There’s something really cool happening in an old stucco’d building at 10th South and Main Street. The building that houses newly-opened SLC Eatery was formerly a rock shop. Apparently you could go in and buy rocks of all shapes and sizes, in varying colors, and from pretty basic to very fancy. Who knew.
The building is situated right between a motel and a used car dealership, in a (what should I call it) unique part of town for a restaurant. The area is slowly filling in with dining and drinking options, such as Proper Burger, Tinwell, and Fisher Brewery, but there is a way to go before this area is thought of as a culinary stronghold in SLC. At the restaurant there isn’t much in the way of parking (just plan to park on the street) and the restaurant’s website isn’t even done yet. Yet this quirky little spot has managed to generate more buzz in the few short weeks it’s been open that just about any other restaurant in my recent memory. And for good reason, because co-chefs and business partners Paul Chamberlain and Logan Crew are putting out some of the most unique, boundary-pushing food that we’ve seen in the city since the going-away of Forage. And did I mention they have a dim sum cart?
Putting the quirky location aside, once inside the restaurant diners will be impressed by a very open space, warmed by hand-built tabletops by Chamberlain himself as well as a beautiful woodwork tapestry wall framing the kitchen, built by Chad Parkinson at The Furniture Joint. The space seats around 70, but the L-shape helps to break the restaurant into smaller sections to keep things a bit more intimate. Fun music is playing, louder than what you might be used to at other restaurants, but not too loud. Enough to encourage people to have some fun, but not so loud you need to shout to be heard. The chefs want this to be a fun, casual place, but want their food to be taken seriously, and their approach with décor and glassware shows that. The former rock shop was completely gutted, walls torn down, and brick exposed to create a welcoming space. The kitchen is split in two, with the cold side (prepping seafood, salads, and cocktails) at the front of the restaurant, with the hot side as the centerpiece of the restaurant.
Chamberlain and Crew have cooked together at various restaurants for the past 15 years, going back to Fresco Italian Café. Logan has spent some time with the Trio restaurant group, Current Fish & Oyster, Stanza Italian Bistro, and Trio Park City. The two have always wanted to start their own thing going back to their time together at Fresco. Chamberlain has spent time at Bambara, Log Haven, and Avenues Proper.
When asked to describe the menu’s regional or cultural inspiration, Chamberlain said they are kind of “everywhere” with their approach. They wanted a restaurant where “they could could whatever they wanted to cook” without being beholden to any specific cuisine. And that shows on the menu, with items ranging from southeast Asian to Mexican to Spanish cuisine. Sometimes all within one dish.
“In my culinary school days [fusing different cultural foods] was a total no-no. You don’t put nori on bucatini; that just doesn’t happen. And then David Chang happened and it exploded and everybody is now like “you can do whatever you want.” And that’s kind of our philosophy, too, is that we’re just trying to make interesting flavors in ways that people already understand. Like our tamalitos are basically tamales, but they’re smaller, they’re fried. They come with everything, but they’re deconstructed. That dish has a lot of latin-American influence with the lime-cilantro aioli, jalapeños, green onions, and then you have tajin and jalapeño powder which is one of those things where the ingredients all go together but it’s not something your abuela would cook.” Paul Chamberlain
The restaurant features something that, unless you’ve been to a dim sum place, may make you do a double-take at first sight. Every 15 minutes or so, a server will stop by your table with a trolley cart that is bearing a selection of small plates. These are small three- or four-bite dishes, costing between $3 and $6. A visit by Chamberlain to innovative dining spot State Bird Provisions in San Francisco, which was the first restaurant to offer American dim sum to diners, inspired him to offer this same service to Salt Lake diners. Right now, SLC Eatery is rotating three or four items per night, with plans to expand that to six to twelve items as they get busier. The cart give the chefs an outlet to express their culinary creativity on a daily basis and avoid the funk that tends to happen when offering just a static menu.
Culinarily, Salt Lake has generally been at least two years behind the more culinarily-daring parts of the country, but Chamberlain feels like that gap is shrinking. According to him, they could never have done a project like SLC Eatery in the past.
“We never could have done this ten years ago. Like Forage, they tried doing something completely different for people, but it had to have been so hard getting people into their place without having the kind of dining hype that is in the city now…I think the dining scene is ready for something that’s going to be a bit different. We really want to be as comfortable as possible with the cart, but we want to give a different experience than the tapas craze, for example.”
You will find some hints of molecular gastronomy. They have an anti-griddle that they use to freeze yogurt, among other items, and you will find some foams on your plate, but these items are complementary and additive to the experience and do not distract from the overall goal of the plate. Lecithin is used in the tamalito crema to give the cream more structure and improve the mouthfeel. As they settle in, they plan to start playing around more with gels and spheres. Liquid nitrogen is also in the plans, but requires city approvals. The goal is to not be a molecular gastronomy place, but utilize the techniques when it will be additive to the overall dish.
The cocktail program is on-point. I don’t drink alcohol, but I had a few drinks prepared sans-alcohol and the balance of flavors was spectacular. I particularly enjoyed the Beetlejuice, which has gin, clarified beet purée, lemon, and fig and walnut bitters.
Just like the variety of rocks offered by the location’s predecessor, the food at SLC Eatery is varied in regional inspiration, flavors, and culinary techniques. Yet despite the varied nature of their approach, it all seems to work together in a way that elevates their cuisine, and raises the bar for the rest of the restaurants in the city. I love to see SLC continue to progress in its dining tastes, and I have a feeling that SLC Eatery will lead the charge down this new path for some time to come.