Southern Comforts 

Move over, Paula Deen. Tupelo's Southern chef is the real deal.

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click to enlarge Matt Harris - NIKI CHAN
  • Niki Chan
  • Matt Harris

It goes without saying that there is no shortage of upscale, fine dining restaurant options in Park City. But, the high ticket prices common in a resort town don't always reflect the quality of food. I won't name names. However, I will call out the name of a Park City restaurant where the quality of food, service and ambiance does fit the bill: Tupelo.

Tupelo was conceived by the husband-and-wife team of Matt Harris (chef/owner) and Maggie Alvarez (partner/"Tiger Mom"). They are ably assisted by a team of loyal, top-notch servers, managers, mixologists and a superb pastry chef, Shirley Butler. Many of the Tupelo crew worked with Harris and/or Alvarez in the past, particularly at the St. Regis Deer Valley, where Harris was the executive chef who opened J&G Grill under the tutelage of Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

Tupelo occupies the space that was formerly Silver. Do you remember it? Well, even if you do, forget it, because there is nary a shred of it left (including the actual silver veins that were part of the restaurant's décor). Silver dazzled, but also, at times, disappointed. Nearly the antithesis of Silver, Tupelo sports a lot of warm wood and soft lighting, and it feels more like a comfortable, inviting restaurant than a nightclub; gone is the DJ that used to pound out music.

For my money, Matt Harris has always been one of Utah's most creative, yet most disciplined chefs. I loved his work at J&G, although he wasn't really working with his own menu; it was primarily Vongerichten's. At Tupelo, Harris and Alvarez have the freedom and fearlessness to create food that is truly vital and unique. They are setting a new standard for Park City diners.

Why the name Tupelo? Well, Harris is a Southern boy, from Georgia. Tupelo trees, from which delicate Tupelo honey is produced, bloom for a "brief, spectacular moment," according to the restaurant's website. Tupelo honey is rare, difficult to harvest and is "a labor of love," says Harris. For him it's an analogy to the "hyperlocal, small-scale production model that bees epitomize." Like pollinators traveling from bloom to bloom, Harris and Alvarez have spent much of the past few years traveling the globe, which has inspired Tupelo's cuisine.

So, where you might expect to find a Southern boy's shrimp and grits on the menu, Harris' cooking is more refined: Paula Deen he is not. He doesn't cook with much fat or butter, preferring the natural richness of a dish like his silky homemade ricotta with grilled olive oil bread, black truffles and honey ($12). I'm not a huge fan of octopus in restaurants, because most chefs don't know what to do with it. But I could've eaten multiple helpings of Tupelo's tender smoked chile-grilled octopus with its sweet onion-citrus "salsa," herb purée and bite-size fingerling potato slices ($15).

A unique aspect of Tupelo's food menu is that, along with starters, entrées and desserts, there's a section called "veg & grain." This will have much appeal, I think, to folks concerned with gluten intolerance or other dietary restrictions, but feel left out reading most higher-end restaurant menus. Harris doesn't want to put someone with a vegetarian or gluten-free diet in the position of having to ask if there's anything on the menu s/he can eat, or to have to request a special dish from the kitchen.

So, "veg & grain" choices include items such as ancient grain polenta with Gold Creek Farm pimiento cheese and housemade butter ($8); caramelized mushrooms with roasted garlic, winter barley and dark soy ($8); creamy faro with butternut squash and toasted almonds ($8); and my favorite: bourbon-kissed baked beans with passion fruit and candied dates ($8). The bourbon and passion fruit contribute to the baked bean sweetness you'd usually get from sugar or corn syrup. However, I love these beans, not because they're healthful, but because they're simply the best baked beans I've ever tasted. I'm told that they have to be hidden at times from the staff, since they've all become addicted to Harris' beans, too.

For heartier fare, there's a "prime cuts" section of the Tupelo dinner menu that ranges from Bear Lake lamb T-bone chops ($36) and a 12-ounce woodland buffalo ribeye ($44), to a 14-ounce wagyu strip loin ($84) that is tender and tasty, and everything a carnivore could ever wish for.

I applaud any chef who puts rabbit on their menu; it's a hard sell here. And, if there's one dish above all others I'd recommend at Tupelo, it's the pappardelle with rabbit ($28). Perfect homemade pasta is tossed with juicy morsels of braised rabbit, fried ham, kale, Pecorino cheese and a unique twist: crispy Brussels sprouts. It's a delightful wintertime dish.

I tend to eschew restaurant desserts because, more often than not, they are merely an afterthought. Not here, where even if you dine at a different restaurant, I highly recommend stopping in at Tupelo for one (or five) of Shirley Butler's flawless desserts. I tasted an assortment and honestly don't know which one to recommend highest. The pistachio pomegranate "bark" mousse made with Ritual chocolate ($10) is outstanding, but then so is the sticky toffee pudding ($10) with pecan-caramel sauce and Earl Grey bitters ice cream. Warm whiskey apple cake, too, is a stunner—with cumin-spiced caramel—but if push came to shove, I'd probably have to order the luscious lemon-ricotta cheesecake ($10) with a graham cracker and almond crust ($10). And, I'm not normally fond of cheesecake.

Factor in a very smartly conceived selection of wine, beer and cocktails, plus some of the best service in town, and you'd have to say this new eatery is as sweet as, well, Tupelo honey.

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