Originally on the Downtown SLC blog.
Eat: Ten courses, which are both art and food.
Play: Urban playground
Ramble: SLC grows up.
I love finding proof that our city is growing up. The latest piece of evidence is between State & Main on 400 S. Once a knife shop, the new Nata Gallery space is part restaurant and part art gallery. The name is sort of a play on “It’s not a ___”. Abbot & Costello would have a field day with this name. Putting aside the things Nata is not, let’s focus on what it is and what it means to our community.
Opening up a business that specializes in just one thing is hard to do – even if it is top-notch quality. Attempting to pull off two concepts, at a high level, is downright challenging. Salt Lakers have grown a refined palate in the past decade –eateries who focus as much attention to taste as they do presentation, ambiance and décor, such as Copper Onion, Palllet, Tin Angel and Forage, are proof of that. Their menus include components I need to google to figure out what they are: that’s my signal a dish is going to be good!! Nata is betting our local dining scene is ready for more, by raising the ante beyond the menu to an entirely new dining concept.
Pop Up to Root Down
Nata grew out of a pop-up restaurant concept, where chefs new to the scene can experiment dishes in available space – be it a restaurant on a day it’s normally closed, a gallery space or sometimes a large home. Chefs Katie Weinner and Mike Burtis created the wildly successful SLC POP and used that momentum to launch a more permanent home. The transformed gallery space is permanent, but the hours are not. You can book a private dinner any night, but for more traditional reserved dining, you’ll have to scoop up one of the 6-8 evenings offered each month. This is a smart move. Restaurants lose a lot of money on slow nights, but by driving demand to a few nights Katie and Mike can plan overhead, staffing and costs appropriately to keep careful track of that delicate revenue balance.
One of the biggest differences you’ll notice at Nata is that there is not a (pun intended) menu in sight. A server, which is such a limiting word in the context since these pros have made their careers in the gourmet food world, expertly explains the menu which includes about 10 different courses.. Every course is an adventure for the chef as it is for the diner: they find the components for the evolving menu each day. For some of the signature items, a chef will bring the course to your table, explaining that the components consist of a rare species of fish purchased locally from Aquarius, paired with a find from the farmer’s market that morning. The next visit, including the next day, will have a completely different menu. Nata’s concept is not to make you love a single dish on the menu, but to love the experience of a unique meal to keep you coming back.
Everyone is a VIP
Whether it was on a tour of the kitchen, chatting about wine or the last course’s ingredients, you cannot help but notice the individualized attention each table gets – all 6 of them. With only a half dozen tables, everyone feels the VIP treatment. Speaking of wine, vino all-star Beau Jarvis may hold classes and wine-specific events in the coming months.
The idea of a verbal and interactive chef is key when plates feature such exotic ingredients and intensive preparation. Mike and Katie love describing their food, almost in the same way some of use describe our pets or children’s accomplishments. They are proud of what they’ve designed and created; and that sense of excitement is contagious to the diner. Plus, the type of interactive food they serve really needs descriptions! If you eat the unedible part and skip the edible stuff…well you get the point.
On the kitchen tour (every diner is offered a private look at the magic behind the kitchen door), the first thing you notice is that each dish is being prepared on a small single burner stove attached to a propane cylinder. Think car camping, not a Food Network kitchen. When Nata Gallery began, the owners wanted to set themselves up for success and minimize the risk. This is smart, as just around the corner another restaurant opened with a $100k+ renovation and promptly closed less than 6 months later deep in the red. The flexibility by starting really small allows them to see which concepts stick and which do not, then execute a scalable plan based on proven success – not on a whim.
Nata gives back as much as it receives – likely more. Rising culinary students, many of whom Katie teaches in her other full-time teaching job, are given the opportunity to work in the kitchen. They gain a valuable experience as a chef, but also a first-hand look at smart business. It’s not an (Nata) internship, but more of an experience exchange rate, if you will.
Family and friends helped paint, clean and shop frugally for plates and glassware. Without a trust fund to bankroll hits and misses, hard work in each aspect of an operation is the only way. The community has a way to give back in ways beyond simply showing up for a meal, such as through Kickstarter programs which create synergy above and beyond a typical customer relationship.
Downtown is the Place
In talking with Katie, she is adamant this concept would not work anywhere but downtown. The space in which Nata “works” is not found in the suburbs, nor is the foot traffic, that drives the awareness. Location will be one of the main driving forces to bring them to the next level when they plan to open the doors to the public next fall. The old real estate adage “Location, location, location,” is as important as the Nata triumvirate of “art, food and dining concept.” It’s not like anything Salt Lake has scene before. It’s Nata.
February 14th Menu
Hot and Cold: Raspberry and Thai Basil Beverage
Trio of Amuses: BLT, Peas-in-a-Pod, Strawberry-Black Olive Crostini
Caramelized Onion, Macintosh Apple, Bacon Cream Soup
Moroccan Mascarpone Orzo
Citrus Rainbow, Pea Tendrils and Fennel, Rabbit-Rattlesnake Sausage
Beet Gnocchi, Goat-Bleu Cheese, Cara-Cara Oranges, Red Walnut
Mong Chong with Sunchoke Veloute and Abalone Mushrooms
Russian Tea with Popping and Fizzy
PB and Jelly: Concord Grape-Curry Leave Gelee with Peanut Butter and White Chocolate Powder
Smoked Cheesecake with Avocado Mousse, Passion Fruit Curd, Bergamot Chocolate
Basil Gelato with Balsamic-Roasted Strawberries and Cabernet