First Look :: Handle in Park City

The restaurant business is kind of like an elaborate game of musical chairs with chefs, bartenders, and managers moving from one place to the next.  Keeping track of everyone during the Game of Chefs can sometimes be confusing, but a good chef will make headlines wherever he or she goes, so they’re bound to turn up eventually.

Recently in the game, chef Briar Handly moved from his acclaimed spot at Talisker on Main to opening his own restaurant, Handle.  Handle is in Park City, just down the street from Talisker.  The small plates restaurant serves an evolving menu of incredibly creative dishes using locally-sourced ingredients.  In fact, they often post on their facebook page where their ingredients are from.  Talk about local.

Handle in Park City.

Handle in Park City.

Handle is hidden inside the strip mall at the bottom of Main Street, but there are enough signs to make it visible from the street.  Depending on where you’re seated inside the restaurant, you may forget you’re not in a freestanding restaurant.  Unfortunately, our table was next to an indoor window with a view of the mall’s interior–a constantly awkward reminder that we were in a strip mall.  Had we been sitting at the bar facing the juxtaposed rows of wine bottles, near the windows facing outside, or at the bar peering into the kitchen, it would have been much better.

Roasted pork belly at Handle in Park City.

The roasted pork belly was so good we ordered two!

But once our food starting coming, the interior view was far from our minds.  The New American menu is full of small plates designed to be shared among the table, although I found a few of them to be very small “small plates.”  A couple were difficult to split even between two of us.  The Roasted Pork Belly ($16) was tortuously small, mostly because it was so ridiculously good with its intense juiciness and maple flavor.  (We ordered two plates to compensate since one order only allotted about two bites of pork each.)

Cauliflower in buffalo hot wing fashion at Handle in Park City.

The cauliflower in buffalo hot wing fashion was a favorite.

The menu is bluntly vague, creating a conversation opportunity with your server.  If you’re lucky, you’ll get the server we had (I believe his name is Erickson), who expertly described each dish, told us favorites, and directed us toward dishes we couldn’t leave without ordering.  One was the Cauliflower ($8), brined and coated the same as buffalo hot wings and served with blue cheese, they had the spicy essence of buffalo wings without the mess.  I’ll echo our server: do not leave Handle without a plate of these!

Chef Briar Handly's award-winning trout sausage at Handle in Park City.

Chef Briar Handly’s award-winning trout sausage.

Another server-recommended must have was the Smoked Trout Sausage ($12), a house-made sausage stuffed with pieces of local trout that won Chef Briar a place at the Great American Seafood Cookoff in Louisiana.  The light sausage had a hint of trout flavor, while maintaining the stability of a traditional sausage, served with a light corn pudding gravy and summer vegetables.

The melon dish at Handle in Park City.

Melon, peaches, and Creminelli Coppa.

From the Cold section of the menu (it’s divided into cold, hot, and hearty categories), we ordered the Melon ($12): peaches and melons topped with thin slices of salty Creminelli Coppa and bits of basil.  It was amazing–and I’m not even a fan of fruit!  The saltiness of the salami balanced the sweetness of the fruit that I normally don’t like and together it was heaven.

Grilled baby octopus at Handle in Park City.

Another can’t miss dish is the grilled baby octopus.

We also had Grilled Baby Octopus ($14) with romaine hearts and charred eggplant ricotta in a creamy Caesar dressing.  I loved the tender octopus with just enough dressing to add flavor but not take away from the octopus.

We ended with Beignets ($12), fluffy balls of fried dough stuffed with rice Krispies and served a chocolate dipping sauce.  I appreciated the lightness after our meal but wished they were sweeter (what can I say, I have a never-ending sweet tooth!).

Beignets at Handle in Park City.

Dessert: Beignets with chocolate sauce.

The hearty section of the menu had to be skipped, but I can’t wait to try the Fried Chicken to share (with potato salad, $36) or the Pork Rib Chop with roasted fennel and goat cheese ($28).

