Fine dining: Utah Valley offers new tastes for the palate

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 6 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

Patrons eat at the Blue Lemon Restaurant in Highland. The eatery focuses on high-end presentation. Patrons eat at the Blue Lemon Restaurant in Highland. The eatery focuses on high-end presentation.

Stuart Johnson, Deseret News

Restaurant connoisseurs once traveled to Salt Lake City for a more metropolitan dining experience. City dwellers now head to smaller town spots for a taste of something different.

Down in the valley, the dining scene is changing.

In the newest Utah Valley restaurants, the settings are more uptown than college town, the food is fresh rather than frozen, and the concept of eating out is becoming a more communal activity.

Take, for instance, Provo's newest restaurant, appropriately named Communal.

Cozily tucked in a corner space on University Avenue, Communal offers a high-end twist on traditional family Sunday dinner meals, including mashed potatoes, roasted squash, tender steak and moist chicken breast.

From the long, family-style wooden tables to the warm, inviting decor, the entire Communal experience is meant to bring people together.

"We feel like the whole concept of dining to get together with family and friends is getting lost," said Colton Solberg, part-owner of Communal. "The hope behind all our places is for people to come to sit and relax and enjoy the company of other people."

Solberg, who opened Orem's Pizzeria 712 in November 2007 along with business partner Joseph McRae, said they have plans to open at least eight restaurants in Utah Valley, ranging from a butcher shop and steak house to a soup-and-salad lunch spot.

The hope is that all the restaurants will be interconnected, supporting each other and specializing in one food that will be sent off to each of the other restaurants, increasing efficiency and quality, Solberg said.

These two former Sundance chefs and Utah Valley natives want to prove that metropolitan dining doesn't need to be stuffy nor overpriced.

"We could be another great restaurant in Salt Lake or New York City or San Francisco, but those places already have great restaurants, and we wanted to change that," Solberg said.

Both Communal and Pizzeria 712 are unique because of their focus on seasonal, farm-fresh foods that are prepared purely and simply, Solberg said.

Bringing top-quality food to customers is the mantra that dictates all of Solberg and McRae's decisions in the industry, meaning that the duo will always stick to small menus and small restaurants that are close to their food source.

"The expense of creating large chain restaurants is losing flavor and quality," Solberg said. "Food isn't meant to be shipped all over the country — keep it close to the source and it always tastes better."

Consequently, the menus at Pizzeria 712 and Communal sometimes change on a daily basis, depending on the ingredients local farmers can provide.

Highland's recently opened Blue Lemon subscribes to a similar theory, with the catch phrase "Pure clean food with a twist."

The urban-feel spot prepares organic, locally grown and healthful menu items such as raspberry chicken salad and citrus-seared salmon and vegetarian options such as vegetable lasagna and a portobello burger. The restaurant grows lemon trees in the dining area to pluck fruit from the branches and incorporate in recipes when ripe.

Eco-friendly, diet-friendly, family-friendly and wallet-friendly, the classy-yet-casual, inviting-but-quick restaurant has a goal to teach customers how to be healthy on their own, manager Chris Petric said.

Head chef Todd Leonard and special guests like personal chef "Raw Melissa" teach weekly cooking classes in the demo kitchen at the back of the restaurant, contributing to the community aspect of dining similar to that at Communal and Pizzeria.

The "twist" at Blue Lemon comes with the food presentation: Leonard, a former chef at the Joseph Smith Building in Salt Lake City, arranges pita slices in pretty stacks and chicken skewers at artistic angles.

A classy presentation at an express casual restaurant is the element that draws people from all over the state, Petric said.

"We have people from Salt Lake or St. George who come at least twice a month," Petric said. "It's not your typical eat-and-leave restaurant."

With plans to expand the restaurant throughout the state, Blue Lemon adds a dose of light, fresh food to Utah dining, Petric said.

"I think the concept is really going to pick up in Utah, definitely. I really do," Petric said.

And with several other small, city-style eateries popping up in Utah Valley, he seems to be on the right track: Rooster Dumpling and Noodle Bar is the project of Andy and Simy Gartz, who had a similar goal to bring unique dining opportunities to Provo, the site of their two restaurants.

"I do think we serve food that nobody else does," said Andy Gartz, who worked in Hong Kong for four years. "Our palates are experienced and we've eaten at great places all over the world. We know what kind of eating experience we enjoy and what we're trying to provide."

Gartz notes at Rooster he doesn't strive to provide the most fancy, authentic or expensive food, but rather a quality, new take on Asian food that Utah Valley has yet to offer.

Accordingly, the interior at the Gartzes' restaurant has a spare, European look that complements the Asian-style food in a different way.

"Sitting in our place should feel different — we want our food to be different," Gartz said.

Serving up Taiwanese boba drinks and curry soups, Gartz said customers are enthused about having a taste of something new.

"There are so many people who are excited about what's happening [with Utah Valley dining]," Gartz said. "It's actually made my life a lot happier, because I get to meet people who appreciate what I'm doing every day."

e-mail: bbrown@desnews.com