Restaurants tend to be as every bit ephemeral as the dishes they serve. In a world where today’s bus boy is tomorrow’s sous chef – a restaurant is very much an ensemble piece, a fluid orchestra of players carefully conducted.
At HSL in Salt Lake City, Briar Handly is the maestro, marshaling together an incredibly talented team. Handly himself is a skilled chef, indeed as owner-exec chef for Park City’s Handle he’s been recognized time and again for his cuisine. Crucially, no amount of personal plaudits has stopped him assembling a stunning lineup of personnel at HSL, his second Utah operation.
The team has plenty of names you might recognize: Craig Gerome, Tim Smith (who case in point, is soon to be moving on), Drew Fuller, Alexa Norlin; who count former employers as no less than Spruce, Pallet, Pago and Under Current respectively. Scott Gardner crafted the initial bar program and I’ve spotted faces from both Provisions and BTG among the service and bar crew to name just two.
The team spirit comes through the moment you speak to any of the crew, “We take our staff meal for our employees very seriously,” explains chef de cuisine, Craig Gerome. “We make sure everyone is fed before their shift and given time to eat, and believe me, we go all out. Cooks come in early just to put out a banging meal for the staff.”
I’ve waxed lyrical about Gerome before, indeed I recently wrote a profile of Gerome for Utah Stories. In his move to HSL, he’s continued to hone the type of cooking I love; precise, clever, mindful, not necessarily wrapped up in the kale du jour. In fact, his thoughtfulness to ingredients and sourcing is a constant joy – especially in a world where folks seem to be convinced local is always best (hint: it’s not, you’re wrong and shut up). A recent meal saw the ad hoc, table side introduction of shaved truffles, because they were fresh in. And because, why the hell not.
That’s not to say Utah products and producers don’t make a showing when it makes sense, they do. Gerome counts Philip Grubisa – butcher-owner of Beltex Meats – as close friend and former colleague, and utilizes their products often; don’t miss the soft cooked duck egg that comes with nduja, a spreadable salami seasoned with imported calabria chili powder. Local farms like Ranui in Park City regularly appear on the menu, as do impromptu shipments from farmers markets and foragers.
The wood fired brick oven of former tenant Vinto, hasn’t hurt the menu either. As Gerome puts it, “The wood oven has been food to us. We roast as much as we can in there.” For example the micro-seasonal grain dish features ash roasted vegetables that can change on a daily basis. The scored veggies are tossed onto red hot coals for every last bite of flavor. With fall and winter set to flurry over menus, I’d expect that oven to power some muscular winter cuisine in the months ahead.
For her own part in crafting the dessert menu, Norlin is every match her talented colleagues. From Park City to Canada and then to Chicago and The French Pastry School – we should all be thankful the next move on her journey was back home to Utah.
During her first couple of years back in town, Norlin could be found at The Rose Establishment. From there an invite from Mikel Trapp took her to the Trio Group. The opportunity with Trapp’s growing restaurant portfolio allowed Norlin to spread her creative wings. “My position with the Trio group grew slowly. First I was just over Fresco, then both of the Trio restaurants. We then merged with the Lasalle group, so I took over both Caffe Niche and Faustina. We were gearing up for Current for quite some time. Opening Current was great because Mikel trusted me. I never thought I’d get away with the Yuzu Posset (citrus custard with rosemary and olive oil powder), but it was a hit! The fact that it was a success shows SLC really is growing into a culinary focused city.”
When the call came in from Handly to join the setup at HSL, her next move was instantly clear, “Briar is someone I have looked up to, even before I met him personally. There aren’t many chefs like him in a small city like ours, and I think what he is doing for the culinary world speaks volumes about who he is as a cook, as a leader, and as a human.”
Just like Gerome, Norlin is also quick to underscore the value of the camaraderie at HSL, “We’re a small team, but such a good team. I have learned so much since being here. Drew Fuller, former chef de cuisine of Pago, pushes me a lot. Maybe push is the wrong word, but he is very honest and upfront which makes me push myself to be better. I love having people around with different perspectives”.
As for her own part of the menu at HSL, “It really is ever changing, I believe that everything can always be better. I love taking an every day things and making them totally different. The opening menu for example, I had a “rhubarb hand pie” but it was actually a fried pie in cube form, and was completely vegan. I like being able to put all the flavors of something on a plate, but in totally different forms than you would expect. I’ve always wanted to do a ‘flavors of gin’ or flavors of negroni’ dessert.”
I’ll take three please.
Very rarely does a restaurant manage to hit all the perfect notes, let alone rhythm, but that’s happening at HSL right now. And it’s why you should beg, steal and borrow, do whatever it takes – to get a seat ASAP. And yes, I’m done with the tortured musical metaphors.
Surprisingly, HSL still hasn’t fully hit the mainstream radar and securing a table is relatively easy most week nights. Word is starting to catch on though, skip forward a year from now, and I guarantee seats will be immeasurably harder to come by. Go now.
418 E 200 S Salt Lake City, UT 84111
Founder, writer and wrangler at Gastronomic SLC and The Utah Review. Former restaurant critic at the Salt Lake Tribune. Stuart is largely fueled by Uinta Cutthroat, alliteration and the use of too many big words he doesn’t understand. Ate all the pies.