Handle was definitely a hit.  If their debut menu is this incredible, I can only imagine how amazing the dishes Chef Briar will create in the future.  I’m keeping this restaurant on my radar, cause this one is going places.

Go to Handle for :: a meal of incredibly awesome, ridiculously creative small plates.  Notes :: Handle is currently open Wed-Saturday, 6 pm-close, plus Sunday brunch starting at noon-9 pm.  Reservations are accepted online here or call 435-602-1155.

Handle on Urbanspoon

6 Tips for Dining Out Alone

Last week I booked a trip to Prague for Christmas that extends into Vienna through New Year’s.  I have tickets to see several operas in each city (even the impossibly difficult to obtain Vienna State Opera) and tickets for the New Year’s Silvester Ball at the Hofburg Palace.  And I’m going on the entire trip alone.

This won’t be my first completely solo trip.  A few years ago I ventured to Montréal by myself and the weekend was a complete dream (well, after the hiccup with a cancelled flight leaving me stranded overnight in Minneapolis).  I regularly go to New York City alone and last year spent New Years in Washington DC by myself.

Whenever people find out I travel alone, the first question they ask always surprises me: Is it weird to eat out alone?

6 Tips for Dining Out Alone

Having beer and dinner (alone) at Birch & Barley in Washington, DC.

I’m always shocked that it’s not the 10+ hour flight, not having anyone to talk to, or wandering through an unfamiliar city alone at night that makes people nervous.  It’s eating at a restaurant, surrounded by other people eating, that people find intimidating.  Which, in my mind, is the least intimidating thing about traveling alone!

I will admit that the first time I ate out alone I felt a little crazy.  Especially when I challenged myself to do it at home in Salt Lake City, where I was bound to run into someone I knew and where, frankly, hardly anyone dines alone.  But it’s actually incredibly enjoyable and relaxing.  To help prove my point, here are 6 tips for dining out alone (whether you’re on vacation or not):

The bar at Les 400 Coups in Montreal.

Sitting at the bar solo at Les 400 Coups in Montréal. The mirror gave me a peek at the other diners–and, in this photo, my reflection.

1. Ask for the Scenic Seat. 
Proudly tell the hostess that you’re dining alone, then request a seat with a view, whether it’s near the window overlooking the street or one with a peek into the kitchen to watch the chef in action.  A lot of restaurants like to put one-top tables at the bar to save larger tables for more people, so they may put you in view of the bartender before you even request it.

2. Or don’t.  
Sometimes sitting at the bar is the worst place in the restaurant, especially if you’re there to really enjoy the food.  It seems like whenever I’m trying to get lost in my meal while I’m sitting at the bar, the other solo diners are anxious to strike up a conversation.  Sitting at a regular table prevents the awkward small talk from happening.  However, I’ll note that I’ve made some friends by sitting at the bar, like in Montréal when I actually ended up hanging out with my fellow bar-mate and her friends the next night.

3. Resist the urge to be on your phone.
I know the default mode these days is to constantly be on your phone, but resist that urge even though you’re eating alone.  Yes, there is an endless world of entertainment at your fingertips, but enjoy the moment and put your phone away.  It really is possible to enjoy your own company, so relax and challenge yourself not to be on your phone during your meal.

Caviar at Rogue 24 in Washington, DC.

Savoring every bite of the 24 course meal I had alone at Rogue 24 in Washington, DC.

4. Really taste your food.
Since you’re not distracted by your phone and you’re not deep in conversation with anyone, take the opportunity to truly indulge in your meal and taste every flavor on your plate.  Some of the most memorable meals of my life have been when I’ve been eating alone, probably because I had nothing else to do but really savor each bite.

5. Take your time.
One of the things I’ve noticed when I eat alone is that I tend to eat really quickly, probably because I’m not pausing for conversation and because it feels a little awkward to be sitting there doing nothing.  So I’ve learned to challenge myself to eat slowly and not shovel food in.  In addition to tip no. 4, put your fork down between bites, people-watch those around you (not in a creepy way!), and take in the moment.  Breathe; it’s not a race.

