9565 Wasatch Blvd., Sandy ; 801-942-1751
Very elaborate dining atmosphere. A place fit for special occasions. The food needs work.
Hours: Dinner nightly, 5-9 p.m.; Su, 10 a.m.-1 p.m.
Liquor: Full Service
Recommended Dishes: Raw oysters, escargot, reasonably priced wine list.
February 10, 2006
La Caille is all about atmosphere, not food
By Mary Brown Malouf
The high-bosomed-hostess had barely seated us when one of my companions jumped up from his chair as if he had sat on a tack. Well, a nail. A knickered waiter immediately reseated my friend, carried off the broken chair and, kneeling just outside the French doors by our table, proceeded to repair the chair with a handy meat-tenderizing hammer.
Our La Caille balloon had been popped.
High-end -- read expensive -- restaurants work hard to create a memorable experience, a temporary respite from the working day. A restaurant's atmosphere is a crucial, and often elusive component of a dining experience. We pay for it willingly . . . up to a point.
Like the point of that nail, for instance.
La Caille is legendary among Salt Lake restaurants. I've been hearing about it since before I moved to Utah -- the winding, stately avenue through 22 acres of manicured grounds, the mute swans gliding on the lake, the peacocks strutting in the yard, the chateau-like building festooned with glittering Christmas lights, the servers' costumes straight out of "Beauty and the Beast" -- women in full skirts and low-cut peasant blouses, men in knickers and puffy shirts.
People come to La Caille to celebrate significant anniversaries, big-digit birthdays and to host out-of-town guests. It is a popular place on Valentine's Day to get engaged or married. Most people spend their adjectives on the atmosphere, not the food or service.
La Caille is romantic; the food is not.
So for a restaurant critic, La Caille is a challenge because it's not about the food. La Caille is an event, like Disneyland or a Caribbean cruise or "Beauty and the Beast on Ice." A song with some dancing soup spoons would be more suitable than a black and white review. But words are what I have.
La Caille is exorbitantly expensive and dinner takes several hours. For this review, I dined at La Caille the way most guests do; I visited only once, though with three others, so I tasted a dozen dishes.
First to arrive was a complimentary amuse-bouche of shredded smoked duck and overcooked, mushy wild rice in a tiny pastry roll. Then, a selection of modest Bonny Doon Red ($20) from a wonderfully low-priced wine list. Finally, to the meal.
The extravagant setting had not led us to expect subtlety from La Caille, so the menu, a compilation of greatest hits from the era of continental cuisine, did not surprise.
Every clichéd luxury dish is listed. For appetizers: escargots, foie gras, shrimp cocktail, onion soup, lobster bisque, paté, oysters on the half shell, crab cakes, carpaccio . . . all at least $10 each.
A dozen oysters ($15), their shells nested cleverly in a plate of three-inch-thick solid ice, was impressive. The oysters were fresh and mild. The snails (escargots bourguignon, $14) were nicely tender and tasted as garlicky as they are supposed to. Baked onion soup ($10), although its sweetness led me to suspect the cook hurried the onions' caramelization with a bit of sugar, was hot in its crock under a traditional lid of soggy toast and melted cheese.
The Hudson Valley foie gras ($16.50), slices served on toast next to an array of 17 red grape halves, was rich and gorgeously fat, but it lacked the crusty silkiness that seared foie gras should have. It needed a hotter, faster fire.
And here, between courses, I have to bring up another balloon-popper. For such an expensive menu, the language is oddly amateurish, a strange pidgin of culinary French, Italian and English that deflates the attempted sophistication. My foie gras was cooked in "juice de veau," for example. Chicken was called "poulet piccata pomodoro," I suppose that's Franco-Italian?
Appetizer servings were enormous, followed by an interlude of four possible salads: romaine hearts, Roquefort and Asiago; avocado, crab and grapefruit; wilted spinach; and caprese -- mozzarella and out-of-season pink tomatoes.
The enormity continued with a rack of lamb platter - eight ribs -- arrived locking their frenched bones like battling rams. Unfortunately, it was New Zealand lamb. Why, when we live in a state that grows its own? The overly mild meat was properly rare, the accompanying melange of vegetables were crisp, the jelly was mint, the price, $57, was gargantuan. The whole plate tasted pedestrian and for that amount of money, I expect a serious flight of genius.
For comparison, at Aurora, a premier Dallas dining spot owned by internationally acclaimed chef Avner Samuel, roast rib and filet of Colorado lamb with thyme flowers, truffled potatoes and artichoke barigoule is presented on a domed platter by a personal waiter for $11 less than this rack.
Grilled tournedos of beef ($51) were limp and not seared -- again, a cooking temperature miscalculation. The accompanying béarnaise sauce came inelegantly in a little ramekin. A huge fan of at least two breasts worth of properly rosy duck slices ($50), enough to serve the table, fortunately overwhelmed the heady-sounding cognac-amaretto-port-ginger-and-fruit sauce. Vaunted Veuve Clicquot champagne was wasted in the acidic sauce on the veal ($49). There is also salmon, prime rib, pork and tuna to be had. Everything you would expect on an expensive continental menu is accounted for, except imagination. This is a menu that requires a cook, not a chef.
Dessert is more spectacle than flavor -- four of nine choices (all $16) are flambéed. Crepes suzette were thick and flabby while the meringue-spiked Alaska was baked by the book.
A restaurant needs to offer more than expensive groceries and a pretty place to justify prices like those on La Caille's menu. Those groceries should be alchemized by a chef's imagination and expertise. And those who serve the food should be highly knowledgable and thoroughly trained -- a low-cut blouse and a cute face are not enough.
Altogether, La Caille delivers a memorable experience, but a forgettable meal. You're paying for the faux chateau and the atmosphere -- for the fantasy, not the food.
Tribune's rating system
1 star Good
2 stars Very good
3 stars Excellent
4 stars Extraordinary
$ Entree under $10
$$$$ Above $25
1 bell Quiet (under 65 decibles)
2 bells Can talk easily (65-70)
3 bells Talking somewhat difficult (70-75)
4 bells Raised voices (75-80)
A bomb Too noisy for normal conversation (80+)
The Tribune covers the cost of all meals at reviewed restaurants. Star ratings are based on a minimum of two visits. Ratings are updated continually based on at least one revisit. There is no connection between reviews and advertising.