Sapa started quietly. Anyone who drove past the 700 South block of State Street could see something was happening to the former Chinese market space.
When the up-turned corners of wood-carved buildings poked over the fence line, curiosity piqued. Still, there was no fanfare. Instead curious people relied on the rumor mill. Hearing about it was a bit like hearing tales of some mythical space, like, (forgive the pan-Asian similes) Shangri-La.
"The interior is gorgeous," one friend reported back.
"The owner imported these buildings, piece by piece from Vietnam!" revealed another.
"Excellent drinks," said a champion-imbiber friend.
However, not all accounts portrayed a culinary utopia beautifully hidden from the outside world.
Sapa's space is beautiful -- striking and not gaudy. The diverse cocktail menu spans kitsch to the sophisticated. I also found that Sapa's pan-Asian menu has yet to find its groove among the numerous cultures it tries to present on the menu.
The restaurant's name comes from a Vietnamese market town where reportedly a cultural crossroads once flourished. The unfinished courtyard space flanked with those gorgeous buildings, fish pond and stone sculptures could almost serve as a marketplace.
As the weather warms, plan on seeing it come alive with outdoor seating in the teahouses and event space.
One of the owners, Mai Nguyen, who is also behind Green Papaya in West Valley City, took on most of the design work. In the south dining room, bountiful earth-toned booths get a punch of vitality from stiletto red glass chandeliers.
The prickly fixtures look as though they were crafted by famed artist Dale Chihuly. The north dining room is more informal, the way clubs and lounges feel on a Saturday night. Vivid colors tempered with a textured metal matrix fill one wall. Either space is great for sipping Sapa's excellent cocktails.
Coconut madness ($10) is refreshing, not too sweet and served in a de-furred coconut. The lychee martini ($7.50) is floral and fragrant, with just enough booze to let you know it's a cocktail, but a classy one. In place of an olive, it has a pitted lychee fruit.
For bubbly lovers, the passion fruit Bellini is worth the $12 price tag. Really, it's two drinks in one that requires a bit of assembly on the customer's part.
After the server opens the mini bottle of Freixenet Cava you pour it into the flute and add sweetened passion fruit puréed pulp. The garnish is slices of passion fruit rind arranged on a toothpick to look like an orchid.
The knife wielding takes place at the formidable sushi bar manned by what seems like an army of kimono top-wearing gentlemen.
Sapa's full name is Sapa Sushi Bar & Asian Grill.
There already, it sets a lofty goal for itself. Sapa's stab at meeting it involves a grand sushi list of rolls decorated as if the fellows took on ikebana as a hobby. It's a familiar list full of eel and tempura shrimp, cooked rolls and the raw offerings in an effort to please everyone.
That might be Sapa's downside -- taking on a large chunk of culinary territory.
Granted, they have the space and the manpower needed to take it on. But it makes room for error when it comes to something as simple as the temperature of the otherwise delicious fish.
In sashimi or in rolls such as the beautiful cherry blossom's ($14) salmon, tuna tataki ($11) or the seared albacore on the blazing jazz ($13) the fish was so cold I couldn't get the nuance and delicate flavors. On other visits, they were just fine.
Trying to do many things versus simply doing one thing (however complex or simple) and doing it well, affected the cooked items as well. Here, you get the real span of the pan-Asian themes.
Duck spring rolls ($7) were tasteless one meal, but perfectly balanced during another. Beef short ribs were too tough to fully enjoy as an entrée ($14) but all right in the Bento lunch combo ($8.95).
Some dishes were bad: too sweet drunken noodles ($10 to $12), and crispy shrimp and crab rolls that had plenty of texture, but no flavor.
Others were remarkably good.
String beans "salad" ($6) is really a stir-fry in denial. But whatever it wants to be, I'll gladly eat the blistered, crisp-tender spears. Hot summer (wild shrimp in a spicy lemongrass broth) soup and coco-cream chicken soup ($4-$9) were soothing and invigorating. Miso soup ($3) is usually an afterthought, but Sapa's is paler than what you normally find and the gentleness befits the tiny, diced tofu and elegant flavor.
Sapa's adventurous highs and lows can be frustrating or exhilarating. But there's evolution in the works with new menu items. One hopes they leave behind the "must-please" attitude of the ubiquitous frozen tiramisu (once a Sapa dessert) to something more signature, unique and unforgettable.
After all, we can get the "usuals" at any old place. But the passion fruit "orchid" in a well composed cocktail?
That's a completely different tale.
In a nutshell » Huge pan-Asian menu in a gorgeous mix of hip and traditional setting. The sushi menu and bar is expansive, relying on sauces and familiar cooked options. Better luck with seared string bean "salad," reasonable Bento lunch combos and the excellent cocktails, like the passion fruit Bellini.
Where » 722 S. State St., Salt Lake City; 801-363-7272
Hours » Monday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5 to 11 p.m.; Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.
Prices » $$
Liquor » Full service
Corkage » $7
Reservations » Accepted
Children's menu » No
Takeout » Yes
Outdoor dining » begins Spring 2010
On-site parking » Yes
Wheelchair accessible » Yes
Credit Cards » All major