Over the past decade, Gene Kwon’s Utah restaurant business has grown from a single Japanese restaurant—Mikado on 100 South—to an empire called Latitude Restaurant Group, which has even outstripped the growth of Gastronomy, Inc. in the number of new restaurant openings. Kwon’s Latitude Group operates all three Mikado restaurants (downtown, Park City and Cottonwood), Park City’s Kampai, Harry’s Bar & Grill at the E Center and the newly opened Hapa Grill in Park City’s Redstone Center. Expanding its empire further, Latitude recently took over Ichiban Sushi in Salt Lake City, and is rumored to be looking at opening another restaurant property in Sugar House. Given a weak national economy and so many restaurants struggling to stay afloat in our local one, that’s an impressive record of business acumen and success.
But to me, it’s the newest Latitude restaurant concept—Hapa Grill—that is the most intriguing. It’s also the one I’d put my money on to have the biggest potential business impact: I could easily see a Hapa Grill fitting into almost every neighborhood. Build one, say in the Avenues, and it would be a license to print money.
Not that there’s anything wrong with Latitude’s other eateries. As I said, they are very successful. But from a culinary perspective, Hapa Grill goes places that restaurants like Mikado and Kampai do not. Those restaurants tend to focus on more or less traditional Japanese cooked fare, sushi, and sashimi. And they do that style of cuisine very well. At the new Hapa however, sushi and sashimi are offered up side by side with an all-organic beef burger (one Hapa patron swears it’s the best burger in Utah), a Jamaican-influenced jerk chicken wrap, po’ boy sandwiches and Southwest-meets-Caribbean style grilled baby back ribs. The range of cuisines may at first look seem confused or unfocused. But it’s not; it’s “hapa.” And Hapa is happening!
According to Hapa Grill manager Craig Peet, “hapa” is Hawaiian slang for “half and half.” Gene Kwon sometimes uses the word to characterize his kids, offspring of a Korean father and an Italian mother. They are “hapas.” Not surprisingly, the term also fits the cuisine at Hapa Grill, which is half traditional Japanese and half Asian-fusion—with the fusion component meaning Caribbean, Italian, Cajun-Creole, Southwestern, Korean or the kitchen sink. It’s a culinary United Nations with dishes like Korean Crispy Pizza topped with mozzarella, chicken and kimchi ($8); pancetta-wrapped shrimp with BBQ sauce ($9); crab cakes with Parmesan, panko crumbs and macadamia nuts ($8); and even an Asia-via-Mexico “Okinawa Taco Wrap” ($8). Remarkably, this melting pot approach to cookery at Hapa Grill actually works more often than not.
Although there are traditional tatami rooms off to the side, Hapa Grill is a contemporary restaurant. The design is modern and sleek, filled with vibrant color and even festooned with small LCD TV screens for watching sports behind the sushi bar. Hapa also sports a traditional sushi bar in the rear of the restaurant, where sushi artists like Okinawa-born Kazu work their magic.
Service at Hapa during my visits has been casual and friendly but very professional. I attribute that in large part to skilled overseers like managers Peet and Melisa Doyle. Peet reminds me of another poker-face restaurant manager I know named Clint Strohl. Strohl is one of the longtime Deer Valley Resort food & beverage pros who make dining at restaurants like The Mariposa so damned remarkable. Working at a lower altitude—or maybe it’s a higher Latitude—Peet is not one of those in-your-face managers who find it necessary to say things like, “So, how are you enjoying your dinner so far?” But like Strohl at Deer Valley, he’s a presence at Hapa Grill. I get the sense that he doesn’t miss much. Peet is sort of like those “eye in the sky” video surveillance monitors in Vegas casinos; drop a fork onto the floor and he’ll spot it and be at your table to replace it before it hits the ground. The Hapa staff is in good hands.
It takes time to orient oneself to the Hapa Grill menus: sushi and sashimi, salads, sandwiches, pasta, specialty dishes and “small plates,” not to mention a list of wine, sake and beer. So I suggest ordering sushi or sashimi right off the bat, then taking time to peruse the varied menu options. We started off a recent visit with tender fatty tuna sashimi, a delicious Maui Wowi roll (baked crab & scallops, fried shrimp, and eel sauce), and a dollop of “uni” (sea urchin)—you know, just to get things started. All were wonderful, although my No. 1 companion balked a bit at the urchin, which admittedly is an acquired taste.
Still feeling a bit peckish, we moved onto a 15-piece sashimi platter ($30), a few individual negiri (Spanish mackerel, kanpachi, and grilled saba) and my favorite Hapa dish of all: sushi-grade scallops marinated in Jamaican jerk seasoning, then lightly grilled and served with rice glass noodles, fresh greens and a wonderful sweet sesame dressing ($8). I’ve yet to try the organic beef burger at Hapa, but I thoroughly enjoyed Latitude Executive Chef Tosh’s take on a po’ boy sandwich: three large prawns breaded in panko, flash-fried and served on a hamburger roll with Hapa “slaw,” homemade tartar sauce and a tangy tonkatsu sauce. Asia meets Emeril!
There’s just not much that I don’t like about Hapa Grill. And you might not even have to travel to Park City to eat Hapa style. It’s such a solid concept that I suspect there will be a Hapa Grill opening soon near you.
HAPA GRILL 1571 Redstone Center Drive #140, Park City, 435-575-HAPA. Lunch & dinner daily
On Wednesday, May 18, the second dinner in Singing Cricket CafÃ©’s “An Evening with Utah’s Chef/Owners” will be held, hosted by Singing Cricket’s Lara Kierstead and featuring guest owner/chef Ali Sabbah of Mazza. Sabbah and Kierstead will team up to create a five-course dinner based on traditional dishes from Ali Sabbah’s native Lebanon, with selected wine pairings to match. The Mazza/Singing Cricket dinner is $49 per person with an additional charge for optional wine pairings. Dinner begins at 7 p.m. on the 18th and reservations may be made by phoning 487-0056. The Singing Cricket CafÃ© is located at 673 E. Simpson Ave. (2240 South).
Fans of Bambara and Chef Robert Barker’s cooking will be delighted to learn that Bambara is now open for dinner on Sunday evenings, from 5:30-9 p.m. Sorry, Robert, no Sunday night baseball for you this year! For reservations, phone Bambara at 363-5454. Bambara is located in the Hotel Monaco at 202 S. Main.
Look for Thaifoon Taste of Asia at The Gateway to kick off its series of Thaifoon Summer Patio Parties this month. Beginning May 16, the John Flanders jazz group will be playing on Tuesday nights at Thaifoon from 6-9 p.m. out on the patio. Thaifoon’s Summer Patio Parties also feature $1, $2 and $3 appetizers—satay, lettuce wraps and more. Thaifoon is located in The Gateway, just behind Virgin Records.
As you get ready to fire up the barbecue for spring and summer, you might want to stop by Wild Oats Natural Marketplace and pick up a free “Great Grilling Guide.” It’s chock full of useful grilling tips and techniques along with recipes for outdoor dishes like Asian style flank steak, the “best” cheeseburger, “true” barbecue brisket, barbecue baby back ribs, oysters on the grill and grilled pears with vanilla mascarpone.
Quote of the week: Ruling a big country is like cooking a small fish. —Lao-Tzu
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