6. Realize no one is watching you.
It’s easy to think that other diners are watching you thinking it’s weird you’re eating alone, when in reality no one even notices.  When I went to a five-course dinner on Valentine’s Day by myself, I worried people would think it was weird I was solo on the biggest date night of the year.  But people are busy enjoying their own dinners, distracted by their own lives and they don’t even notice that there’s a random person eating alone.  So relax!  You’ll never see them again anyway.

Toque in Montreal.

Making friends with my fellow solo diner at Toque! in Montréal. We even hung out together the next night!

The bottom line is to enjoy yourself.  Order the weird appetizer none of your friends would like and splurge on the tasting menu for once.  I love sharing a meal with people but dining alone has its perks too!

I admit that not everyone is comfortable taking a trip alone (especially to the other side of the world over a family-oriented holiday), but I do encourage–no, challenge–you to go out to dinner alone.  Take yourself on a date and you’ll realize that it’s not half as scary as you think!

And then the next time you need someone to eat with, let me know.  I’m always in the mood for food!

Random Acts of Kelliness Named One of the Top Food Blogs in Utah

I am thrilled to share that Random Acts of Kelliness was named one of the top food blogs in Utah by Utah Stories magazine!  Utah Stories is a local magazine focused on news, events, and businesses throughout the state.

Utah Stories September 2014 Issue Blogs Good Enough to Eat

The article, written by the editors of the magazine, celebrated local food blogs and said that “writing about fine food and leading-edge chefs is not easy.  This is why we at Utah Stories have the utmost respect for the rising, cream-of-the-crop food bloggers.”  What they wrote about my blog was even more flattering:

“Kelli Nakagama’s slogan, “Eat Well.  Travel Often.  Enjoy Life,” is also an apt description of her website.  Kelli covers food, travel and events.  Her images are clear and crisp and showcase each item beautifully.  Her food/restaurant reviews provide just the right amount of detail for informed dining choices.”

Random Acts of Kelliness was listed as the number 4 food blog alongside some of my food-loving friends: Gastronomic SLC, Amanda Eats SLC, Billy Yang, and Heartbeat Nosh.  Check them out!

Utah Stories is available for free at restaurants, coffee shops, newsstands, and random places throughout the state.  The entire article is available to read online here.

Holsteins in Las Vegas

It used to be that “food” in Las Vegas translated to “all-you-can-eat buffets” with endless rows of troughs to graze upon.  Now “food” is more likely to mean “high-end cuisine,” with meals made by big name chefs with checks mirroring the cost of your hotel room.  Or at least that’s the appearance of the food scene based on most of the culinary buzz coming out of Sin City.

But don’t let the food magazines fool you; there are plenty of places on The Strip serving awesome food without having to win big on the craps table just to afford it.  Holsteins in Las Vegas’ Cosmopolitan Hotel is one of those places.

The Nom Nom Burger at Holsteins in the Cosmopolitan Hotel, Las Vegas.

The Nom Nom Burger at Holsteins.

Holsteins is primarily a burger joint, but they’ve upped the ante with swanky sauces and unique toppings layered in creative combinations.  I’m talking toppings like tempura avocados, whiskey barbecue sauce, tomato confit, and foie gras.

However, their reputation is based on their booze-filled shakes, lest you forget that in Las Vegas you should be constantly consuming alcohol at all times (or that’s what it seems).  The shakes cover the classic ground, like Oreo with Bailey’s Irish Cream ($13) and Grasshopper with Créme de Menthe ($13), and evolve to elaborate concoctions like Tiramisu (mascarpone ice cream, ladyfinger crumbs, Patron XO Café Dark, chocolate syrup, cocoa powder, espresso beans, $13) and Brown Cow Float (Smirnoff Whipped Cream Vodka, root beer, vanilla ice cream, pop rocks, $12).

