Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 15, 2017
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Remotely right

Boulder, Utah couldn't be more isolated -- and its Hell's Backbone Grill couldn't be more divine

It took seven hours to drive to the best plate of mac and cheese I've ever tasted. I didn't find it on a weekend trip to New York City or sitting at a diner in Vermont. I was in Boulder, Utah -- a town that's been called the most remote in the Lower 48 states.

This small Mormon community is in the heart of the 770,000-hectare Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. A stunning location, but not where you'd expect to find a restaurant that's gotten rave reviews in Bon Appétit, the New York Times and Travel & Leisure as well as Zagat's stamp of approval.

My wife and I had left the Grand Canyon in Flagstaff, Arizona in the early morning and driven north to Cameron, the big Navajo trading post. After admiring some fine tribal artifacts in the small museum, we continued past the dam at the western end of 290-kilometre-long Lake Powell. The sky was cornflower blue and great red and tawny cliffs rose on each side of the highway. After six years of drought, the Southwestern US had a wet winter this year, and stubbly fields along the road were full of orange and yellow wild flowers.

Out of Page, Arizona we crossed the Utah border and the country changed suddenly into the spectacular, enormous, dribbled beige and orange sandcastle shapes of Bryce Canyon National Park. We oohed and aahed but kept going; it was getting late and we were hungry.

The 130-kilometre road from Bryce passes through one of the most rugged and eerie landscapes anywhere. Rocky ranges, plunging valleys and rounded promontories the size of Toronto were coloured ochre and ecru in Grand Staircase National Monument. For the last 15 kilometres, the narrow paved road threads along the spine of a ridge that falls off on either side at a 60°angle. Then, all at once, you swoop down a long valley, round a corner and you're in a lush green valley filled with rushing streams and verdant fields. Welcome to Boulder, population 183.

Heaven in Hell's Backbone?
We checked into the Boulder Mountain Lodge (tel: 800-556-3446; www. boulder-utah.com), whose weathered board and rusted tin-roofed buildings belied the elegance of the rooms. Without unpacking, we headed to Hell's Backbone Grill (No. 20 North Highway 12, Boulder, UT; tel: 435-335-7464; www.hellsbackbonegrill.com) which shares the property.

Lilacs were in bloom, a stream flowed from a pool behind the wide windowed building and above the entrance a string of Tibetan prayer flags caught the wind. The restaurant's motto is "where the food is heavenly." We were ready for just this kind of heaven.

The first forkful of macaroni and cheese filled my mouth with the flavours of Europe. Though I was unable to identify the specific cheese, as the bite crossed my palate I recalled a ripe Camembert sampled at a café in Beaune, a Pecorino savoured in Sienna and the sweetness of Spanish manchego. The initial rush gave way to memories of lunches on snowy days in my mother's warm kitchen. I understood why grown men returned again and again for this homey yet sophisticated treat.

The meal had begun with organic Swiss chard grown in the restaurant's garden and sautÄed lightly in olive oil and garlic. The slightly bitter taste of the greens danced against the pungent sweetness of the garlic. My wife's trout came from a lake just over the hill and was pinker than salmon and fresh as a mountain stream. The plates were dotted with delightful, tiny, edible flowers.

At the table next to us, a couple from Texas beamed and nodded to each other with each bite of their lamb-stuffed peppers and pan-seared duck with wild-rosehip cream sauce. We knew how they felt.

We ended the meal with their signature lemon chiffon cake, a blue-ribbon winner which had been featured in Oprah's O magazine. Utterly content, we went off to bed for a night of happy dreams in the cooling air.

 

Kitchen with a Conscience
The restaurant itself was the dream of Blake Spalding and Jen Castle, two remarkable women. Both attended the University of Arizona, but their paths never crossed. By the late '90s, Spalding was running a catering business that specialized in remote locations -- TV productions and river tours in the Grand Canyon and the like. Castle, a painter and sculptor, worked as a baker and manager at Macy's European Coffeehouse, a long-established Flagstaff mecca for natural foods. The two met by chance at a Christmas party and got to talking food.

When the opportunity came up to launch a restaurant on the grounds of the Boulder Mountain Lodge, it seemed a natural. Except, perhaps, for the location. And the hostility of the locals.

After a couple of visits to Boulder they realized that if they were to make a go of it, they'd need the support of the local Mormon community who had been there since Brigham Young lead the long march from the East in the mid-19th century.

Suspicious of strangers, the townspeople were guarded in their contacts with the exuberant duo, to say the least. They felt they didn't need a restaurant with airs. An earlier venture by outsiders had failed to get the city to grant a liquor license -- admittedly difficult in a solidly Mormon, and therefore anti-alcohol, community -- and folded.

Spalding was determined to run an ethical, sustainable organic restaurant and make decisions in line with the tenets of Buddhism, which she practises. "There's a basic Buddhist ethic of loving-kindness,' she explains, "of generosity and responsibility." The women put the theory to the test: they decided to throw an ice cream social for the entire town.

Everyone came and the party was a major social event for what is, understandably, a rather quiet village. It didn't stop there. Whenever Blake and Jen faced a challenge, they just cranked up the generosity. Says Blake, "We gave away a lot of food. It was very basic heart-oriented public relations."

As a result, the grill was granted the first license to serve liquor in the town's history. Though they have a full license, the duo decided to serve only wine and beer and have no intention of ever serving spirits. The wine list includes many fine organic wines and several brands of beer including a local brew called Polygamy Beer whose slogan is "When one is not enough." Who could resist it?

The restaurant's regionally based cuisine blends Pueblo Indian and Southwestern flavours. In the five years since it opened, the grill has developed close relationships with local suppliers. All eggs, meat and fish are grown organically in the immediate area. The restaurant even has a forager who gathers wild edibles from the surrounding hills and canyons. Their own orchards, vegetable and herb gardens supply most of the produce the restaurant serves during its March to November season.

The winter months, when the grill is shuttered, allow the owners and staff to recoup and regroup for the summer's onslaught. Dealing with the accelerating demand is one of the biggest challenges the restaurant faces. Rave reviews have meant the restaurant hosts an endless stream of visitors.

If I was willing to drive seven hours from one of the world's scenic marvels to taste their food, imagine to what lengths dedicated foodies might go.

For more on this wonderful eatery, the delightful people who work and live in Boulder, and the scrumptious recipes served at Hell's Backbone Grill, order a copy of their lavishly illustrated coffee-table book, With a Measure of Grace: The Stories and Recipes of a Small Town Restaurant, by contacting the restaurant or the publisher, Provecho Press (tel: 505-474-6499; www.provechopress.com).

 

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