I first learned of Viet Pham and his Co-owner, Co-chef, Bowman Brown, when they were named among Food & Wine Magazine’s Best New Chefs for 2011. I did the usual diligence of reading through their bios and checking up on their restaurant’s website. I was intrigued by what looked to be the clean, natural flavors the two nominees put forth at their restaurant: Forage in Salt Lake City, Utah. As fun and interesting as the cuisine looked, I couldn’t imagine why I would ever end up in or near SLC.
Fast forward a few months. While attending a James Beard Foundation benefit dinner with Rocky and The Bro, I ran into Chef Viet and recognized him from online photos. Mr Pham, The Bro, and I made brief introductions and chatted for a moment. From that moment of chatting, a week later, I somehow got the inspiration to make a road trip out to Utah to see what was cooking. A quick proposition to The Bro, and the journey was well on it’s way to fruition.
After a night of remarkable dining in Boulder, CO, The Bro and I headed north into Wyoming, then west towards the Beehive State. A spell of inclement weather we faced while passing through the Rockies threatened to thwart our intended prompt arrival at Forage, but a bout of intrepid driving landed us along the Great Salt Lake with ample time to check in to our hotel and make it to the restaurant on schedule.
Forage is situated in what appeared to me to be a residential neighborhood where many of the houses have been transformed into businesses(Forage itself included). The restaurant’s entrance is down the driveway, towards the back of the house, behind which lies a greenhouse and a few planters that the chefs maintain.
Upon entering we were politely greeted and seated. I don’t know what the interior of the house looked like before, but the remodel into SLC’s Temple(of gastronomy) was impressive. The kitchen, while small, was organized, efficiently arranged, and spotless. The dining room, short of stark, was minimally and tastefully appointed, and was immediately comfortable.
We took a few moments to settle in and read through the day’s menu and the wine list. I knew Utah had fairly strict and somewhat bizarre laws pertaining to booze distribution and sales, so I wasn’t sure how the selection of grape juice would measure up. I found the list to be eclectic and thoughtful, so we opted to have the suggested wine pairings to accompany our dinner.
With the fate of our evening placed in the hands of Pham and Brown and their team, we were ready to roll and eager for what awaited. To start off the meal, a 100% Pinot Noir, Cremant de Bourgogne by Simonnet-Febvre. A delicate, but full, sparkling expression of Pinot Noir from Burgundy(somewhere nearby Chablis I believe). Rich, deep flavors, but light body. A nice beginning, and a creative match for the opening bites.
The written menu was divided into three sections: three canapés, four savory dishes, and three sweet dishes. First to reach the table:
Winter Squash: Winter squash croquettes. Nicely crisped on the outside, filled with a warm, rich, savory winter squash kind of soup. A delicious, balanced little bite that I would love to have a plate of. They reminded me of the croquettes I’ve had a few times as part of the opening series at Manresa in Los Gatos.
Soft Scrambled Egg, Maple Syrup, Sherry Cream. I’ll never tire of eating out of an eggshell with a little spoon. I loved it the first time it happened(at Le Meurice, Paris), and I’ve adored it every time since. Forage’s scrambled version of an egg course in a shell was lighter and more playful than I typically encounter, and would be a welcome addition to any breakfast of mine.
Chestnut: Chestnut beignets with onion powder. Slightly more dense and doughy than I expected for a beignet, but the texture of this winter-themed pastry complimented the filling of chopped, softened chestnuts.
Kohlrabi and Buttermilk, Fresh Cheese and Wild Watercress. With toasted buckwheat, pickled elderberry, buttermilk whey, garlic scape, and foraged greens. I thought this course, while not a shining star, was very well done; and for me, a lot of fun. The feature of the dish was fresh, juicy, and crisp, while the textures and flavors of all the accoutrement made for interesting variance between bites. I liked the combination of the vegetal leaf flavor with the almost-sweetness of the kohlrabi with the nutty crunch of the buckwheat. The Kerner(a cross of Riesling and Schiava) by Abbazia di Novacella from Alto-Adige is a wine I’ve found does well with vegetables. Light fruit and floral aromatics, with mild acid, and a racy, fresh fruit palate.
