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Blue Lemon presents a slick, polished image the second you walk through the door. In fact, if I didn't know already, I would guess this was a national chain, rather than the third iteration of the popular Utah franchise operation.

I mean that in the most flattering way: I found the open, bright, modern aesthetic that Blue Lemon offers appealing. The interior space is sleek, clean and vibrant, alluding perfectly to the sensibilities of the menu.

Blue Lemon's concept is fast-casual, healthy food. Gone are greasy fries and stacked burgers, and in their place are menu items loaded with phrases that seem more fitting with a fine-dining experience than fast food. It's a difficult concept to pull off expertly, especially with Blue Lemon's notion to deliver much of their menu in 6 minutes or less.

On most of my visits to Blue Lemon, the service element seemed to run in reverse. I received ample attention up until ordering and then little-to-none thereafter. On each visit I was routinely greeted at the door by a chipper host, who detailed the daily specials and always checked if I had visited before, with tips for first timers.

Once past the host and specials boards, you elect to sit either in the coffee bar area or progress into the main restaurant area. You order at a counter from an overhead, illuminated display. You pay in advance and take a number, and then typically wait just minutes until another eager, smiling employee stops by to drop off your meal. And then that's it.

Only once across my visits did any of the service staff stop by to check all was well. I understand the concept, but amongst some of the allusions to finer dining, it feels jarring. One bright spot of the hands-off approach was the self-service soda machine ($1.90), where you can make all manner of mixed soft drinks.

The pared-down service makes course progression non-existent. While both an appetizer order of hummus ($5, with a dollop of olive tapenade) and a bowl of sweet potato fries ($4) were respectable in their preparation, it's difficult to really consider them appetizers, arriving as they did, literally within seconds of entree selection. During one visit, when I decided to finish my meal with dessert, I realized my only choice was to head up front and repeat the whole ordering process, effectively as a new customer. Don't plan on a lingering meal at Blue Lemon, despite the fancier menu items, as the focus is first and foremost on speed.

Thankfully, the pace of the food didn't undermine flavor, as in multiple visits, few of my ordered dishes fell flat. I don't usually order salad, but amongst the large selection available at Blue Lemon, a mango spinach special ($10) was excellent, consisting of spinach, mango, pickled onion, avocado, sugared almonds, grilled chicken and a zesty mint/lime vinaigrette. The same applied to a fresh grilled red trout ($12) with spring pea and edamame succotash. Two delicious and arguably healthy options, delivered with swiftness and aplomb.

The healthy food angle can be liberally stretched at times, though. The ricotta and spinach ravioli ($10) featured soft homemade ravioli stuffed with creamy ricotta and bathed in a lush butter rich sauce. It looked and tasted equally good, but I'm not so sure I want to know how many calories were hiding in the dish. Back on the healthier track, Fiery Fish Tacos ($12) seemed like an enticing entree. The dish came served as a melange of shrimp, salmon, and mahi mahi with a mix of smoky vegetables. The fajita-style presentation was rounded out with cabbage, honey-chipotle-citrus aioli, fresh salsa and tortillas. Twelve dollars felt like a stretch to me, and I'm not sure how the 'fiery' moniker was coined, as the dish was completely under seasoned, with nary a spicy sensation.

Some of my favorite dishes could be found on the sandwich section of the menu. The short rib sandwich ($9) comes loaded with tender short rib, fontina cheese, lettuce, onions — and a horseradish aioli that would really sing with just a pinch more kick — with the whole juicy treat stuffed in a first-rate ciabatta bun. So did the Blue Lemon turkey burger ($8), which was made of smoked mozzarella, turkey bacon, lettuce, tomato and onions.

The roasted turkey avocado sandwich ($8.50) disappointingly used basic, grilled sandwich bread. Indeed, the whole thing felt chintzy, with only a couple of slices of roasted turkey, nestling amongst provolone cheese, lemon-herb inflected avocado spread and lemon pesto aioli.

Indeed, I couldn't call anything on the menu overly filling, which is why you might want to consider the appetizers as side dishes — or order with entrees, soup or side starters for an extra $2.

Of course you could always end with dessert — just don't forget to order up front with everything else. It's confusing that desserts are absent from the main menu, and actually kept in a display case (without explanation nor pricing) next to the cashier. When I did try dessert, though, both a slice of carrot cake ($3.99) and a sugar cookie ($1.25) were enjoyable.

My main concern with Blue Lemon was about overall value. Portions sizes erred towards the smaller side, while prices skewed higher and as for service, well, you're on your own after you pony up your cash. The value proposition as a whole needs some slight refinements before Blue Lemon finds the sweet spot. And if the owners do manage to find that perfect point, don't be surprised if you start to see this home-bred mini-chain stretch even further, with locations out-of-state, too.

Salt Lake Tribune restaurant reviewer Stuart Melling blogs at Send comments to —

Blue Lemon

Overall • HH

Food • HH

Mood • HH

Service • Hhj

Noise • bb

Healthy food served in a fast-casual atmosphere, with a menu peppered with fine dining touches, such as aioli sauce, heirloom tomatoes and emulsion. It's a tricky balancing act but Blue Lemon gets most of the elements correct — and the flavors are largely hard to fault. Just be aware of the hands-off approach to service, and portion sizes that skew to the smaller end.

Location • 6910 S Highland Drive, Cottonwood Heights; 801-944-7787; also downtown at City Creek, 55 W. South Temple, 801-328-2583; and 11073 N. Alpine Highway, Highland; 801-756-7993.

Hours • Monday to Thursday 7 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 7 a.m.-10 p.m.

Prices • $

Children's menu • Yes

Liquor • No

Reservations • No

Takeout • Yes

Wheelchair access • Yes

Outdoor dining • No

Onsite parking • Yes

Credit cards • All major

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