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Restaurant Happenings - July 2004

Desert Bistro
92 East Center Street
(435) 259-0756

Desert Bistro,
A Celebration in Every Mouthful

by Annabelle Numaguchi

Carl and Michelle Kelley

A few weeks ago, when Carl Kelley, chef and co-owner of the Desert Bistro, was traveling on a plane to Boston, the lady seated next to him followed up her questions about what he does for a living with, “Is your restaurant any good?” Carl smiled, wondering how to answer that. All he needed was to wait until the end of the flight, when waiting to disembark he heard another lady behind him ask, “Aren’t you a chef in Utah?” When he turned around and confirmed this, the passenger enthusiastically exclaimed, “Yes! The Desert Bistro! That was the best meal we had on our three week vacation through the Southwest.”

Neither that type of superlative statement nor the customer recognition of Carl is unusual or hard to understand. The Desert Bistro is an oasis of upscale dining in the small desert town of Moab.

Carl and his wife, Michelle, who also owns and operates the restaurant, opened the Desert Bistro three years ago. They had spent the previous seven years working at the Alta Peruvian and were ready to invest their expertise and energy into their own venture. Their love of climbing, running and the outdoors drew the couple to Moab, an unexpected venue for such elegant, innovative cuisine.
The community has reciprocated its appreciation of the Kelleys by valuing the Desert Bistro as a premiere restaurant and a perfect place to celebrate.

Anniversary dinner

This is why my husband and I decided to mark our fourth anniversary by dining at the Bistro. We have commemorated several occasions over delectable meals there and have always left raving and reliving the experience. This last occasion was no exception.

We started our marathon dinner prepared to spend several glorious hours at the restaurant, with the understanding that because everything is made on the premises and to order, time is necessary. Plus, who wants to rush through a pampering of the taste buds on par with what Chef Carl delivers. You wouldn’t ask a massage therapist or a pedicurist to hurry it up, so why cheat yourself here?

The only real danger in waiting between tantalizing courses is consuming too much of the fantastic bread. It’s a blend of whole wheat, bulgher and quinoa, which gives the bread a remarkable texture and nutty taste that complements its accompaniment, lavender floating in pumpkin seed and canola oils.

The two appetizers we chose, one from the menu and one a special, were striking contrasts to one another and tickled our palettes enough to sharpen our already strong appetites. We tried the seared Black Bean Cakes served in a tangy, slightly spicy molé topped with Roasted Corn Salsa. The granular texture of the cakes soaked up the delicious sauce, while the salsa added a satisfying crunch to the mouthful of southwestern flavor.

The second appetizer we ate was a refreshing Ceviche, a blend of raw fish, Roma tomatoes, cucumbers and avocado marinating in lime juice for an entire day. The ceviche was served in a half avocado shell with slices artistically arranged around and the tartness of the limes combined with the sweetness of the fish and tomatoes was a stimulating combination.

Knowing that we wanted to save room for desserts (and I do mean plural), we opted to share the Mixed Greens whose presentation is an optical illusion. The salad is served within a belt of cucumber, thinly sliced lengthwise, that sits demurely in the middle of a large plate. When the cucumber slices are detached, the richly dressed greens tumble freely filling the entire dish. The mixture of Gorgonzola, sesame seeds, Parmesan and aged Balsamic vinaigrette make the salad a mouthwatering experience. My favorite part about this salad (which I’ve had more than once) is that all the ingredients are finely grated so that every mouthful contains a pleasant combination of ingredients and a consistent taste.

We were thankful for a respite between courses at this point in order to make room and rejuvenate our palettes before the pieces de resistance came out. My husband and I enjoy sampling different dishes so we agreed to share two contrasting choices.

We ordered the Chilean Sea Bass, a succulent white fish encrusted in pinon nuts and Japanese bread crumbs, served on a calico blend of crunchy wild rice surrounded by a delightful Peach, Ancho and Sage Beurre Blanc (see recipe below). The tender buttery flesh of the fish contrasted beautifully with the crispy textures of the crust and rice, while the smoky sweet flavor of the sauce rounded out the flavors. The fish sat on a layer of delicate grilled asparagus that practically melted in my mouth. Grilled peaches provided a tang that balanced the sweetness of the peach puree in the beurre blanc. The Sea Bass was a masterful blend of rich tastes and textures while not overpowering the senses.

Our second choice was equally dazzling. We chose the Gorgonzola Crusted Filet of Beef Tenderloin, whose towering presentation alone gave enormous satisfaction. The tenderloin sat upon a medallion of garlic mashed potatoes of equal proportions as the beef. A thinner medallion whose main ingredient was Gorgonzola lay on top of the tenderloin, with crispy edible twigs poking out in opposing directions. The accompanying Roasted Tomato Demi-Glaze surrounded the tower and provided an acidic note to counterbalance the rich creaminess of the cheese. This dish gives a whole new meaning to “meat n’ potatos.” The meal tasted as impressive as it looked.

Although we were amply full at this point, we had made a pact to get through desert. This is where the otherwise harmonious tastes my husband and I have diverge. He chose the warm Chocolate-Walnut Tart, a variation on pecan tart. The bittersweetness of the chocolate blended well with the nutty flavors in a buttery crust, topped with vanilla bean ice cream. I couldn’t resist the Vanilla Pot de Crème, similar to a crème brulée without the caramelized crust on top. The silky creaminess tasted luxurious and was the perfect end to a meal featuring a full palette of flavors.

The experience was rounded off by a visit from Carl, who routinely visits each table as long as time permits. He enjoys giving the personal touch to each of his creations, so it’s no surprise that he also likes getting immediate feedback from his customers. That explains why he’s such a recognizable chef, both by his food and appearance.

Although Carl and Michelle are the backbone of this elegant restaurant, they never miss an opportunity to share the reason for their success with their staff, most of whom started at the same time as the Bistro opened. This shows in the high level of service, which is courteous, friendly and efficient, so that customers are able to maximize the enjoyment of the food and the experience.

One might expect that such an extravagant celebration would come at an extravagant price. The Kelleys like to show their appreciation to Moab residents by offering a generous 20% discount. Visitors to the area can enjoy a similar type of discount by being seated before 6:15p.m.

Dining at such an upscale restaurant as the Desert Bistro in Moab is an unexpected delight. This place would find quick success in any major metropolis, as evidenced by the glowing praises the Bostonian woman lavished on Carl’s most recent flight. Don’t let the size of the bistro or the small-town setting beguile you into expecting any less from such a top-notch, high-end restaurant.

The Desert Bistro is located at 92 East Center Street and is open Tuesday through Sundays starting at 5:30p.m.. Entrées range from $17-$24. For reservations, call (435) 259-0756.

Recipe of the Month

Desert Bistro

Pinion Crusted Chilean Sea Bass

Pine nuts
Japanese bread crumbs
White wine
Peach puree
Ancho (Smoked Poblano) paste
Peach slices

Mix equal parts pine nuts and Japanese bread crumbs. Press the fish (8 oz.) down on both sides into the mixture to coat. Bake in 450° oven for 7 minutes or until desired doneness. Grill peaches separately.

In a separate pan, saute shallots over high heat. Deglaze pan with white wine to desired volume. Add one teaspoon Ancho Chile Paste and 2 ounces peach puree. Add whole butter to desired thickness. Add sage at the last minute and pour sauce over fish. Top with grilled peaches.

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