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Desert Bistro
An Oasis of Upscale Dining with a Southwestern Flair

by Annabelle Numaguchi

If the definition of a “bistro” is a “small, unpretentious café,” then Karl and Michelle Kelley aptly chose the name of their new restaurant. The Desert Bistro blends sensational food with a relaxed decor and, most impressive for a restaurant of its caliber, a personal, warm welcome. Karl, who is both chef and owner, visits every table each night. The charm and elegance of the simple decor perfectly accents the delightful ambiance and extraordinary food to create a pleasurable evening for any diner walking through the doors of the Desert Bistro.

After having been in the restaurant business for years, most recently running the Alta Peruvian in Salt Lake City for the last seven, the Kelleys had long imagined opening their own business. Karl explains that after cooking for other people for so long, he wanted to have the chance to try original ideas without being limited by someone else. Thanks to a love for the active outdoor lifestyle, they chose to open their upscale restaurant specializing in food with a flair of the Southwest here in Moab. Apparently, they picked the right place as they feel like they fit right in. Although the Desert Bistro mainly caters to Moab’s visitors, Karl says, “The locals have been great. We have quite a few regulars.” The Kelleys also claim that Moab allows them to keep their work and play in balance, which is very important as they don’t measure success in financial terms.

The cozy restaurant accommodates a maximum of forty people, which is exactly what Karl had in mind when he decided to open his own place. Karl explains, “I don’t care how big we get; I just want to serve awesome food,” which he does. The menu features a plentiful selection of mouthwatering dishes that range from the more eclectic game meats to standard favorites like beef tenderloin and home-made ravioli.

All the food is made from scratch in the Bistro’s kitchen, including the pastas, and features Karl‘s creative and delicious culinary talents. This is not food that you can easily make at home. Karl particularly specializes in sauces, some of which take four days to make in order to reduce the flavors to their most intense, aromatic essences. Another remarkable feature of Karl’s cooking is his mastery of preparing game meats, such as elk and caribou. Another choice on the tempting menu is fresh fish, which the Kelley’s have flown overnight from Florida. Karl prepares these dishes with a signature blend of the southwestern gourmet which results in mouth-watering entrées such as Grilled elk chop marinated in honey, chipotle and cinnamon and Blue and yellow corn tortilla crusted chicken breast with goat cheese. The menu descriptions speak of Karl’s creativity and mastery in the kitchen.

The decor of the restaurant has obviously been designed to showcase the dazzling cuisine Karl is anxious to share with his customers. The unique, hand-crafted wood furniture made by a local carpenter and the paintings by a Moab artist create a comfortable, relaxed environment evoking the feel of the Southwest. A small bouquet of dried lavender in a hand-crafted metal vase decorates each table, which compliments the delicately-flavored lavender in canola/pumpkin seed oils with fresh bread that is served as the customers pore over the tantalizing menu. The soft pink walls evoke the warmth of the surrounding desert.

Perhaps what really singles out this bistro is the personality of the owners. Customers expect spectacular food, elegant decor and great service from such a restaurant. However, visiting with the chef after one’s meal is both a surprise and a pleasure. Especially when Karl and Michelle are both such affable, interesting people. Their first date, an extended bike trip across Europe, exemplifies this couple’s exuberance for life, the outdoors and good food. He is an avid rock climber raised in New Hampshire. Michelle, originally from Seattle, is equally athletic, having completed four marathons, including taking first place in her age group in her hometown’s race. The après-meal conversations with customers usually begin with a discussion of the food and evening and have often diverted to sharing information about climbing, biking and trail-running. One reason, perhaps, is that after indulging in such amazing food, diners feel a more pressing need to exercise the following morning.

The Desert Bistro is located at 92 East Center Street and is open every night from 5:30 p.m.. Entrées range from $16-$24. For reservations, call (435) 259-0756.

Recipe of the Month

Sesame-Seared Tuna

    1/4 cup white sesame seeds
    1/4 cup black sesame seeds
    8 oz. Ahi Tuna
    1/2 tsp. diced shallots
    1/2 cup Chablis
    1 tbsp. soy sauce
    1 tbsp. fresh lime juice
    2 tbsp. butter
    1 tsp. diced fresh cilantro
    1 tbsp. canola oil
    1 whole lime (for zest)

  • Spread white sesame seeds over half of a dinner plate and the black sesame seeds over the other half of the same plate.
  • Place tuna on top of seeds so half should be coated with white seeds and the other half with black seeds.
  • Heat oil in a sautée pan. Once hot, place the tuna in the pan (sesame-side down), and sear until sesame seeds have a toasted look.
  • Flip the tuna over, and sear the other side. Take the tuna out of the pan and set aside.
  • Add shallots to the hot pan and brown. Add Chablis, lime and soy sauce, one after the other.
  • Let simmer, then add butter and cilantro. Whisk rapidly over heat until sauce thickens.
  • Pour sauce on dinner plate, place tuna (sesame-side up) over the sauce.
  • Zest one lime over the top of the tuna.
  • Serve with your choice of starch and vegetables.
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