SLC Pop’s Deconstructionist Food
Katie Weinner is a woman who craves change. The one-time competitive snowboarder earned a teaching degree, only to find she hated it — “It was horrific, catching kids watching porn during computer class,” she recalls. That’s what drove her to restaurant work. Once there, as she moved from making tiramisu to pasta to pizza, Weinner found a career to which she could devote herself.
The Minnesota native graduated from Northwest Culinary Academy of Vancouver, worked at Plumpjack Café at Lake Tahoe, and eventually landed in Salt Lake City.
Last November  she opened the downtown restaurant called SLC Pop, 29 E. 400 South, with an ever-changing menu and occasional hours. It’s located at Nata Gallery, which she opened with her partner (and former student) Mike Burtis.
When Weinner and Burtis opened at Nata, Weinner had already been hosting pop-up dinners around Salt Lake City with Chef Jonas Otsuji (which they called SLC Alchemist), as well as on her own.
Her most impressive resumé item includes developing the menu for the pop-up Mist Project, perhaps Salt Lake’s biggest, most talked about food experience of last year, which ran for one month in the space of the former Metropolitan on Broadway. After Mist, Weinner decided to continue the pop-up restaurant model, which matched her vision and financial capabilities.
But even that is subject to change.
Weinner recently extended her lease for six more months—short term for a restaurant, rather long for a pop-up. This gives diners until the end of April to eat a multi-course, modern meal that looks like art, mixes international flavors and turns the familiar, like a BLT, into the novel: How about a lettuce-green macaroon with tomato-flavored butter creme filling from which wafts a shock of bacon cotton candy? Melt-in-your-mouth delicious.
“I know it’s not like anything else and I just want to scream it from the rooftops: Really, I’m not just blowing wind up your skirt,” says Weinner. “I don’t want to guarantee a good time but it almost always is, because we’re so different.”
Not only is the food artistic, so is the space. Located in Nata Gallery —it’s not strictly a gallery or restaurant—the decor changes with local showings. The room is intimate, with just four tables. Dinner starts around 7:15 p.m. on what Weinner calls “sporadic Saturdays.” On other evenings she hosts private parties and cooking classes. Weinner is also a culinary instructor at the Art Institute of Salt Lake City, located in Draper, where she directs a student-run restaurant.
The prix fixe menu is set days before, based on what’s in season and “daily inspiration.”
Opened in what Weinner calls “MacGyver style” (remember the TV secret agent who solved complex problems with duct tape and a Swiss Army knife?), Nata has no stove. Much of the food is prepared at the Arts Institute kitchen. Food at the gallery is finished on two portable gas burners, in a toaster oven or a three-pot Crock-Pot or with a whipped cream dispenser.
Weinner is the queen of Midwestern resourcefulness. “There’s something to be said for the little person, the poor person who can build something from nothing,” she says, noting that Nata started with about $15,000 raised from friends, family and a Kickstarter campaign.
Recently, Weinner and Burtis cooked a meal for some local chefs, who rarely get to eat out.
“They’re good people, people who inspire us to do good things,” she says. “Being a chef, it’s really nice for someone else to cook for you.”
Bowman Brown, the head chef and co-owner of the Salt Lake City restaurant Forage was invited to give Weinner advice. Brown is probably Utah’s best and most experimental chef. His approval says a lot.
Sitting with three Forage employees, Brown says Weinner’s menu is ambitious for Utah’s dining scene.
“It feels so closed off here in some ways,” Brown lamented. “It feels like no matter how hard you try, because it’s Salt Lake City, why try?”
Weinner’s drive to bring something new to Utah is inspiring current and former Art Institute students.
“She goes out and finds all the crazy things you don’t think to use. It keeps us up in the know,” says Vanessa Reynolds, an Art Institute graduate and independent chef who was helping in the kitchen that night.
Reynolds was referring to ingredients like kiwi berries (looks like a grape; tastes like kiwi) and the citrus “Buddha’s hand” that resembles a yellow octopus. “She crosses the line between savory and sweet and it works every time,” Reynolds says.
Weinner describes her food as eclectic and modernist.
The nine-course Chef’s Appreciation dinner was a good example of that, along with her skill at meshing of cultures and creating visually surprising delights. There was the bowl of pumpkin curry panna cotta with kale chips followed by Japanese risotto made with sushi rice and the lobster langoustine. Another plate revealed what looked like a sponge and a rock but was in fact a light, porous purple cornbread and a hard shortbread made with bleu cheese and red wine flour. The sensational (in more ways than one) “Russian Tea with Poppy and Fizzy” was an elegant shot of vibrant orange tea into which we poured… something… from a tiny bamboo cone. Turns out that “something” was Pop Rocks.
The final dish was another mind-twister: parsnips which Weinner had peeled and dehydrated the night before, served with kaffir lime milk. It tasted like Fruity Pebbles.
Weinner isn’t sure what she’ll do in the spring. She’d love to be the chef at a 20-seat restaurant. Or she may take the pop-up concept to another space. After all, it suits her style.
“I love the idea of change and challenge. It’s a new experience every time.”
Heather May is a former Salt Lake Tribune writer specializing in food. CATALYST welcomes her!
SLC Pop at Nata Gallery
Through April 2014
29 E. 400 So. Reservations required. $50-up (gratuity not included). http://www.slcpop.com, http://www.facebook.com/SLCPOP