Passport to Pleasure: Seeking Highs in the Salt Lake City Area

With Delta Airlines flight credit in hand and only a handful of days to use it, I wanted flights to the closest available destination that didn’t require a layover. That meant Salt Lake City. For a food writer and sex educator, this raised question marks. Would I find good food in the Salt Lake City area? Is romance or anything risqué possible in the red state of Utah?

Fortunately, I got busy and found some highs in this part of the Beehive State. The area is gorgeous, with lots of activities to fill a long weekend. The restaurant scene is improving in Salt Lake City, though my best meal would actually be in Park City. So join me as we venture to the Salt Lake City area, where we stamp this week’s Passport to Pleasure—a hedonistic quest for great food and good times for two, from nibbles to naughtiness.

Dates with Carbohydrates

I wasn’t sure what Mormon cuisine might be, so I asked around and the word that came up most was “bland.” (The second most common word, for what it’s worth, was “jello.”) Bland is how many would have described the overall Salt Lake City food scene until recently, but as the area has become relatively diverse, desire for quality restaurants has risen.

If you’re looking for breakfast pastries, Les Madeleines may be a smart choice. Their most famous item is the kouing aman (their spelling, not mine). You can find better versions of this Breton cake in Seattle, but this was pretty good—though at $5.50 each, the price is quite steep.


I also found a weekend special of craquelin, which is a Belgian (or some would argue Dutch) brioche that looks like a muffin but is light and fluffy inside, with occasional vanilla and lemon zest soaked raw sugar cubes.


Les Madeleines would prove to be a better choice than Gourmandise, which the Salt Lake City Weekly named best bakery in its “Best of Utah 2012” issue. The plain croissant was airline food quality, while the almond croissant was a sticky, overly sweet mess.  Coffee was bottomless, but terribly weak.


Best lunch belonged to Red Iguana. I’d been before and was reminded about the long lines, but I guess if you go to the West North Temple location during church hours on Sunday, you have a pick of tables (and a chance to see picnicking church-goers when you finish lunch).


I love the festive atmosphere, and the service is nice. Red Iguana offers a variety of mole sauces, so if you’ve never been, I recommend asking for a free sampler plate to start.


While I enjoyed all of the moles with their varying flavors, I especially liked the “brightness” of the mole amarillo, which is made with golden raisins, yellow tomatoes, yellow zucchini, chile guajillo, and dried seasonal yellow chiles. Mole amarillo comes with a good portion of chicken with the mole sauce, along with platanos, Spanish rice, refried beans, and tortillas on the side.


Also of interest is one of Red Iguana’s signature dishes: pollo a la moreliana. Ratatouille-like in appearance, this dish features marinated chicken simmered with tomatoes, onions, chiles serranos, chile guero, potatoes, carrots, and zucchini. It’s slighty spicy and one of the healthier offerings on the menu, and comes with rice and tortillas.


For a two-in-one lunch possibility, pair up a trip to Caputo’s Market & Deli with take-out from Bruges Waffles & Frites. The “Soprano” sandwich (with capocollo, cacio di Roma cheese, roasted pepper spread, lettuce, tomato, olive oil, and balsamic vinegar) from Caputo’s was good, though I wish I had bought some Creminelli salami from Caputo’s meat counter and customized my sandwich instead of going with the non-Creminelli meats.


The sandwich was much better than the frites. I had high hopes, especially remembering that one year ago I was in Belgium enjoying them. Maybe I got a bad bunch, but these frites were like the dregs of the fryer, most too small in size.


Still, the sauce options were good, and I did like the plain waffle—my favorite way to eat it, as I don’t need strawberries and cream or other toppings to take away from the pure waffle taste.


Lastly, I couldn’t have a stay in Salt Lake City without trying a pastrami burger. For this, I went to Crown Burgers, a local chain. Think of it as a place where Greek people put Jewish pastrami on a classic American burger and serve it to, well, a predominantly Mormon population. This meaty affair wasn’t bad, and it was here that I also got to try fry sauce (Utah’s favorite condiment, similar to Thousand Island dressing) for the first time. Ketchup’s better.


Romance recommendation: Walk to Les Madeleines and bring back pastries for breakfast in bed. Then lunch at Red Iguana for a fun and colorful experience.

Three Dinners and a Hotel Stay

My favorite meal of the trip was in Park City, at J&G Grill. The J&G are for Jean & Georges; much to my surprise, I discovered a Jean-George Vongerichten restaurant in Utah. It’s at the “end of the road,” right next to skiing at the Deer Valley Resort. In fact, when you arrive at the St. Regis Deer Valley (which looks like a relaxing place to stay and enjoy the spa), you take a funicular from the valet entrance and once at the restaurant, you can enjoy spectacular views of the ski slopes and surrounding area—maybe first enjoying a drink by the fireplace on the outdoor deck.


