You have to admit, it takes cojones grandes to open a new restaurant in the midst of a pandemic. But that’s precisely what Chef and President Cory Harwell did when he unlocked the doors to his brand spankin’ new Carson Kitchen in downtown SLC a couple weeks ago. It wasn’t exactly the plan he had in mind. But COVID-19 has thrown a wrench into pretty much everyone’s best laid plans, including Harwell’s. “It didn’t make any sense to keep paying rent on the space with the doors closed and no income from the restaurant, so I decided to go for it,” he said. I’m glad he did, because Carson Kitchen is a terrific new addition to the Salt Lake dining scene.
Although Harwell probably wouldn’t use the term “dining.” He tends to downplay any notion toward “upscale” regarding his restaurant. Still, I’m here to testify that the food is uniquely creative and flawlessly executed. It’s ain’t tweezer food, however. Harwell’s vision for Carson Kitchen was “to create a place where you can come in once a week with your friends to hang out and try some new things. Carson Kitchen isn’t for celebrating your anniversary with a $100 bottle of wine. It’s for celebrating Tuesday.” Mission accomplished.
Salt Lake’s is actually the third Carson Kitchen. The first was opened by Harwell in Las Vegas in 2014, followed by a second location in Alpharetta, Georgia. Harwell himself is originally from Woodstock, Georgia. (I didn’t know Georgia had a Woodstock, either.)
Carson Kitchen has, not surprisingly, a rock and roll vibe. Classic rock plays from the restaurant’s speakers and servers rock t-shirts with logos for The Doors, Fender guitars, Jimi Hendrix and others. They are “uniforms,” of a sort. I say that the R&R angle isn’t surprising because the original chef that partnered with Harwell to open the Las Vegas Carson Kitchen was Kerry Simon, who Rolling Stone magazine once dubbed “the Rock n’ Roll Chef.” Sadly, Simon died far too young, in 2015, from complications related to a severe and rare form of Parkinson’s disease called MSA, multiple system atrophy. His legacy and his spirit live on, however, at Carson Kitchen. In each Carson Kitchen restaurant there’s a mural of Kerry on a wall painted by a local artist, including the SLC location.
Harwell says that he draws “much of his inspiration from the meals his grandmother cooked while growing up.” So, the Carson Kitchen menu is chock full of modern renditions of comfort food classics such as deviled eggs and fried chicken with Alabama white sauce. “I used to get in trouble at home for stealing the crispy chicken skin from fried chicken,” said Harwell. And so, he created a decidedly not fat-free starter of Crispy Chicken Skins ($10) that comes with smoked honey for dipping.
The Carson Kitchen take on deviled eggs ($11) – called Devil’s Eggs – adding crispy pancetta and caviar to the whipped egg yolks, and garnished with a smidgen of hearts on fire microgreens, improves considerably on the classic version. I should note that the restaurant offers a large number of what they call Social Plates – generously portioned dishes that are well-suited to sharing. We tried virtually all of them and walked away stuffed and very impressed. It’s clever the way that Carson Kitchen manages to slip “fine dining” ingredients into everyday dishes – caviar on the Devil’s Eggs, for example, as well as foie gras, oxtail, and other items you’d normally only find in high-end restaurants.
Simple Cheese & Crackers ($12) is crispy flatbread-style lavash serving as crackers with pub cheese spiked with piquillo peppers and minced chives. Why, you could walk into Carson Kitchen, order the cheese and crackers and a craft cocktail, and call it a day if you’d like. Or, you could go BIG, like we did.
Next up was Killer Shrimp ($14), which is the Peruvian-inspired dish that Harwell says first brought him and Chef Simon together. It is indeed killer. Shrimp nuggets are lightly coated in potato starch or cornstarch, I’m not sure which, served with rocoto and aji amarillo pepper cream and topped with red and green jalapeño slices. Again, a nod to Peru and a very delicious one.
I mentioned that the kitchen manages to slip high-end ingredients into lower-end dishes at Carson Kitchen. One example is the Veal Meatballs ($13). Foie gras is blended into the sherry cream sauce that the tender veal meatballs are bathed in, topped with green peas. Yes, it is as great as it sounds.