If you prefer your alcohol with less calories, they have a huge selection of beers (both bottles, draft, and growlers), a suitable number of wines, and a cocktail list of creative creations.  As with most places in the city, it’s not difficult to get a buzz going (or maintain one from earlier).

The Gold Standard Burger paired with sweet potato fries at Holsteins in the Cosmopolitan Hotel, Las Vegas.

The Gold Standard Burger paired with sweet potato fries.

Back to the burgers: these babies are sizable stacks of meat and goodness, served with fries (substitute onion rings or sweet potato fries for $2).  I ordered the classic, called Gold Standard, a dry-aged beef sirloin burger topped with smoked bacon, goat cheese, tomato confit, arugula, and a garlic/chive aioli on a house-made bun ($18.50).  It was deliciously juicy, with a slight hint of sweetness from the tomato confit.  Paired with sweet potato fries, it was perfect.

The Nom Nom Burger (pictured at top) was the table’s most popular pick, a Kobe beef patty with cheddar cheese, potato chips, and 1000 Island Dressing ($17.50).  One friend added a fried egg on hers (+$1), which rounded out the crunchy, sweet/tangy, gooey-melty, juicy meaty flavors.

The Rising Sun Burger at Holsteins in the Cosmopolitan Hotel, Las Vegas.

The Rising Sun Burger with tempera avocados.

We also ordered The Rising Sun, another Kobe beef option but with a much sweeter profile, thanks to the teriyaki glaze, nori furikake (a seaweed-flavored seasoning), crispy yams, tempera avocados, and spicy mayonnaise.  Normally sweet style burgers aren’t my thing, but the spicy mayo and textured avocado were interesting enough to make me a fan.

For the beef adverse, Holsteins serves a lamb burger in a gyro-like fashion (with tzatziki sauce and feta, called Big Fat Greek, $18), a salmon-based sandwich (with cabbage slaw and Creole mustard, dubbed Blackened Salmon Po’ Boy, $17), a classic chicken club ($16), and a vegan-friendly burger with a house-made vegan patty ($13).  Or there’s the Meat Ball Burger with beef, pork, and veal if you want to attack several animals with one sandwich ($15).  Needless to say, the menu covers a lot of ground.

Complimentary buckets of popcorn are delivered with the menu at Holsteins in Las Vegas.

Complimentary buckets of popcorn are delivered with the menu.

Not only were the burgers at Holsteins a hit, the restaurant was casual and comfortable, and the service was unpretentious—always a find in Vegas.  They even sat 13 of us during the dinner rush without a reservation, which is no easy feat.  Next time I have a burger craving in Las Vegas, I’m heading straight to the Cosmopolitan Hotel for Holsteins.

Go to Holsteins for :: a damn good burger and a boozi-licious shake.  Notes :: Located in the Cosmopolitan Hotel on Level 2 near the shopping center.  Open seven days a week at 11 am until midnight or 2 am (depending on the day).  Reservations are accepted via OpenTable online here.

Holsteins on Urbanspoon

Perfection in Passion :: Ransom Spirits

If there is one thing that ties together the people from the food community—the restaurant owners and their staff, the mixologists and chefs, the wine makers and brewmasters and distillers, and even those of us just obsessed with all things edible—it’s actually not food.  Yes, we’re all sitting next to one another clinking glasses in cheers over the cuisine, but the one thing that actually brings us to the same table is passion.

And all of us are willing to follow that passion wherever it may take us.

Ransom Spirits from Oregon.

Ransom Spirits line of gins, grappas, whiskeys and vermouth.

If I’ve learned anything from attending dinners honoring wine makers and food events focused around a single distillery, it’s that the food community is full of passionate people willing to do whatever it takes to follow their dream.  And that desire—nay, obsession—is what makes their product so outstanding.

Tad Seestedt of Ransom Spirits talks during the USBG Cocktail Class at Copper Common in Salt Lake City.