J&G Grill has a fine dining feel, but is more relaxed than the other Vongererichten restaurants I’ve tried, with a simpler menu. The food, though, is fantastic, and the dining room is a comfortable place for a slow-paced meal if you choose to take time here.


My partner and I ordered some refreshing homemade sodas. (With the large Mormon population, I felt less pressure to order alcohol at restaurants in Utah, and found more non-alcoholic options than usual.) On the left is cherry yuzu and on the right passion chili, with just a hint of heat.


For starters, we got a black truffle pizza and a steamed shrimp salad. We could smell the truffles well before the pizza came close to the table. Frisee and fontina cheese rounded out the pie nicely.


The shrimp salad had local greens, avocado, and champagne dressing. The warm shrimp were masterfully cooked to just the right doneness, as they had a perfect “snap” upon biting into them.


One entrée was trout grenobloise. Sitting on a bed of spinach, this, too, was perfectly cooked, the brown butter sauce bathing the fish and some croutons that somehow managed to stay crisp. Capers and lemon added acidity and tartness to just the right level.


Our other entrée was grilled beef tenderloin. Without doubt, this was one of the best pieces of beef I’ve had in recent memory. The broccoli-jalapeno puree that accompanied it was something special, and all the components worked well together in flavoring the dish, including the sweet soy glaze and the ginger, garlic, and rosemary crushed croutons.


At this point, we were stuffed, but given the quality of the meal, we had to try one dessert. Our server recommended the crème fraiche cheesecake as a “lighter” option. Delicious, especially in combination with the rhubarb sorbet and the strawberry compote. (More on this at my Serious Eats report.)


Back in Salt Lake City, Pallet Bistro was a fine place for an enjoyable meal. This new restaurant has a unique design, a sort of old-style décor using repurposed original materials from the early 1900’s. Between the skylighting, hanging “bubble” lights, and side window lighting, the overall lighting is quite interesting—though not very conducive to photography.


In lieu of bread, Pallet serves something else, on this night a variety of apples drizzled with salted caramel and sprinkled lava salt.


Next, we ordered crispy wings. The menu said they came with stonefruit, chili, and mustard seed, but ours had grapefruit, mandarin oranges, pineapples, orange zest, and jalapenos. The wings were cooked well, and if just a bit plain in taste, the citrus fruits and jalapenos made the dish a fun one full of interesting flavors.


Having heard a lot about Pallet’s cippolini gnocchi pillows, we had to give them a try. The gnocchi were a little less pillowy than I expected, but good all the same, with hints of onion flavor. The sage and parmesan cream made sense, but the amaretto cookie crumble added sweetness I found unnecessary.


After this we did a split of some pea soup. This was thick and rustic, reminding me of a home-style soup.


Then came our entrees. One was seared scallops with cauliflower, prosciutto, and mushroom. The portion was nice, with four well-cooked scallops, the crumbled prosciutto adding its saltiness to the dish.


The other entrée: bison short ribs with parsnip puree and two types of beets. The beef was tender and tasty, and I liked the puree beneath, with some of the intense sharpness of the parsnip shining through.


We took one final dinner at Bambara, the restaurant inside the Hotel Monaco, where we stayed in Salt Lake City. I liked the feel of the black and white colors in the dining room.


Still stuffed from lunch, we went fairly light for dinner, starting with a roasted pear salad with feta, baby spinach, and pickled cippolini. This hit the spot, as it was light and yet flavorful, dressed with a 25 year-old balsamico (and topped with toasted pistachio dust) that gave the dish depth.


Our other starter was wild mushroom soup, which had a nice earthy flavor, and not too much cream.


For entrees, desperate for greens, we did another salad. Less successful than the first, the shaved fennel and arugula salad with tangerine and roasted hazelnuts fell a bit flat, needing something to amp up the flavor. We did enjoy the smoked trout rillettes on sourdough crostini that accompanied the salad.


The one bigger plate we ordered was Maple Leaf Farms duck duet—grilled breast and leg confit, with liver butter, pomegranate syrup, watercress, and sweet potato wedges. I tire of confit, but found it to be more appealing that the grilled breast, which was off in texture. The sweet potatoes were good, and the watercress added a fresh component to the dish.


As mentioned, Bambara is inside the Hotel Monaco, which was a perfect place to stay for our Salt Lake City explorations. It’s conveniently located downtown, has character, and is in walking distance to many shops and restaurants. The room was comfortable, with an extra little seating area for extra convenience.


