by Clifton Tolboe
Pallet is a fine example of one of the more perplexing movements I’ve seen lately within the quickly evolving downtown food and restaurant scene in Salt Lake City, and within many cities across the country. It is the march toward ‘urban farm simplicity’ whereby restaurants attempt to maintain a localized feel to their product sourcing, and a simplified approach to their cooking techniques; in many instances reducing the overall quality of the food they put on the plate.
Within certain top-notch establishments, including San Francisco’s Gary Danko, this concept is taken to full effect with glorious results—flashes of culinary genius (Read: bacon braised endive with huckleberry sauce). To those lucky enough to grab a table through a three-month wait list and, I would say, endure a fairly painful swipe of card, all the power to them. At Gary Danko (to be fair few other restaurants are at its level) dishes consist of few ingredients, and the dishes have been constructed and reconstructed hundreds, possibly thousands, of times, to arrive at final perfection. From my experience, it is only after this amount of research, that these particular restaurants find results in ultra-precise combinations of texture, taste, flavor, and smell—all hallmarks of a truly genius kitchen.
Unfortunately at Pallet, a new restaurant in downtown Salt Lake that attempts this approach, the execution of technique falls short of delivering anything that reaches its ambitions.
Located on 400 West and 237 South, the first thing I noticed upon arrival at Pallet was the hipster-sleek patio adjacent to the dining room draped in plants and vintage lighting—a very nice design element. Upon entry of the building—a reclaimed ‘pallet’ loading dock space—we were greeted by a nice, well dressed maître d’, and a modern dining room with a small reclaimed-looking bar standing as its focal point. The interior and bathrooms have a reclaimed but polished look throughout, and the restaurant was abuzz with the growing downtown Salt Lake urbanite crowd. I would say that the best thing about our visit was the design and vibe of the restaurant. I also enjoyed the service.
But the food fell short on many levels. To sum it up in one word: Execution. Yes, execution, which is overwhelmingly evident at restaurants like Gary Danko, is seemingly left by the wayside at Pallet. For example: Pallet’s bison tartar served on bruschetta with a dressed tomato basil topping. Those I was dining with are all fans of a good tartar and have had excellent versions throughout the world. Generally, the dish consists of very finely chopped or minced raw meat that is served with a starch, usually bread, and an array of accoutrements. This is a fairly simple dish to prepare, something even a novice could whip up (needed: sharp knife). But at Pallet, it comes to the table with half-inch chunks of raw bison that are so chewy your jaw is in for a workout. Furthermore, the thinking and rethinking of this type of dish, which is necessary for it to be successful, is utterly absent. I can see the chef now, brain storming this special on his white board: “local (raw) bison+ local farm fresh tomato + local basil served on local bread = $ 12 appetizer.” Hipster suckers! In my humble opinion, any version of tartar needs to have some strong flavors and accouterments to counterbalance the richness of the raw protein (how about some freaking horseradish or hot mustard?!) Maybe Buzz Willey (chef) has just never had a great tartar- but why put it on your menu then?
Another example of poor execution at Pallet, and one that also illustrates my point that producing every product in house as much as possible sometimes fails miserably, is evident in a simple caprese salad: “Served with tomatoes from the pioneer park farmers market, and house-made, hand-pulled fresh mozzarella”. In other words: tough flavorless mozzarella cheese slices, basil and tomatoes (ok- a little oil and vinegar too) for $11. Poor form. Now, with some excellent cheese this dish would have been great, but by making the cheese in house—without knowing how to produce great cheese—simply lowers the overall quality of the dish. And all for the sake of server marketing spiel; unfortunate. How about having an expert cheese-maker make your cheese or even a choice from the fine varieties available across the street at Caputo’s market? Again, house-made, or even local, does not always lead to the best dish—especially when it’s a small $11 caprese salad.
We sampled numerous dishes during our visit this evening, each time hoping for a revelation, but time and time again were disappointed. Gloria’s meatballs were bland with no sear and lacking flavor. The same goes for the sweet beets that were overcooked and served with a goat cheese so strong, it overwhelmed every other flavor on the plate. We ordered the house salad served with feta, pears and walnuts—it was good, but not great… and lacking imagination. Then there was the “grilled hearts of romaine” salad. Doesn’t grilling a salad somewhat defeat the purpose of a “salad”? The taste was fine, but again not inspiring or re-orderable. Entrees provided little relief either, with the “Pepper Crusted New York Steak” failing to impress (over-cooked and mid quality beef) even with its fairly awesome (ok, really awesome) deep fried blue-cheese macaroni ball. The shrimp with Asian noodles dish, ordered by one of my dining companions, tasted extremely fishy and the shrimp had not been properly cleaned—rookie execution at best. The best entrée we tasted was a special that evening—halibut severed in a cream sauce accompanied by fresh veg. It was really good, but probably not enough to make me return.
The food has the feel of a somewhat arrogant chef with limited training. After such a poor initial showing, I have yet to return to Pallet, but being a real believer in the growing urban Salt Lake core, I sincerely hope that the restaurant management will figure out the food issues, and Pallet will be able to thrive. After all, a beautifully designed space will only take a restaurant so far (read: Danny Meyers Tabla).