Will the Circle Be Unbroken? 

The sushi rocks and the digs are uber-stylish. So are you cool enough to be served at the Circle Lounge?

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I hope that the case of road rage I underwent on my way to the Circle Lounge last week didn’t overly influence my dining experience there. Frankly, I was tempted to mow down a bozo and his gal cruising State Street on a Harley-Davidson adorned with one of the stupider bumper stickers I’ve ever seen. It carried a U.S. Marines symbol next to the phrase, “Give war a chance.” I have to believe that the nitwit couldn’t have possibly been a Marine or ex-Marine, because what kind of Neanderthal would so flippantly endorse war with his fellow Marines dying almost daily?

When my companion suggested that perhaps the jingoist couple was also heading for the Circle Lounge, I assured her that I was fairly certain these nimrods weren’t sushi lovers or wine drinkers. After all, what compelled me to visit Circle Lounge to begin with was a very classy, eye-catching advertisement in City Weekly, one that advertised “sushi & wine.” The promise of sushi and wine always gets my attention.

The crisp white minimalist exterior of Circle Lounge stands in stark contrast to its dilapidated State Street surroundings—but the interior is even more of a shocker. Walking into Circle Lounge, you may feel that not only are you not in Salt Lake City or Utah anymore, but maybe you’ve departed the entire freakin’ planet. More on that in a minute.

We were met at the door by a courteous hostess/doorperson who informed us that Circle Lounge is a private club. No problem—with sushi and wine at the ready, I pulled out my wallet and happily purchased a membership. The annual membership fee for Circle Lounge is a mere $12, a very fair deal.

What happened next threw me a bit. Our hostess handed me a wood box that she called “menus.” Well, where I come from menus tend to be printed on paper—sometimes laminated, but not always. Boxes are things you hide stuff in. Giving a guy a pile of wooden boxes called menus is sort of like giving a guy a pair of Oshkosh overalls and calling it a Speedo. It just didn’t quite ... fit. Nevertheless, we proceeded (unescorted by our hostess, by the way) into the Circle Lounge to find a table, me with my box of menus and my dining companion ogling the eye-popping interior.

It’s difficult to describe the Circle Lounge ambiance without using worn-out words like “cool,” “hip,” “trendy” or “chic.” It’s all of those things. Almost everything in the dining room/club is red, including a sheer, floor-to-ceiling see-through curtain which envelops the small dance floor in the room’s center. Encircling the dance floor are a dozen or so small tables, each one surrounded by low-slung red rectangular backless sofas. In the rear is a blue-lit wall that defines the club’s bar, in sharp contrast to the red hues that saturate the rest of the club-restaurant. It’s very, very ... cool.

Well, we slid onto a sofa and I opened my box. Each menu box has a big wood spindle in the center and the menus sit on the spindle, each with a large whole punched out of the middle. This is also a very cool idea—or it would have been, had the menus not been stained with food and smeared with wine or other unidentifiable liquids. Also, my box contained four menus, but for some reason they didn’t match up. On one menu the nigiri selection was more extensive than on another. And one menu contained a list of sake martinis, while the other did not. It’s as if the Circle Lounge menus had been recently revamped, but someone forgot to throw out the old ones.

When our server eventually decided to visit us—there was only one other occupied table in the restaurant at the early 8 p.m. hour—I requested a wine list. What I got was a crumpled piece of paper with food stains and some hand-written math equations in the margin. Perhaps someone had been doing some ciphering to determine what a bottle of wine would cost at Circle Lounge, since there are no bottle prices on the wine list, only by-the-glass prices.

Then again, the “wine list” at Circle Lounge consists of about a half-dozen mediocre wine offerings that have no business being served with sushi, plus Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling, which does. So I ordered a bottle of the Riesling, not knowing the cost. Our server apparently had never opened a wine bottle before, so the bartender came over to our table and performed the task. So much for the advertised “sushi and wine.” I can’t think of a restaurant that serves wine from a skimpier wine list. By the way, Circle Lounge folks: Your sake is served in a carafe, not a “craft” as indicated on the menu and by our server.

The sushi at Circle Lounge is better than I’d expected. Nigiri mackerel ($4) was fresh and excellent. Even better was tuna tartare ($3.75) served in Japanese ceramic spoons with shisho leaves and “flavored oils.” One of those oils was very spicy chili oil; it would have been helpful to note that on the menu. A house specialty “Light Fire” maki roll ($10.50) was also quite good: hamachi tartare, asparagus, avocado and “jalopeno” (sic).

Circle Lounge baffles me. Someone spent a lot of money and went to much trouble to create a restaurant-club that is second to none in ambiance, serving sushi that is quite good. Even the bathrooms are stunning. But the service is wanting and no one seems to pay any attention to details like proofreading the menus (there are many typos), creating a functional wine list or seeing that the wine lists and menus are clean.

And that’s a crime. Because Circle Lounge is just a tweak or two away from being one of Salt Lake’s most exciting club-restaurants.

CIRCLE LOUNGE 328 S. State 531-5400 Tuesday-Saturday 6 p.m.-2 a.m. Sushi served to 1 a.m.

Are you interested in learning a second, third or fourth language? What if you could combine language learning with fine dining? That’s the notion behind Michael Lambert’s Language & The Utah Food Bank. Lambert came up with what I think is a brilliant idea: learn foreign languages in restaurants! With Lambert’s new language learning program, students will learn Japanese in Japanese restaurants, Chinese in Chinese restaurants, French in French restaurants, etc. In addition to learning new languages, Language & The Utah Food Bank classes help benefit the Utah Food Bank. Students pay for the price of dinner and $10 per class, plus a donation of 10 food items for the Utah Food Bank. What a concept! Current classes in Chinese are being held at the Golden Phoenix, Monday through Thursday. According to Michael Lambert new classes are currently in development, based on demand. For more information on the Language & The Utah Food Bank foreign language learning series, e-mail Lambert at talkingchinese@yahoo.com.

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I first developed a fondness for oysters—raw in this case—at the Acme Oyster House in New Orleans, over an orgy of oysters on the half shell and many more Abita amber ales. Well if you have even a passing interest in oysters, you should treat yourself to the most comprehensive oyster book I’ve ever come across. It’s called Oysters: A Culinary Celebration, written by culinary historian Joan Reardon. Along with oyster history and 185 recipes for oysters and oyster side-dishes and accompaniments, Oysters: A Culinary Celebration also provides useful information and background on dozens of different types of oysters, from Wellfleet and Kumamoto to Belon and Malepeque. So if you’re not sure how many tablespoons of sherry to put into your Oysters Bienville (three) or what type of wine to drink with it (Chassagne-Montrachet), pick up a copy of Oysters: A Culinary Celebration.

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Quote of the week: Swedish meatballs are the mood rings of the ’90s.

—Juli Hess

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Send Food Matters tips to Ted Scheffler at teds@xmission.com. Hear Ted over the airwaves on Sound Bites every Thursday on KSL News Radio 1160.

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