Tad Seestedt of Ransom Spirits talks during the USBG Cocktail Class at Copper Common.

Last week Salt Lake City hosted a special guest of the spirits community, Tad Seestedt of Ransom Spirits.  Ransom Spirits is an amazing company covering ground in the spirit world unlike almost anyone else, making exceptional wines (like Pinot Noir, Grenache, Riesling, and Pinot Gris) to outstanding gins, whiskeys, grappas and vermouth.

Ransom proves you don’t need a narrow focus in order to make an incredible product because every single one of spirits coming out of this Oregon company is spectacular.

Welcome Dish: Compressed melon with cucumber, verbena curd, smoked honey, almond and espelette at Finca in Salt Lake City.

Welcome Bite: Compressed melon, cucumber, verbena curd, smoked honey and almond.

First I had the opportunity to taste through Ransom’s line of hard spirits at the USBG (that’s United States Bartenders’ Guild to you) Cocktail Class with drinks made by some of Salt Lake City’s finest mixologists.  (Seriously, the perks from judging the USBG Campari contest never end!)

Ensalada: Tomato salad with bacon aioli, basil, avocado, grilled squash, pea blossom and nasturtium at Finca in Salt Lake City.

Ensalada: Tomato salad with bacon aioli, basil, avocado, grilled squash, pea blossom and nasturtium.

Tad was on hand to tell us how the name “Ransom” comes from the way he used his life savings (including money from selling his house) to follow his passion to make Grappa, eau de vie, and brandy.  When that didn’t take off, he experimented with grain-based spirits, starting with an Old Tom Gin, then whiskey and vodka.  Then he combined his wine-making skills with his distilling talents for a dry vermouth.

Pescado: Amberjack Crudo, lemon verbena, apricot vinegar, vanilla beets and sea beans at Finca in Salt Lake City.

Pescado: Amberjack Crudo, lemon verbena, apricot vinegar, vanilla beets and sea beans.

Now Ransom spirits is both a vineyard and a distillery, growing majority of the grapes and barley used in its products on its own land in Willamette Valley, Oregon, on a certified organic farm focused on sustainability, historical authenticity, and craftsmanship.  All that care and creativity is apparent in each and every product I tasted.  Even the Grappa, something I never really cared for, was so seductively sexy that I couldn’t believe it.

Tapa: Boar empanadas with Sarsaparilla glaze, smoked cherry and corn relish at Finca in Salt Lake City.

Tapa: Boar empanadas with Sarsaparilla glaze, smoked cherry and corn relish.

After the USBG cocktail class, I went to Finca where Chef Phelix created a pairing dinner utilizing the flavors from Ransom wines and cocktails.  We started with a light compressed melon and cucumber amouse bouche paired with a cocktail of Ransom Old Tim Gin and Ransom Vermouth with a bit of anise and finished in a carbonation machine to create a spritzy, refreshing summer sipper.

Dessert: Arroz con leche, whiskey cream, oatmeal streusel and local peache puree at Finca in Salt Lake City.

Dessert: Arroz con leche, whiskey cream, oatmeal streusel and local peache puree.

Then we had an outrageously delicious tomato salad with bacon aioli and avocado with Ransom Pinot Gris, a beautifully floral wine; followed by amberjack crudo with lemon verbena paired with Ransom Riesling, a refreshingly bright wine with hints of citrus; then incredible boar empanadas with smoked cherries paired with Ransom Pinot Noir, my favorite of the night, a deliciously vibrant wine; and finally peaches and cream paired with a cocktail of Ransom Grappa and Ransom Henry DuYore’s Whiskey.

Tad’s passion is apparent not only in his story (selling everything to make grappa!) but in his success.  And his success is rooted in his passion, as evident by the fact that every bottle of every spirit Ransom is outstanding.

Notes :: Ransom Spirits are available at several restaurants in the city (like Silver, Pallet, BTG Wine bar, Finca, Pago, Fresco, Naked Fish, Bar X, Copper Onion, Copper Common, and more), via special order in Utah (easily done via this link on the DABC website) and if you’re lucky, the downtown wine store often has some on hand.

