Grilled cheese and tomato soup exemplify the sort of comfort we seek year round, but especially this time of year when the chill sinks into your bones. Eaten by the spoonful or as a dip for the sandwich, the soup is nursery food that's still acceptable as adult fare.
The soup and sandwich combo makes a respectable, if not addictive, lunch at Oasis Café. The hot, tangy elixir comes in a generous bowl. Oasis manages to make a good thing even better with the judicious addition of pureed, roasted fennel to the acidic, slightly thick red mixture. The result: a subtle anise echo that renders the soup superior to its more insipid and paler counterparts served from kitchens (and cans) nationwide.
The sandwich arrives crustless with grill marks from proper toasting on occasion. On others, those marks are merely cosmetic on soggy bread. Either way, I'll take it.
Why such forgiving tendencies? One word: nostalgia. Not just for the soup combo ($8.20), but for the restaurant itself. It was one of the first restaurants I frequented as new Utah resident. The earth-toned expanse and subculture clientele made the tempeh and tofu all the more appealing.
The overall, waterfall-draped effect is still calming and draws in those seeking a venue for their weekly ritual of coffee with friends, Sunday brunch, or an alternative spot for lunch beneath the generous windows or, in nicer weather, in the inner courtyard complete with a fountain and gangs of finches.
Back then, vegetarian and vegan diners reigned supreme as nothing on the menu was derived from animal flesh. For the last seven years, owners Joel and Jill LaSalle have sustained the café's (and the adjacent and entertaining Golden Braid Bookstore's) quest for "health and balance" with chef Jared Young's menu saturated with unchanged favorites like a curried tofu wrap ($8.20). They've managed to keep Oasis' classics intact while simultaneously changing the foundation of the menu. Nowadays, the soy proteins and animal ones get equal billing on the menus.
This sort of change can be a welcome thing. But it doesn't always guarantee an outstanding product. The popular maple-glazed salmon ($16.50) features a soft pink fillet of Atlantic salmon overwhelmed by maple power. Sometimes, the fish is overcooked; sometimes it's perfect. Roast organic chicken ($16.25) arrived artfully arranged on a phyllo-based tart of mashed potatoes and sautéed mushrooms, but tasted muted under a heavy dose of balsamic reduction. Likewise, a stunning triple-play of beef tenderloin ($22.95) with mashed potatoes and chive oil was as subdued as the terra cotta hues on the walls. Chicken fajitas ($14.75) doused in a brick-red sauce lacked depth for the moist morsels.
Nostalgia can forgive some flaws, but service can be an issue. Oasis has a core team of seasoned pros who are efficient and friendly.
Sometimes they chat with you as they refill a morning intake of caffeine or remain unobtrusive as you have a weekly lunch date with friends. Get anyone else and it's a crapshoot -- will it be attitude or an offering of more water? Will the bill be handled in good time for you to make it back to your desk? The good servers make sure you try the coconut panna cotta ($6) served in a snifter glass, topped with passion fruit gelee and shards of crunchy desiccated coconut; they also steer you clear of the mealy texture and unpleasant flavor of the chocolate mousse ($6). They can also describe the concise wine list featuring organic and biodynamic labels such as a fruity, almost dessert-like 2006 Ceago Chardonnay ($35 a bottle).
Breakfast is served until 2:30 p.m. alongside the lunch menu so that anyone can indulge in the French toast ($7.85) while a companion savors a Mediterranean salad ($11.75) of mixed greens, hummus, creamy, mild feta and Kalamata olives. Grilled Yukon golds lend some gravitas and uniqueness to the dish.
Breakfast, brunch and lunch are the best times to go. That's when you can try the daily frittatas (A.Q.) and the classic German blueberry pancake ($7.75). Of course, it's also grilled cheese time. And how you eat it is up to you.
Bottom line » Breakfast, lunch and brunch are ideal times to go. The Oasis scramble, Mediterranean salad with grilled potatoes, and roasted tomato and fennel soup with grilled cheese make the calming dining room all the more lovely.
Location » 151 S. 500 East, Salt Lake City; 801-322-0404
Online » www.oasiscafeslc.com
Hours » Sunday to Thursday, 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday to Saturday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Children's menu » Yes
Prices » $$
Liquor » Full service
Corkage » $7
Reservations » Yes
Takeout » Yes
Wheelchair access » Yes
Outdoor dining » Yes
On-site parking » Yes
Credit cards » All major