Review: Flora’s dishes don’t match its grand interior
By Stuart Melling
For The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Dec 11 2012 06:11PM
First impressions of Flora are promising. The restaurant is situated in the Holladay building once home to the Boulevard restaurant. The exterior is inviting, with soft lighting emanating from within and chalkboards listing specials flanking the posh main doors. Once inside, the chic proceedings continue in a similar vein. The interior is a remarkable grand and open space, with a lobby area featuring eye-catching black-and-white tile, and hefty columns anchoring the center of the room.
In my book, second and third impressions are just as important, however. And on second look, the sheer scale and spacing of the restaurant creates an impersonal, awkward ambiance — tables seem to float in an ocean of yawning space. The room cries out for some degree of delineation and intimacy.
Scrutiny of the initially classy decor also quickly gives way to disappointment, as one of my meals came with peeling and cracking plaster. In the context of a restaurant serving hors d’ouevres instead of appetizers and $30 seafood specials, the lack of attention to detail is concerning.
The menu, too, grapples with a similar lack of focus. The underlying theme is one of New American with Southwestern flair, but in reality meanders through a slew of other cuisines: Italian, Japanese, Vietnamese and French, just to name four.
Specials suffer from this unfocused approach. On a chilly October evening, I enjoyed a pleasant pumpkin soup laced with spicy clove notes ($6). Another special from the same evening’s menu was a perplexing plate of vegan summer rolls ($9) and dipping sauce. During a further meal, more than a week later, the same specials were listed by our waitress.
Meals themselves start with a modest bread basket accompanied by a oil-and-vinegar mix, nothing special but passable enough to nibble on while selecting a drink from a decent selection of beers (many local, such as Squatters IPA, $6) and wine. Indeed, on one evening our waitress offered me a very enjoyable glass of Cupcake Sauvignon Blanc ($9) -— the night’s wine special — but she was unable to expound on any particular merits of the wine itself.
In fact, that episode neatly summed up my overall experience with the service here, as the wait staff were friendly and eager to help, but seemed to lack any deep knowledge of the menu. After inquiring about the ingredients in a dish one evening, I was jokingly rebuked and informed that the chef probably wouldn’t be happy to give the information up, a first in all my years of inquisitive dining out.
Aside from specials, the menu breaks down into three main parts: salads and soups, hors d’ouevres and entrees. Cajun pork spring rolls ($7), with corn, black beans, slaw and remoulade, were more enjoyable on a cold fall night than their summer counterpart. A roasted beet tower was eye-popping in presentation, with layers of beet interleaved with creamy chevre cheese, radish sprouts and circled by pistachios and citrus broth ($11).
Of the entrees I sampled, the standout was a New York strip steak ($21) with sweet potato puree, jalapeno maple bourbon glaze and seasonal vegetables — a good cut of meat, cooked expertly to temperature. I would have preferred a more thoughtful side than the basic sauteed squash and beans, which were the exact same seasonal vegetables served with the orange, rosemary-and-garlic-encrusted half chicken ($16) on a summer pea risotto cake. Thankfully, the chicken itself was plenty moist and flavorful.
The kitchen seems to do its best work cooking proteins, yet in sides and other dishes the finer details seem overlooked. A special of salmon with lobster consomme and basil-whipped potatoes ($28) featured excellently prepared salmon, but otherwise was forgettable, again with a bland vegetable side. A decade ago, such a dish might have worked in area restaurants, but today $30 can buy far more creative dishes with superior execution.
Perhaps the lack of main protein was why a goat cheese-and-kale ravioli ($16) verged on the substandard. Hard snow peas topped the ravioli, in a mediocre tomato basil sauce, was from start-to-finish a poor dish.
Desserts left me wanting more, too. A pear galette ($7) of puff pastry, brown-butter caramel and vanilla ice cream sounded wonderful when described by our waitress, but was dry and lifeless on the plate. A flourless chocolate torte ($7) with dark chocolate mousse and fresh raspberry sauce, was better, although still uninspired.
Flora offers a frustrating mix of good and bad. An initially grandiose space is undercut by poor attention to detail and lack of intimacy. The menu also suffers from a lack of focus, cohesion and execution. While the restaurant aims for fine dining the implementation struggles to live up to such a heady vision.