PARK CITY, Utah – The average lifespan of a restaurant (pre-pandemic) is said to be about five years, and some estimates say as many as 90 percent of new restaurants fail within the first year. That makes Park City restaurateur Bill White’s long run all the more impressive. His flagship restaurant, Grappa, is nearly 30 years old and this year his Asian-inspired eatery, Wahso, turned 20. Add White’s other successes – Chimayo, Windy Ridge Cafe, Ghidotti’s, Sushi Blue, Billy Blanco’s, Windy Ridge Bakery, and Bill White Farms – to the list of thriving Park City businesses, and you realize that Bill White has a magic formula.
Actually, maybe it’s not so magical. Hard work, intelligence, creativity, and a staunch commitment to excellence are Bill White trademarks. I’ve never met a more savvy entrepreneur or one who puts in more hours to achieve success – not just for himself, but for his team, to whom he is very loyal and vice-versa.
I was lucky enough to be invited to Wahso on the Friday night it opened 20 years ago. And I remember being bowled over by the place. I still am. Inspired by Shanghai in the 1930s, White purchased artifacts from around the world ranging from statues and screens to lamps and furniture and had them shipped to Park City to decorate Wahso. They include a 1,000 pound, 500-year-old tiger statue from the Ming Dynasty, teak columns from India, mahogany doors from Tibet, chandeliers from Turkey, and beautiful artwork adorning the walls from all over Asia. Combined with private curtained booths for intimate meals, the ambiance of Wahso was, and is, second to none. It’s one of the most unique restaurants I’ve ever visited.
In celebration of Wahso’s 20th Anniversary, my wife and I dropped in for dinner last Saturday night and were, once again, very impressed. The decor is, as mentioned, eye-popping. But another key to White’s restaurant success is in the people he hires, trains, and mentors. General Managers like Lawrence Acedo at Wahso, longtime Beverage Manager Mike Brown, and servers such as Ryan Green – who took care of us fabulously on Saturday – all contribute to the top-flight experience that dining in a Bill White restaurant dependably is. And then there is the food.
At the heart of a Bill White restaurant is the food. Let’s not forget that White, himself, started out as a chef. And, while he no longer cooks in his own restaurants, he hires the best in the business to do so. At Wahso, that currently means Executive Chef Rafael Zamora and Corporate Executive Chef Matt McMillen. Whether it’s Ghidotti’s chicken soup with parmesan dumplings (inspired by Bill White’s mother), Chef Arturo Flores’ renown crown roast barbecued spareribs at Chimayo, or pork adobada tacos at Billy Blanco’s, the cuisine at a Bill White restaurant is never not impeccable.
Tempting appetizers at Wahso include wok-seared pork potstickers with sesame-chili rayu ($12), steamed Chinese buns with charred cabbage and crisp pork belly ($12), crispy Brussels sprouts with Asian pear and gochujang mayo ($13), and delectable Bill White Farms lamb spare rib with lemongrass-honey glaze and house-made kimchi ($18). Since my wife avoids gluten, we opted to share a sashimi appetizer ($20) for our Wahso starter. It was gorgeous slices of top-quality, sushi grade tombo tuna with pickled red onion, fresh ginger, sudachi ponzu, and yuzu kosho – an absolutely wonderful way to kick off a meal at Wahso.
A glass of Bucklin Old Hill Ranch Rosé is an outstanding wine to sip while enjoying a DIY dish at Wahso – the 5-Spice Duck Lettuce Cup ($18). I say “DIY” because all of the ingredients for lovely lettuce cups are delivered to the table and you assemble them by hand. The key component for the lettuce cups is duck confit, which is one of my favorite foods on the planet. This duck confit is flavored, gently, with Chinese 5-Spice, which makes it fragrant and uniquely delicious. Also included in the lettuce cup platter was butter lettuce leaves, crunchy puffed rice sticks, nuoc cham, and an incendiary chili sauce that nearly singed the enamel off my incisors – ah, sweet pain! It’s a terrific dish and one that’s well-suited to sharing.
Entrees at Wahso range from a Koji Pork Chop with Yukon Gold potatoes and kimchi creamed greens ($46); Diver Scallop with hon shimeji mushrooms ($46); and Chicken Hot Pot with poulet rouge hen ($36); to Lobster & Crab Ramen ($52); and Pan-Seared Salmon with ginger-scallion butter ($46). A very talented (and fussy when it comes to food) chef friend recently raved about Wahso’s entree of Organic Tofu with Winter Vegetables ($34). It included seared Japanese eggplant, vegan horseradish creme fraiche, roasted oyster mushrooms, organic tofu, blistered shishito pepper, fresh herbs and hisui sauce. My wife, on the other hand, raved – justifiably so – about her entree: Miso Marinated Black Cod ($54). It was a generous portion of perfectly cooked black cod fillet in mushroom-kombu broth with sticky rice and stir-fried shiitakes, snap peas and bok choy, all served topped with cilantro in a large, deep bowl.
Kung Pao is such a popular dish in this country’s Chinese restaurants, and so I was curious what sort of treatment it would get at Wahso. It’s a whimsical plate of deconstructed Kung Pao Shrimp ($18):crispy battered and fried plump tail-on shrimp with herb sticky rice rolls, roasted peanuts, and a complex, spicy Kung Pao-style chili sauce – a very tasty take on Kung Pao.
20 years after it opened, in my opinion Wahso has never been better. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Wahso is temporarily closed for some maintenance and updating. Indeed, all Bill White restaurants have closed for spring break, company wide, until April 28 and Bill White Farms will operate from April 19 until Wednesday, April 28. But what’s the rush? I suspect they’ll all be thriving for decades to come.