In last week's column, I asked which restaurants readers prefer — chains or independents. And last week I also checked out the newest chain to come to Utah — Brio Tuscan Grille. It opened about two months ago at the Fashion Place Mall.
In Italian, the word "Brio" means full of life, spirit, and vigor, and enthusiasm. That's a great name for a lively restaurant bustling with people and lots of hearty, robust food. (I do wish, though, that restaurants would stop using the term, "Grille." In the United States, "grille" is considered a part on a car, and the cooking device is a "grill." Putting that "e" on the end seems a bit pretentious. But, I digress.)
Brio is not another Olive Garden clone. Many of the dishes are more upmarket than most Italian restaurant chains, and so are the prices. One of the soups served every day is a luxurious lobster bisque ($5.95), deep golden and thick with little chunks of lobster.
A signature starter is beef carpaccio, thin slices of raw beef ($10.95 for lunch, $12.95 for dinner). The bread basket includes wedges of crunchy flatbread, studded with herbs, seeds and Parmesan.
"We are an Italian chop house, so we sell a lot of pork, chicken and steaks, and salmon too," said general manager Dan Hobbs. He most recently was the director of operations at the Utah-based Costa Vida restaurant chain.
Although it's supposed to be a chophouse, it doesn't have that dark wood, masculine feel of a steakhouse. The ambience is light and airy, with high ceilings and color scheme of creams and tans.
So it's no surprise that women have a thing for Brio. "Our target audience is actually women between ages 35 to 55 years old," Hobbs said. "Typically they are the decision makers in their family. So what happens is, they might come here with friends or while shopping, and they usually bring their family back with them."
To that end, there are lots of entrée salads and 13 different pastas to round out the menu. One of their best-sellers is Pasta Alla Vodka — purse-like pastas filled ricotta, swimming in a Parmesan cream sauce ($16.90). Dinner pastas range in price from $12.95 for Paseta Yandolino (rigatoni, chicken, spinach, mushrooms, feta and diced tomatoes) to $19.95 for Lobster & Shrimp Ravioli with Crab Insalata.
The two dinner entrees that I tasted lived up to my expectations. The Artichoke Crusted Beef Medallions consisted of three two-ounce pieces of steak, cooked in an earthy mushroom sauce ($21.50). The beef was melt-in-your-mouth tender, although I never did find the artichokes in the crust… I was so enchanted with the beef that I didn't look very hard, frankly. The accompanying Marsala sauce had a deep, earthy flavor, helped along by the mushrooms. The mashed potatoes were thick, with a few lumps to prove they were the real deal, not reconstituted flakes. I also liked the Tuscan Grilled Pork Chops ($20.95). A flavorful marinade helped them stay juicy and tender during their grill time.
I am more of an equal-opportunity diner. I like both independent and chain restaurants, depending on the food and the occasion. But I can't buy into the "chain mania" that seems to happen when a well-known eatery like In-N-Out Burger or Cheesecake Factory comes to town. Brio seems to have escaped the frenzy that happened with the Cheesecake Factory opened a few doors away at the Fashion Place Mall in 2007. A few months later, a friend and I stopped in there to have lunch. When we found out there was a two-hour wait, on a Wednesday at 2 p.m., we bagged that idea. I've never tried to go back. It's just food, people — not a free world cruise.
On a weeknight when I visited Brio, most of the tables were full. But there weren't huge throngs of people in the lobby. So if you're tired of the wait at Cheesecake Factory, I'd take a walk down over to Brio. You might be pleasantly surprised.