The Tin Angel Café
365 West 400 South
Salt Lake City, Utah
Lunch: Mon. – Sat. 11 am – 3 pm
Dinner: Mon. – Thurs. 5 pm – 9 pm, Fri. – Sat. 5 pm – 10 pm
Now starting their fifth year, The Tin Angel is Salt Lake’s best groovy dining experience for the sophisticated but subversive, a home to dishes with a progressive food attitude. The restaurant is set in a converted 19th Century house with a new enclosed dining room, which opens onto a patio in warm weather. Progressive and groovy restaurants are my favorite kind—in the ’80s, I worked at the best, forward-thinking, handmade food eatery in Logan: Center Street Restaurant, where I had the honor of washing dishes for the likes of Vincent Price and Ben Vereen. It was my introduction to the small, local café experience, with food that was unusual, made from scratch, and excellent.
The Tin Angel began with the ambition of a couple of young scenesters, Kestrel Liedke and her best friend Robin Fairchild, who dreamed about their project for years. Where to place their ambitions and how to present their particular artistic vision for scene and experience in Salt Lake became a reality when Kestrel married chef Jerry Liedtke. Jerry, having set up more than a few restaurants in town and out, and having worked in fine kitchens in Europe and at resorts, had a firm idea about menus and what makes a kitchen succeed. The women had the gumption to make it happen. Thus was born one of Salt Lake’s culinary no-brainers—The Tin Angel Café.
Part of what makes The Tin Angel great is its commitment to being a part of the city. Not that there isn’t anything here that can’t be found elsewhere, but there is nothing like it anywhere else, at least not here and now. It is firmly placed back in time, and in a different place. It is a homey-style space in a lived-in corner of Salt Lake bohemia. Positively Fourth Street Studios, once The Painted Word, and then, The Word, and before both of those Raunch Records, have all inhabited the red brick building next door. Before I was legal to drink in bars, I would walk from the University to The Word regularly for shows and coffee. Before that, when I was in high school, I would drive up with friends from Logan to buy records at Raunch. In my heart, this corner is a Soho, or Alphabet City, or Haight Ashbury to Salt Lake City. It has been bad and it has been good, and usually both at the same time.
The Tin Angel also has the great advantage of being located near one of the best places for procuring the freshest and highest quality in local produce. During the summertime, the Farmer’s Market is located right across the street, which only serves to make their mission to provide as much locally sourced and seasonal food more possible. Jerry’s cooking is somewhat autodidactic and intuitive, cooked on the fly with a surprising skill and finesse. He’s taken the right lessons away from the various kitchens he’s managed and worked in as a chef over the years. The cuisine is firmly based in great traditional cooking and spices. When an innovation occurs, it’s a little serif on a beautiful typeface. Different, but not indifferently applied. The food is priced appropriately for the high-quality, hand-selected nature of the ingredients, and the portions are European-sized and thoughtfully presented.
Although I have enjoyed a range of dishes over the years, I think the Risotto Tempranillo ($18.50) is regularly the best risotto in town; add Duck Confit or Wagyu Short Ribs ($6) as a perfect foil for the delectable vegetables cooked just to the edge of crisp. Valentine’s Day found me eating here, where my table was adorned with fresh flowers from Tri-Fecta. I had Halibut, which Jerry said was really spendy and sourced especially for the meal. It was the very best fish I have had in Utah—fresh, soft and flavorful. My mouth pulled me back to San Francisco in 1982, to the other really great Halibut I’ve eaten. The pre-fixed meal included blue marlin, which was interesting, but not a lot different from shark. I should have gotten the clam chowder like my girl did. It was slightly floral under the rich coastal flavors. The desserts, particularly the Bread Pudding and Pear and Caramel Tart Brulee (both $7) are serious, subtle and not too rich. These are sweets for a dark chocolate temperament.
Lunches at The Tin Angel are dominated by some great sandwiches: The Cuban Panini ($10.50) is one of the few Cubans in this town, and it’s a pork delight; the flavor finishes with homemade pickle. I don’t know why every eatery doesn’t have a signature pickled vegetable—it’s always a joy to eat a new one. The House Roasted Lamb Ciabbata ($11.50) has an earthy satisfaction at its core—the enzymatic flavors of feta and the mature flavor of lamb are a great combination. This old-world set of flavors just calls for a big tannic wine.
The wine and cocktail list is right in the pocket. Not too many vintages to choose from, and most of the labels are available by the glass or bottle. Wine is $7 a glass as a rule, and a healthy list of theme cocktails are about $8. Try the Bloody Angel ($6) with Scotty’s pickled vegetables on a Saturday Brunch.
All restaurants have an ambience, often not intentionally directed, but there nonetheless. The Tin Angel feels like it is wheeling between freedom from direction and some pretty masterful special effects. One of the things I like in a restaurant, emotionally, is a feeling of trust, which requires that the service is watchful and the food is dependably very good—a place where time flies or doesn’t, but the dining and conversation is outside of any concern for time. That’s how I feel while I dine in these petal and vegetable-colored rooms with their quaint place-settings and comfortable chairs. The island kitchen, visible to diners in the front room, is small and seems to be set on a promontory. One’s view of Jerry and crew is like watching puppet masters above the curtain. You know the magic is there, because you taste and feel it, but you only indirectly watch it happening, clouds over a neighboring village, dropping rain or streaming sunshine. A Kabuki kitchen—gestures and facial expressions tell you of the hidden knife and sizzling pan.