When Salt Lake City’s Neutral Ground Lounge was preparing to open, the inspiration came from the grassy strips running down some New Orleans streets — particularly Canal Street, between the Anglo and French Creole districts — and how those strips became a mini-commons for those different communities to come together over barbecue, parades and socializing.
The concept is still at the center of the restaurant, at 2110 W. North Temple on Salt Lake City’s west side. But pretty much everything else has changed as the restaurant gets ready for its grand opening, set for Sept. 2 and 3 — nearly five months after its planned April launch.
Chef Cosette Moss is now at the helm in the kitchen, while mixologist Mikey Halliday oversees the bar program. General manager Matthew Sheridan said the restaurant released a new menu in mid-July during its soft launch, keeping some of the traditional Cajun dishes — such as red beans and rice and gumbo — while adding new items and tweaking others.
“Our fried green tomatoes are a little bit different,” Sheridan said, and new dishes include mussel arrabbiata, Southern carbonara, blackened alligator tacos and a variety of flatbreads. The wine program, he added, includes wines from Oregon, California, Italy, Argentina and France, as well as sparkling wines.
“We really wanted a wide variety of vintages and wine styles, and we did stick to it,” Sheridan said. “But we wanted them all to pair well with Southern and Cajun spices.”
Cajun, Creole and Southern cuisines aren’t too common in Utah, Sheridan said, so diners may worry they’re going to be too spicy. Cajun and Creole use peppers, he said, but they aren’t necessarily spicy-hot. He prefers the word “flavorful.”
The ‘trinity’ of Cajun and Creole
Moss explained that the underpinning of much of the flavor in Cajun and Creole cooking comes from the “trinity” of ingredients: Onion, bell peppers and celery. Even when those three aren’t used, vegetables provide a lot of flavor, Moss said — citing as an example the blackened alligator tacos, which have been a big hit.
“It’s blackened alligator on a flour tortilla, with jalapenos, avocado, champagne-relish dressing with cabbage, queso fresco and cilantro garnish,” Moss said. “It comes with corn relish and house salsa.”
The relish and salsa are hugely important, she said, bcause “that’s what really sets off the whole menu as far as Cajun — it’s got so many fresh vegetables.” (Alligator, for those who have never tried it, “tastes like chicken,” Moss said.)
Moss grew up in Blanding, in Utah’s southeast corner, and worked at the Old Timer Cafe as a teen. She started as a server, but one day when her ticket was placed last in the queue, she went into the kitchen to cook the meal herself. She’s never looked back, she said.
Moss worked as a traveling chef for years, including in Los Angeles and Seattle. Moss brought sous chef Stefan Bach with her — the two have worked together in the past — and he’s responsible for using the propane-fueled stone oven that was left behind when the building was a pizza place.
Bach makes the flatbreads — which include gluten-free cauliflower flatbreads — in the oven to give them a crispier texture. He also uses it to make roasted beets and mac ‘n’ cheese. His signature dish, though, is the peach cobbler, and the oven is the key to making that dish right, he said.
“There’s nothing here I can’t do in an oven,” he said, “But it’s a texture thing. I can get the mac ‘n’ cheese crispy, I can knock out flatbreads really quickly. And with the peach cobbler, we use a fresh batter, and when it’s completely done, I’ll top the cobbler with it, and give it a fresh top. Which is why people love it.”
Everything’s made from scratch, in-house, Sheridan said. That includes the juices used in the cocktails.
The bar program, Sheridan said, is focused on bourbon, whiskey and scotch. One of their most popular drinks is an applewood-smoked old fashioned that’s smoked under a glass dome, which makes for a great tableside show. “It really adds to the flavor profile, too,” Sheridan said.
Customized cocktails and more
Halliday said he developed the bar program, like the wine list, to complement what Moss and Bach do in the kitchen.
Sazerac, a cocktail made with rye whiskey and native to New Orleans, is a must, he said. Sometimes, though, customers ask him to mix custom cocktails for the table, he said.
Recently, one at-the-table cocktail included tequila, hibiscus syrup, raspberry liqueur, Chambord, elderflower and lemon juice. Another was a combination of cucumber, lime juice, and tequila. A third mixed orange juice, Malibu coconut rum, peach schnapps and lemon juice.
“I ask a series of questions, and dial in on a specific blend for that guest,” Halliday said. “And I think about what they ordered.”
The 21-and-up lounge, Sheridan said, has “a little more of a speakeasy feel, French Quarter.” There’s an area set aside for intimate musical performances by solo artists, duets or trios. “Most of the time, it will be a singer, or a guitar player, or a trumpet player,” he said. Musicians are scheduled to play every Friday and Saturday night; the roster now includes singer Esther Reina and saxophone player Kenny Fong.
The setting is inspired by New Orleans’ homegrown traditions, Sheridan said, but Neutral Ground also takes its cue from the way New Orleans attracts transplants from around the world and allows them to mingle.
“We’ll have everything from people doing cover songs, to playing guitar, rock and jazz,” Sheridan said. “We’ve got piano players. This is just kind of like a mix.… It really is going to vary. And even though we are doing a New Orleans-style place, we really want the music to be eclectic and different.”
That falls in line, he said, with Neutral Ground’s ethos: To let everyone come together, no matter who they are.
“It’s like that grassy area that separated the French-speaking Creoles and the English-speaking Americans, that’s now Canal Street,” Sheridan said. “It used to be the meeting point where they would come together — to share, and break bread.”
Neutral Ground Lounge, at 2110 W. North Temple in Salt Lake City, is open 4 to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday for dinner, and closed on Sunday. Lunch hours will be added soon.
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