When a friend told me about the recent quiet opening of Nona Bistro on 900 South in Salt Lake City, I was eager to check it out. The reason for my enthusiasm is that Nona Bistro is the creation of Will and Emily McMaster, co-owners of one of the best pizzerias in Utah, Pizza Nono. Emily, of course, is also the owner and designer of her very successful Mabo kids clothing company. So with this talented couple at the helm, I had a feeling that Nona Bistro was going to be good. I wasn’t wrong.
It’s easy to miss because the only things identifying Nona Bistro as a restaurant at 346 East 900 South is a small chalkboard on the walkway in front saying “Welcome to Nona” and a neon sign that reads simply “food and drinks.” In fact, you don’t even walk through any doors to get into the Bistro because it’s an al fresco affair in which all of the tables are located outside, under the sun and stars.
It’s a beautiful, almost magical garden setting that reminds me a lot more of Napa or Sonoma than SLC. The McMasters took the outdoor space behind a house at 346 East and turned into an al fresco paradise in which you instantly forget that you’re in the middle of a large metropolitan city. It’s a delicious escape, however temporary. Along with plenty of flowers, vines, potted plants and greenery, there are communal tables strewn throughout the garden and there’s occasional live music to accompany the outdoor dining experience at Nona Bistro. Speaking of the outdoor ambiance, Will McMaster said that “Sarah Winward designed our garden space and put in so much work to make it magical.”
Nona Bistro isn’t a full service dining destination in the sense that there isn’t traditional table service, as such. Folks line up at an outdoor station to be assigned seating, which is also where they will place their food and drink orders and then, at the end of the meal, return to pay the tab. Guests are assigned to numbered tables and food runners/servers bring them their food and drink. The night we visited a very outgoing and helpful employee named Hal (Halle) took our orders and shed light on the menu items we were interested in. The computerized seating/order/pay system can be a bit slow and clunky when the restaurant is busy and a line develops. But hey, you’re in a sensational spot with a great vibe, so what’s the rush?
There hasn’t been a lot of fanfare or media regarding Nona Bistro, which Will McMaster says is undergoing a “soft opening.” They don’t take reservations, so it’s a first come, first serve affair that’s open Wednesday through Saturday for dinner from 5 to 9 p.m. The menu is limited to a handful of appetizers or side dishes that are called “smalls” on the menu, plus two salads, three entrees, and a couple of desserts. I really like the high quality of the tinned fish and seafood that Caputo’s sells in their market and which are available at Nono Bistro. Our tinned blue mussels ($12) came with Torres extra virgin olive oil potato chips and fresh cornichons alongside, not to mention Salsa Espinaler from Spain, which I love – a perfect starter to share.
Other “smalls” on the menu include wood oven-baked focaccia ($6), “smashed” potatoes ($8), roasted shishito peppers ($8), and roasted green beans ($7). All of the cooked dishes at Nona Bistro come out of the wood-fired oven and the focaccia, in particular, was outstanding. It’s also helpful that they offer a gluten-free version of the fab focaccia for those avoiding wheat.
We also got to indulge in the charcuterie board ($20) at Nona Bistro after we’d made new friends with a couple of food and wine enthusiasts – Courtney and Jesse – who shared our table and their large charcuterie plate with us. Although it’s listed along with the other “smalls” on the menu there is nothing small about the charcuterie selection at Nona, which included a range of cured meats, nuts, cheeses, olives, cornichons, crackers, and more.
In addition to eclectic bistro fare, Nona also offers wine, beer, cider and cocktails. The wine selection is peppered with tempting treasures like Broc Cellars Love Rosé, Scarpetta Pinot Grigio, Colosi Nero d’Avola, La Boutanche Gamay, and others. As far as cocktails go, what could be better than sipping an Aperol Spritz ($12) out on the patio on a warm summer night?
I already mentioned Hal, but all of the employees at Nona Bistro, like Michael, the owner Will, and others are uber friendly and informative, helping to spread the neighborly vibe that permeates the patio. For salad choices, there is a Caesar ($12) or a chopped salad ($16) to which organic roasted chicken can be added for an additional $4. My wife opted for the generously-portioned chopped salad with mixed greens, avocado, bacon, blue cheese, tomato, and the add-on roasted chicken, all tossed in a light, lemony vinaigrette.
The “bigs” listed on the Nona Bistro menu refer to entree-size dishes and there are a choice of three: chicken piccata ($20), lasagna (cheese/$14; meat/$16), or ribeye steak with chimichurri ($40). The next time I visit I’ll try the lasagna with house-made pasta sheets. The plate that went past our table looked fantastic. I wound up ordering the chicken piccata and loved it, even though it’s not exactly a traditional piccata preparation. Here, the organic chicken is breaded, which is unusual. Normally piccata – whether veal, pork or chicken – is dredged in flour before cooking, but not breaded. I actually liked the crunchiness of the breaded version a lot, and the breading seemed to help keep the chicken moist. There was also a hint of tangy turmeric, which was a nice touch. The other difference is that piccata is typically bathed in a lemon, wine and caper sauce. At Nona Bistro the chicken is topped with capers, but there is no sauce to speak of – it’s more like chicken schnitzel with capers. The bottom line though is that whatever name you want to give it, the chicken was excellent, served with a simple parmesan-topped arugula salad alongside. And, the portion was so generous I was able to reheat the leftovers for lunch the next day.
I’m not sure exactly what Will, Emily and their staff have in mind for Nona Bistro when the weather turns cold since there is currently no indoor seating. I know that there are some spaces of the patio that can be enclosed, and I have a feeling heat lamps are going to be a large portion of the restaurant’s budget in the upcoming months. But why worry about winter now? Because while the weather is warm, you won’t find a more inviting or enchanting spot to enjoy al fresco dinner and drinks than Nona Bistro.
Photos by Ted Scheffler
Culinary quote of the week: “Where you eat is sacred.” – Mel Brooks
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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.