develop the breadth and depth of their wines. Will they eventually deliver? We'll just have to sit back, sip and read between the lines.

E-mail Vanessa Chang at food@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">food@sltrib.com.

Wild Grape New West Bistro

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Bottom line » Upscale and upbeat, though not without its culinary flaws. Bar dining is the most consistent and casual with the house carrot soup spiked with za'atar and the spinach and fava bean salad.

Location » 481 E. South Temple, Salt Lake City; 801-746-5565

Online » http://wildgrapebistro.com" Target="_BLANK">wildgrapebistro.com

Hours » Open daily. Monday-Tuesday 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Wednesday-Thursday 11 a.m.-midnight; Friday 11 a.m.-midnight; Saturday 9 a.m.-midnight; Sunday 9 a.m.-10 p.m. (In-between menu from 3 to 5 p.m.; late menu from 10 p.m. to midnight Wednesday and Thursday; and 10:30 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday; brunch menu from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday).

Children's menu » Yes

Prices » $$$

Liquor » Full bar

Corkage » $10

Reservations » Recommended

Takeout » Yes

Wheelchair access » Yes

Outdoor dining » Yes

On-site parking » Yes

Credit cards » All major