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(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) La Caille in Sandy will hold a "Lights On" party, Tuesday, Nov. 20, from 5 to 7 p.m.
La Caille: Iconic Sandy restaurant rising from the ashes

Revamped menu and restored grounds are part of the renovation of a restaurant known as Utah’s crown jewel.

First Published Aug 21 2012 07:36 am • Last Updated Nov 30 2012 11:33 pm

Sandy » Few businesses could survive a bitter lawsuit, bankruptcy and the tragic deaths of its owners. Yet Sandy’s iconic La Caille restaurant has lived through those scorching times and now seems to be rising from the ashes.

Its rebirth can be found in the restored ponds, vineyards and gardens that surround the French-styled chateau. It can be tasted in the food prepared by a new chef in a recently remodeled kitchen. And it emanates from the employees, many of whom persevered during the restaurant’s darkest days.

At a glance

Try La Caille’s Commonwealth deal

Try chef Brandon Howard’s new three-course Commonwealth menu, which includes a starter, choice of entree and dessert. Items to try include the poached egg with corn cake, Kurobuta pork short ribs or the natural farm burger.

Where » La Caille, 9565 Wasatch Blvd., Sandy

When » Tuesdays, 4 p.m. to close; and Wednesday-Saturday 4 to 6 p.m.

Cost » $36 per person (tax and tip not included)

Details » 801-942-1751 or www.lacaille.com

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"It’s the Phoenix rising from the flames," observed Martin Pernham, a local chef and owner of Martin’s Fine Desserts.

Restoring the La Caille brand » The renewal of La Caille started in August 2011, when Kevin Gates, president and CEO iFreedom Direct, which specializes in home loans for veterans, paid $10 million for La Caille and the adjoining buildings. At the time, neighbors, employees, politicians and patrons were nervous about what Gates would do to the 20-acre property at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon. But Gates, a native of Salt Lake City who now splits his time between Las Vegas and Utah, had good intentions.

"I didn’t want to see someone go in and subdivide the property into homes," he said during a recent telephone interview. "I wanted to keep it as open space."

The businessman also believed the La Caille name was still valuable and worth saving. "It’s an iconic brand in Salt Lake," he said, likening it to Snowbird, Deer Valley and Kennecott. "The previous owners just didn’t have the money to keep up the place," he said.

In the last year, Gates said he has spent an additional $1.5 million in remodeling, repairs and upgrades.

Restoring the vineyard » Cleaning up the grounds was the first order of business. The initial yard waste — coupled with stacks of old furniture and broken equipment — filled 14 industrial-size garbage containers, said grounds supervisor Ed Primosic. "And there were probably another 14 more after that. It needed a lot of love."

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Grounds and maintenance crews who normally took the winters off remained on the job, fixing leaks in the decorative ponds, clearing land for a vegetable garden and restoring the three-acre vineyard. The latter was something that Gates believed was one of the most attractive parts of his purchase.

He hired Michael Knight, owner of Salt Lake City’s Kiler Grove Winery, to help make the vineyard productive again. It was a nostalgic business strategy, as Knight had worked with the previous owners in the late 1990s to create award-winning wines under a La Caille label.

"To me, this is Utah’s premier vineyard," said Knight, noting that the Seyval Blanc grapes are a good match for the site. The French-American hybrid, when cared for properly, can survive the cold Utah winters and regular canyon winds.

But when Knight stepped in late last year, 30 to 40 percent of the vines were diseased or dead. Those vines were removed and replaced with new plants. And the old top-spray irrigation system — which encouraged mold and disease — was replaced with a more efficient drip system.

Knight expects to get about 100 pounds of fruit this fall, not enough to have commercial potential. But in a few years, when the plants have matured, "the vineyard has the ability to support a fair amount of fruit, around 8 to 10 tons, or about 500 cases of wine," he said.

On Tuesday, the Utah State Alcohol Beverage Control commission granted La Caille both a winery license and a package agency license, allowing it to produce and sell wine on site.

"Everything changed but the bill" » In recent years, customers may have noticed the decline of the grounds, but their biggest complaint was the drop in food quality — yet the prices remained some of the highest in the valley.

During the tumultuous years, "everything changed except the bill," joked Salt Lake City businessman Dean Magnesen.

With that in mind, Gates hired Brandon Howard as the restaurant’s new executive director and head chef.

Howard has worked for many years in the Utah restaurant industry, most recently serving as executive chef at The Point Restaurant at the Huntsman Cancer Institute. He revamped the menu, calling it "modified French" as the food is more local, seasonal and approachable to customers, but still in keeping with the restaurant’s French-country theme. He also has lowered prices — entrees range from $27 to $56. Items are now available in an a la carte format, which includes first and second courses, entrees and desserts.

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