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New City Creek restaurant aims for ‘affordable luxury’ with steak, sushi and Utah game

Aqua Terra ‘has that throwback to the 1950s feel,’ according to the restaurateur putting it together.

(Aqua Terra) The tomahawk rib eye is one of the steak options at Aqua Terra, a new steak and sushi restaurant scheduled to open Dec. 1, 2022, at City Creek Center in downtown Salt Lake City.

Restaurateur Elaina Morris said she wants people to experience small, memorable moments when dine at Aqua Terra Steak + Sushi, which opens Dec. 1 at Salt Lake City’s City Creek Center.

The dining room is sleek and minimalist, Morris said, with Modernist-inspired furniture and fixtures, custom blue granite accents, twinkle lights and handcrafted glass wallpaper that catches the light.

“It has that throwback to the 1950s feel,” she said. “It’s monochromatic, it’s got calming colors. It’s upscale. It’s very plush,” she said. “You’re not going to see a lot of crazy art everywhere, but what you will see will be meaningful. It’s about walking through this space and creating moments.”

For instance, Morris said, there’s a 10-person raised booth, a huge sushi bar at the heart of the space and three patios, all offering different experiences for dining.

“From an intentionality standpoint, from our food to the way the place has been designed, your journey from the front door to the back door to the bathroom, we want you to have feelings about being there,” she said.

(Jennifer Richard | Aqua Terra) Elaina Morris, CEO of Ascend Hospitality Group, said that diners at Aqua Terra will experience "affordable luxury." The steak and sushi restaurant is scheduled to open Dec. 1. 2022, at City Creek Center in downtown Salt Lake City.

City Creek Center is at 50 S. Main St., in Salt Lake City, and Aqua Terra sits right on Main on the shopping center’s west side.

Aqua Terra’s parent company, Ascend Hospitality Group, is based in Bellevue, Wash., and has a footprint in Utah with its Famous Dave’s BBQ restaurants. (There are three in Utah, in Layton, West Jordan and South Salt Lake.) Morris, president and CEO of the group, said Aqua Terra mirrors, but doesn’t mimic, AHG’s other restarurants, including Ascend Prime Steak & Sushi and Stanford’s, a multi-generational steakhouse chain — two in Washington state, two in Oregon — that the company bought a few years ago.

A model of “affordable luxury” is what the company wants bring to the Salt Lake Valley market with Aqua Terra, Morris said, including premium cuts of Wagyu that you can’t get anywhere else, along with top-shelf sushi.

“We’ll bring some of our classic recipes, and treat local proteins to our classic recipes,” she said, adding that Aqua Terra will serve wild game as well as beef. The menu also includes lots of fish dishes, omakase, crispy rice, and a wide-ranging dessert menu.

(Aqua Terra) Sushi options, like this nigiri, are on the menu at Aqua Terra, a new steak and sushi restaurant scheduled to open Dec. 1, 2022, at City Creek Center in downtown Salt Lake City.

Morris said one of Ascend Prime’s signature dishes is the Magic Mushroom, an edible terrarium served in a glass, with a white honey-meringue mushroom, white chocolate cherry mouse, mocha crumbs and matcha shortbread — and that they’ll bring some pretty interesting desserts to Salt Lake City, including a new one that’s a tribute to her kids, who love ice cream.

The drinks, she said, were created specifically to complement the food — to highlight the steak, and brighten up the sushi — but will stand out on their own merits.

“Our cocktails are going to be right up there. We’ve all been to those mixology bars — that’s one thing I love about Salt Lake City right now,” Morris said. “There is a food transformation, and a drink/cocktail/mixology transformation going on. You’re going to see us right in that mix. Especially with the sake. There are a lot of places that have sake, but they don’t have sake cocktails.”

Aqua Terra will have a substantial nonalcoholic drink list, Morris said.

“They’re not second-thought,” she said. “Even me — I’m a restauranteur — I have 13 restaurants. I go to functions all the time. I don’t always want a drink in my hand. … So we wanted to create an environment that acknowledges, yes, there are a lot of people who enjoy alcoholic beverages in Salt Lake, but we’re very clear that there’s a lot of people who want to have a fine dining experience that should be able to enhance the flavor of their food through cocktails, without alcohol, and we’re going to come with that.”

Stanford’s is known for serving what Morris calls constructed plates, featuring protein, vegetables, and starch, rather than lots of a la carte items that add up on the bill. The same will be true, she said, for Aqua Terra.

The aim, she said, is to “bring a polished protein experience that’s reflective of the region where we’re serving. … We wanted to include things like bison and elk and wild boar. And that’s hopefully where the people of Salt Lake can see their reflection, and say, ‘Oh yeah, this is me.’”