Greens Gleaned from the Field, Toasted Barley. A mix of kale, chard, cabbage, and mustard greens, foraged locally, some crisped, some barely touched, with toasted barley cooked in mushroom stock, finished with mushroom tea. This was my favorite dish of the dinner. The leaves alone in their variety of preparations would have made me happy. The barley(which puts a dish in my favor as a throwback to having my mom’s soups growing up) was superbly cooked with the almost-but-not-quite snap in the center. And the mushroom tea gave a light, earthiness. The pairing, Charles Krug Carneros Chardonnay, was moderate. The wine’s richness was a good compliment to the grain and the savory broth, but the warm, tropical fruit didn’t make magic with the winter greens for me.
Wild Columbia River Sturgeon Cooked with Paprika, Potato. Potato hash, potato cooked in dill, potato chips, potato emulsion. Malt caramel. I forget the details, but Viet told us the malt for the caramel was from one of the local breweries’ special batch beers. It certainly provided a strong, concentrated burst of flavors among bites of the dense fish and tuber four-ways. Patton Valley Pinot Noir was a nice example of Willamette Pinot, and a better pair for the fish than I anticipated. Mineral and spice flavors were balanced with the expected red cherry and harmonized with the smokey paprika in the dish.
A small dish not listed on the menu: Smoked Potato Cream, Chicken Gelee, Steelhead Roe, Toasted Wild Rice, Creme Fraiche. Light, but viscous potato cream. Popping salinity from the roe. Melting salinity from the gelee. Crunch from the toasted grain. A playful few bites.
At this point Viet came out to our table and asked how we’re doing with the meal and if we were still going strong. After a strong affirmative, he returned to the kitchen, and a little later re-emerged with this:
He told us he had been playing with dry-aging duck and asked if we wanted to give it a try. Back to the kitchen he went again, and shortly after:
Honey-Lavendar Glazed Local Duck. 14-day dry-aged. Spiced Pear. Umeboshi. Duck Jus. This superb addition to the meal was my second favorite course of the night. Chateau Sergant Lalande de Pomerol was a great pair. Extended maceration and new French oak aging supplied this Right-bank with the body and tannin to match well with the intensified flavor of the aged bird. The fruit, spice, and herb elements in both the dish and the wine made for a great back-and-forth from glass to plate.
65 Day Dry Aged Wagyu cooked over Charcoal, Parsnip, Onion Escabeche. Pleasant Farms Wagyu, dry-aged in house, and cooked over Bincho charcoal(a refined, slow-burning, low-smoke charcoal that is apparently very time consuming to produce). Dr Konstantin Frank’s Dry Riesling from the Finger Lakes region of New York was an appreciated selection. The sharp acid and balanced residual sugar refreshed with each sip and made the beef seem very clean, precise, and delicate.
Wild Rosehip, Yogurt. Rosehip Creme and Sorbet. Sparkling and dry yogurt. A light start to the sweet portion of dinner. Not too sweet, with good acid. To round out the pairings, Saracco Moscato d’Asti. The light, effervescent body did well as a condiment to the sweet plates.
Apple, Celeriac and Chamomile. I was a big fan of this dish. Apple Chips, Gel, and Cream. Celeriac Ice Cream. Toasted Malted Milk. I almost always prefer fruit themes to chocolate for dessert. And a creative vegetal influence is even better. Again with the textures, a few levels of soft crunch among the gel and creams was great. The apple flavor in the Saracco was so cohesive it seemed another element of the dish more than a pairing.
Pistachio from Hurricane. Lemon Custard with Local Pistachio. A few cleansing bites finished out the written menu.
Followed by Cinnamon Smoked Apricot Marshmallow and Caramel with Roasted Almond. And small bags of addicting granola as parting gifts.
I don’t know that I can place a single definite idea or event that made me decide that a road trip to SLC with The Bro to eat at Forage was worth a chance, but this meal(and the meal Pham and Brown cooked for us the following night) certainly made the journey worthwhile. With the bill for two tastings and two pairings coming in at less than what some NYC restaurants charge for a single chef’s menu, dinner at Forage is a steal. And with the experience the team gave me in the winter time, I’m excited to return(hopefully) to see what the duo cooks up in the spring and summer.
Date of visit: December 2nd, 2011
Drinks while typing: Tito’s and soda; Hitachino Nest Red Rice Ale
Forage. 300 East 900 South. Salt Lake City, UT. 801.708.7834 http://foragerestaurant.com/