The little restaurant that could

January 2, 2008

By Vanessa Chang
Salt lake tribune

Quaint dining room and eclectic menu using as many local, organic and seasonal goods from neighborhood purveyors as possible.

Cuisine: American, Eclectic
Price: $$$
Hours: M-Th, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; 5-9 p.m.; F-S, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; 5-10 p.m.
Liquor: Full Service
Corkage: $ 8
Reservations: Recommended/required
Accepts: Visa, Mastercard, American Express, Discover
Website: http://www.thetinangel.com
Recommended Dishes: Poached pear and Gorgonzola salad, harissa-glazed pork with persimmon chutney, gnocchi in a Gorgonzola cream sauce and crispy-around-the-edges homey bread pudding.

The bitter cold has a way of painfully amplifying things, whether it's a vapory breath or the misery of a slushy morning commute. It's around this time of year when your tummy doesn't merely grumble. It thunders, demanding attention and copious amounts of warming, filling food. And a fussy meal orchestrated by contrived service is the least appealing thing I can think of as a diner.

As I walked across the Tin Angel Café's parking lot on a recent evening, I thought this could be an antidote to the winter blues. Warm light glowed from the snow-crusted window frames. Inside, the dining area is cozy and -- especially when it's full -- warm in temperature and color as the walls are slathered in various saturated hues. The

service is straightforward and amiable in a genuine way. And the food is unfussy with a bit of flair.

This is the Tin Angel. And it's literally the house that co-owners Robin Fairchild, Kestrel Liedtke and husband/chef Jerry Liedtke built. It would be easy to label it "bohemian." But in my book, "genuine" is more appropriate. Whether it comes to music, visual art, food or wine, the co-owners share an artistic soul, and it shows in their restaurant.

Laid-back is the predominant vibe, as if you're at a friend's house for a meal. And this friend happens to have a wicked sense of style and a good dose of self-confidence and likes to play around in the kitchen. The renovated 1860s house space was lovingly converted by the co-owners, complete with furniture from the Liedtke household. Funky without being over-the-top, it has a hand-hewn quality that hits home, especially when the dining room soundtrack plays Yann Tiersen's award-winning score for Jean-Pierre Jeunet's film "Amélie."

It's a fixture for artists and musicians who are often friends of Fairchild and Kestrel Liedtke, who oversee the front of house. They immediately put you at ease. The walls display the work of local artists in various mediums.

Every week, the restaurant features live music -- though you don't need an artistic bone in your body to appreciate the concise wine list featuring quality organic vintages from around the world ($7 glass; $28 bottle) and the comforting bread pudding ($5) or a wonderfully boozy tiramisu ($5) constructed by sous chef John Prescott.

As they state on their Web site, blog and MySpace page, the owners strive to use as much as they can of local, organic and seasonal goods from neighborhood purveyors. That means farmers' market produce picked up just across the street at Pioneer Park (when it's in season) for wonderfully (and simply) prepared side vegetables, fresh linguine from Pete's Pasta as sides for chicken marsala ($18), and good southern European building blocks from Caputo's Market, where they get gnocchi ($8) and douse it in Gorgonzola cream sauce for a decadent starter. Never outrageously portioned, it's still generous and belly-filling for the low temperatures.

Admittedly, Jerry Liedtke's menu sits on the pricier side, and that's been the main complaint I've encountered among some folks who check out the place. But considering the effort he and sous chef Casey Schulte go to for ingredients, I can reconcile the numbers. Who am I to argue with a local restaurant using goods from other local businesses? I like the idea of a true neighborhood restaurant.

Still, it may be hard to convince Tin Angel newbies who aren't into the idea of eating organic and/or local that it's worth the price, especially if they happened to try the chicken piccata first ($18). Compared with the décor and personality of our server, it was bland, crying out for salt and some more citrus tang. The accompanying broccolini were excellent, but hardly made up for the meal. The same was true in a luxurious-sounding sage roast chicken pasta ($14). The sauce was way too thin for such rich chicken and perfectly al dente penne pasta.

But taking a cue from the art that hangs on its walls, you get that it isn't a temple of epic masterpieces. It's more indicative of the creative energy pulsing through this urban pocket. The charm and local flavor, if you will, really do shine in a hearty harissa-glazed pork with persimmon chutney ($24). And salads are winter appropriate with chunks of Gorgonzola lending umami to sweet poached pears in a salad sprinkled with candied almonds ($8) and svelte gossamer strips of parmesan and arugula in the bresaola (air-dried beef) carpaccio ($8). And the wild mushroom risotto ($19), complete with a fantastic array of baby carrots and more broccolini, would truly sing if the truffle oil were omitted and replaced with a bit of the more intensely fragrant truffle butter. Sweater food, made super luxurious.

I wouldn't mind a bit paying extra for it.

Rating

Overall 2.5
Food 2.5
Mood 3
Service 2
Kid-friendly YES
Noise 2

   Tribune's rating system

   Overall rating
   1 star Good
   2 stars Very good
   3 stars Excellent
   4 stars Extraordinary
   Entree price
   $ Entree under $10
   $$ $10-$18
   $$$ $18-$25
   $$$$ Above $25
   Restaurant Noise
   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+)