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Restaurants in hotels are not always known for consistent quality cuisine. Preparing meals for huge banquets and managing large staffs are often the priorities of executive chefs, hired more for acumen as managers rather than talent as culinary artists.

Several big city restaurant critics warn diners to avoid restaurants in major hotels because the food is often uninspired and overpriced. During a recent dinner at a downtown hotel, in which the food was disappointing, I mentioned to the waitress that the chef should be aware of some of the problems with our entrees. She literally threw her head back in laughter and chortled, "I haven't seen the chef in days." My fellow critics' advice rang true on that night.Yet Salt Lake has been fortunate to have had renowned chefs like Chuck Wiley, formerly of the Roof, and Bernard Goetz of the Sheraton, now in New Orleans, set standards for other chefs, in or out of the hotel business. Unfortunately, both of these have gone on to larger cities, leaving behind the probability that hotel chefs will continue to show more interest in balancing the books than creating appealing dishes.

Considering our past experiences and prejudices, we approached the Impressions restaurant in the University Park Hotel with mixed feelings. Not only had it experienced several changes in executive chefs since the first opening, but its location near the cold fusion institute had us wondering if anything in the vicinity of Research Park could spark a worthwhile recipe, either gastronomic or atomic.

Set amidst fashionable gray and pink furnishings, highlighted by brass fittings and light fixtures, Impressions conveys an earthy, comfortable feeling. Large glass windows look out over a patio and a lush grove of scrub oak.

Unfortunately, some of our initial fears were realized with the dinner rolls, served as we were seated. They were soggy on the top and brittle on the bottom, apparently leftovers from a banquet the night before. We ordered our dinners with apprehension.

Three of the appetizers quickly erased our unpleasant experience with the bread. An evening special, a quarter pound of peeled shrimp ($4.95), was loaded with cold, firm and juicy shrimp, served with a nicely sweet and spicy dipping sauce. The French onion soup gratinee ($3.25) came piping hot in an earthen crock, covered with a chunk of crusty bread topped with melted Swiss cheese. The broth was a rich, redolent stock, full of chunks of tender onions. The corn and crab chowder was especially good, with pieces of the crabmeat and kernels of sweet corn in a creamy chowder.

Other appetizers include an artichoke served either cold with fresh basil mayonnaise or hot with butter (both come with an interesting tarragon honey), brie en croute, and shrimp saute with cinnamon.

Nearly two dozen entrees, as well as several nightly specials, are offered, ranging from seafood, beef, veal, poultry and pork dishes to sandwiches, salads, fish and chips, oriental stir fry, and pasta dishes. Prices range from $5.95 for the five-ounce hamburger to $17.50 for the combination plate, with choices that include two of either New York steak, prime rib, halibut, stuffed shrimp or chicken marsala. Dinner prices include soup or dinner salad, rice pilaf, seasonal vegetables and dinner roll.

Each of our entrees was served hot, with attention to color and texture. The creamy sauce on the chicken Jerusalem ($13.95) was accentuated by sherry and several artichoke hearts. The New York steak was served atop a Bordelaise, a bit too thick and salty for our tastes; but the Bearnaise on top of the tender steak was just buttery enough. The shrimp stuffed with crabmeat were also nicely prepared and presented, but the real favorite was the fresh halibut with dill hollandaise ($11.95). The fish was perfectly moist with just enough sauce to complement rather than overpower the halibut.

Each of the dinner salads was a generous mix of crisp green lettuce. We especially liked the house dressing, a creamy Dijon vinaigrette. Special care was also apparent with the rice pilaf, bits of sauteed carrots, celery and almonds, and the sauteed squash and red bell pepper, seasoned with just a touch of coarse ground pepper.

A variety of desserts are also offered, including cheese cake, double rich chocolate layer cake, sorbet, fried ice cream, sundaes and bread pudding. We especially enjoyed the latter, served with a mild rum sauce.

Other entrees include broiled salmon, scampi, calamari almondine, veal picatta, pork tenderloins with a rosemary Dijon cream sauce, London broil, filet Madagascar with a green peppercorn sauce, beef Stroganoff, eggplant parmesan, steamed vegetable plate, chicken fried steak, seafood Alfredo, pasta primavera and pasta carbonara.

As we finished our meal, we visited with a professor friend who was wooing a prospective colleague from out of state to join the faculty by treating him to dinner at Impressions. If their experience was anything like ours, the university has a chance. An exceptional meal just might counteract some of the university's recent woes.

Rating: ****

Impressions, University Park Hotel, 480 Wakera Way (approximately 600 South and Foothill Boulevard), 581-1000. Dinner served from 5:30 p.m. until 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; until 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Sunday brunch, 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Accepts major credit cards and check with guarantee card. Ten percent discount for diners 65 and older.