Related :: Ruth Lewandowski Utah-Made Wines, Judging the USBG Cocktail Competition, and Rosé Wine Dinner at Pago.

Disclaimer :: I was graciously invited to the Ransom Cocktail Class by the Utah Chapter of the USBG and was a guest of the Finca Ransom Wine & Spirits Dinner on behalf of Libation LLC.  As always, all opinions are my own.

A Weekend of Pools & Partying in Las Vegas

New York City may be the city where dreams can come true, but Las Vegas is the place where fantasies become reality.  Anything anyone could ever desire is available in Las Vegas, right at the edge of your fingertips, enticing you to come play even for a moment.

Las Vegas has a remedy for every desire imaginable, with a little luck and willingness to pay a price.  Fortune and fast cars are at your disposal to win, naked women and sexy men are available to ogle at (and more), there is unlimited alcohol and endless food everywhere you turn, there’s a concert for every type of musical taste, and even magic shows exist.  All your desires are right here, within reach in Las Vegas.  Hell, you can even travel the world without ever leaving The Strip.  Dreaming of visiting Paris?  Egypt?  New York City?  There’s a hotel for that.

The Paris Hotel and New York New York Hotel in Las Vegas.

Las Vegas: where Paris and New York City are down the street from each other.

All this and more makes Las Vegas an exciting destination for many people.  But for me, the city is a facade of masks, from the mesmerizing fountains at the Bellagio distracting from the fact that you’re in the middle of a desert, to the facsimile of the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe that look like cheesy knock-offs of the real thing, to the crowds of people throwing around money in an attempt to prove that they have some.

The stage performance at Club Light at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas.

Inspired by Cirque du Soleil, Club Light in the Mandalay Bay has dancers performing on large screens in the club.

Las Vegas is unique in that it’s packed with thousands of people all the time—all of whom are tourists.  Because of that, it feels like being in a giant commercial with bright lights constantly begging for your attention (and most importantly, money).   Everything in the city is an arm’s race to draw attention: “This is the best in Vegas!” “This is the biggest in the city!”  Needless to say, it’s exhausting.

The Chandelier Bar in the Cosmopolitan in Las Vegas.

The Chandelier Bar in the Cosmopolitan.

But try as I may to avoid it, Las Vegas is sometimes necessary.  Like when you want a non-stop party of never-ending alcohol around the clock and a parade of scantily-clad men at your disposal.  Of course I’m talking about a bachelorette party: the one and only time Las Vegas is imperative (in my opinion).

Scotch break at Craftsteak in the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.

A quick scotch break at Craftsteak in the MGM Grand.

For a brief weekend (which is all that I can handle), I ventured down to Vegas with 12 girls for a weekend of poolside drinking, late-night clubbing, and, of course, a foray at a strip club to celebrate my friend before she ties the knot in the Dominican Republic next month.

The tower of chicken and waffles at Hash House a Go Go in the Rio.

The tower of chicken and waffles at Hash House a Go Go in the Rio.

We ate, we drank, we danced; we spent most of our days at the pool in search of relief from the 100+ degree heat that is Las Vegas, then we drank some more.  Our days filled a similar routine of a carb-filled breakfast (calories be damned, we’re on vacation!), a day lounging in the sunshine at the pool, following by an alcohol-fueled vanity-session complete with girls running from room to room requesting group opinions on outfits, followed by heavy dinners capped with even heavier drinking episodes late into the night.  You know, the typical Las Vegas vacation.

Kelli Nakagama traveling in Las Vegas.

With the Bride-to-Be before our night out on the town.

As much as I hate the city, I enjoyed my time with all my friends (some old, some new) and appreciated the fact that we were away from home, which is a luxury in itself. Unfortunately I can’t share all of my trip—after all, what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas—but stay tuned for a few Vegas-themed posts ahead.

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