Don’t worry, there are veggies to be had at Carson Kitchen too. For example,cauliflower that could turn even a cauliflower hater into a cauliflower lover. Chili Cauliflower ($13) is lightly charred cauliflower florets sprinkled with garlic, lemon juice and minced parsley. It’s a dish so simple, yet so scrumptious. It reminds me somewhat of the classic Italian dish called aglio e olio in its simplicity – pasta coated with garlic and oil.
Young Beets ($13) are given the royal treatment, served with pistachio-crusted goat cheese, plus red and green grapes halves. I’m not normally a huge beet fan; but loved these beets. Other non-meat dishes at Carson Kitchen include Brussels Sprout Caesar, German Potato Salad, Watermelon & Feta, Tempura Green Beans, Wok-Charred Edamame, and Broccoli Crunch.
On the Carson Kitchen menu, the Baked Mac & Cheese ($14) says “shhh, it’s a secret.” I thought the secret was the hint of truffle oil in the macaroni and cheese. But Harwell explained that it’s really the cheese blend – and Boursin in particular – that distinguished this mac & cheese from all others. It begins with a blend of white wine with Havarti, Sharp Cheddar, Jack, Asiago, and the aforementioned Boursin which are turned into a mornay-type sauce. The cooked macaroni is placed into a cast iron serving dish and bathed in the cheese sauce – the Boursin lending a hint of garlic flavor to the mix – then topped with fresh bread crumbs and finished under a hot salamander, toasting the bread crumbs. It is truly remarkable mac & cheese.
The dish that I was most looking forward to was Chicken Thighs with Alabama White Sauce ($19). It’s Alabama’s take on barbecue sauce and a very unusual one, indeed. Alabama white sauce is a sauce that’s slathered onto chicken after it’s been grilled, consisting mostly of mayonnaise thinned out with some white vinegar and given some punch from horseradish, mustard, paprika, garlic powder and black pepper. It’s said to have been created in 1925 by a guy named Bob Gibson (not the Hall of Fame baseball pitcher) who had a restaurant in Alabama called Big Bob Gibson Bar-B-Q. Like other regional barbecue sauces – Carolina, Memphis, Kansas City, Texas, etc. – Alabama white sauce is something worth seeking out. The grilled chicken smothered in white sauce at Carson Kitchen is American comfort food at its best.
To tell the truth, on paper the Black Rice & Oxtail Risotto ($15) didn’t hold much appeal for me. I’m somewhat of a risotto purist and this just didn’t make sense to my old-fashioned mind. Well, when I’m wrong I’m really wrong. This turned out to be my and my wife’s favorite dish of the night. It was superb. It is braised and shredded oxtail meat blended into a “risotto” of black rice with parmesan cream and topped with gremolata … simply divine.
We were full to the hilt, but still couldn’t resist a dessert or two. The Glazed Donut Bread Pudding ($11) seemed like an especially good idea to me, and it was. A brilliant idea: essentially bread pudding made from glazed donuts, as described, with three rum caramel and vanilla crème anglaise.
Another great dessert is the “Beery” Crumble ($11) with mixed berries and chela cream. There is also a Bourbon Fudge Brownie ($11) on the dessert menu which, like the bread pudding, comes with three rum caramel and vanilla crème anglaise.
There is a lot to love about Carson Kitchen. It’s a high-energy, bustling place (maybe not so well-suited for a quiet romantic dinner) with excellent service and marvelous decor and design. But what really blew me away is that virtually every dish we tried – and we tried many – was flawless. It’s clear to me that the recipes have been well-tested and perfected over time. There wasn’t a single dish that I wouldn’t happily enjoy again and again. So, welcome to SLC Carson Kitchen; you’ve made downtown dining – even in a pandemic – a little more delicious and fun.
Culinary quote of the week:
“Comfort food is absolutely moving upscale.” — Danny Meyer
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Originally trained as an anthropologist, Ted Scheffler is a seasoned food, wine & travel writer based in Utah. He loves cooking, skiing, and spends an inordinate amount of time tending to his ever-growing herd of guitars and amplifiers.