There are some playful elements to the hotel, such as the lobby’s six tall jars of free candy, each with a letter so that the display ultimate spells out the word “guilty.” The lobby also plays host to happy hour, with free wine, snacks, and chair massage service. I’m told that you can even get a loaner goldfish to keep you company in your room, but as with the candy, I did not partake.

Romance recommendation: The Hotel Monaco fits the bill for a romantic place to stay if you want to be downtown. And for dinner, it’s well worth the trip to Park City for the funicular ride and the fantastic dining experience at J&G Grill.

Day Trip to Provo and Orem

As a sex educator on the college lecture circuit, I figure I’ll never get invited to speak at Brigham Young University, so I decided to do a campus tour while visiting the Provo area. Nice campus with lots of nice, clean-cut people. Here’s the man the campus is named after.


Lunch was at Communal in Provo. You can get seats at the counter overlooking the open kitchen, so that’s the place where we wanted to be. Everything looked tempting, especially the Communal burger with blue cheese sauce, but we settled instead for two sandwiches. First was house-smoked chicken with grilled kale, caesar dressing, parmesan cheese, and tomato jam on ciabatta. Good smoky flavor, and a delicious sandwich even if a little sparse on the amount of chicken.


Second was a shrimp po’ boy. On the hoagie roll is Old Bay celeriac slaw, butterleaf lettuce, and tomato. We liked this sandwich even better than the first.


For dessert, I was anxious to have the caramelized bread pudding with Amano chocolate and crème anglaise. This was decent, but unfortunately they made a batch substituting cinnamon and maple syrup for the chocolate, so I didn’t get the rich chocolate experience I expected. Too bad, because I was looking forward to it…


…especially because my next stop was Amano Chocolate in Orem. This may be my favorite chocolate in America, and it’s a perennial winner at the Seattle Luxury Chocolate Salon, which I help judge annually. The factory wasn’t in production at the time of my visit, but I got a look around, and was impressed by the roaster, which works the beans for 30 minutes at 1-1/2 million BTUs. That’s strong!


Here’s a look inside the store, where the display table shows off some of the awards that Amano has won.


And a look at one of the chocolate bars, this the Dos Rios, with seductive spice notes.


Non-Food Highs and Other Highlights

A Connect Pass is an excellent way to see a number of area attractions at reduced cost. With this, we went first to Red Butte Garden, in the hills above the city on the University of Utah campus, along with the neighboring (and newly opened) Natural History Museum of Utah—a breathtaking building. Red Butte has 11 themed botanical gardens, plus opportunities for hiking. The gardens are gorgeous, and a stroll is certainly a sensual way to spend some time.


We also used the Connect Pass to visit Utah Olympic Park, one of the sites of the 2002 Winter Games. Arrival takes you to the base of the ski jump…


…while a tour takes you to the top for a beautiful view, as well as appreciation for the athletic experience.


(At the park, we ran into the 2002 women’s curling team, who were in town for the Utah Rocky Mountain Bonspiel. This motivated us to visit the Park City Curling Club to check out some of the action.)


There are many fascinating buildings in Salt Lake City, some offering great views. The Capitol Building comes to mind, so we did stroll there, inside and outside. We also visited the beautiful main library, with lots of glass bringing natural light inside. Take an elevator to the top and you can see the rooftop garden, as well as enjoy some panoramic views.


Massage and a Little More

There’s nothing like a couples massage experience to connect with a loved one, and we were lucky to have that experience at the Grand America Hotel’s Grand Spa in Salt Lake City. This majestic building makes you feel important upon arrival. When I entered the men’s locker-room, the immensity of the space furthered that special feeling. (Not sure if it’s the modesty of Utah, but I had to go to a private little dressing room to change into and out of a bathrobe.)


There was time use the eucalyptus steam room and dry sauna before meeting up with my partner for an escort to the massage room. Here, the massage therapists explained the treatment, then gave us alone time to enjoy sparkling raspberry drinks and chocolates, as well as to pick out scented massage oils, before returning to the room. Our fifty minute, side-by-side massages were fantastic—to the point where I wanted to just pass out and sleep on the table.


Relaxed, we made our way to La Bonne Vie, the Grand America Hotel’s patisserie. Also a little gift shop, La Bonne Vie serves up French pastries (including an assortment of colorful macarons), Italian gelato, artisanal chocolates, and more. We went with the specialty of the house: the Grand America bread pudding with rum sauce—another carbohydrate date, and a delicious one at that. (More on this treat at my Serious Eats report.)


Pallet Bistro dining room photo courtesy of Pallet Bistro.

Bambara dining room photo courtesy of Bambara.

Hotel Monaco guest room courtesy of Hotel Monaco.

Grand America Hotel’s spa photos courtesy of Grand America Hotel.