Savoring A Bistro That Comes Very Close To Getting It Right
Reviewing restaurants often involves the observation of absence, and the troubling thing about so many new restaurants is not what’s there but what isn’t—a purpose, a mission, a soul. And while it’s possible to envision vividly what a perfect little contemporary neighborhood bistro ought to be, it really is just that—a vision of accumulated bits and pieces of real and imagined places. Now there is the whole of Salt (2127 E. Pratt St.,  276-5480) to take in, and it serves as a paradigm for the rest.
First, let’s agree that Salt is a pretentious name for a corner bistro. (Its owners are calling Salt a “new American tavern.”) Let’s agree to disagree about the lamps. Clustered over the bar, hanging in three rows of seven, are 21 oversized alien-surgery lamps, purple on the shell, Martian-green on the inside. They’re weird, and though they signal an individualistic touch, they also give some folks the distinct heebies. Salt is already too crowded—and reservations are only taken for parties of six or more—so if the anti-lampers stay away, that would be a small blessing.
Look past the lamps—just try—and admire the careful balance of Butchers Hill warmth and metropolitan zest: the building-length series of windows that embrace the mature city streetscape (so that, approaching it, a love for Salt builds before the hostess even swings open the glass door for you); the expansive use of brick and smoked-glass surfaces; the judicious placement of comfortable tables, both in the bar area and the square-shaped dining room. Enjoy the jazzy music, set loud enough to be understood but not too loud for conversation. Choose to ignore, or at least forgive, the awkward view into the kitchen area, which reveals more about how a waiter picks up your food than how a chef cooks it.
Then, dive into the menu. It’s a good one, especially for an initial offering. Its size feels right—about 10 each of appetizers and entrées—and so does its mix of meat, seafood, chicken, and pasta. Nothing feels forced, or trite, or patronizing. Instead it reads like food people want to eat and which this particular chef, Jason Ambrose formerly of Soigné, makes well. It’s playful in a way that gives pleasure. For example, a foie gras and sirloin “slider” burger ($15) is served as an appetizer and outfitted with truffle aioli and red onion marmalade. With this, you learn a little about what the chef thinks like, and perhaps feel a small connection with him, but you also get a nifty little hamburger whose tastes fill your mouth with richness while waking up your palate.
Some fries with your burger? Salt’s meaty fries ($8) are rendered in duck fat and served Belgian style in a paper wrapper with three aioli dipping sauces, but the only one you’ll need is laced with white truffle oil. Considered alone, the fries could be crispier—saltier, too. Try, too, the wild mushroom risotto cake ($7), which doesn’t immediately suggest itself as a four-way shareable appetizer but is infused with just enough Gorgonzola cheese—and, for once, convincible Gorgonzola; it’s often doubtful—to make for one or two intensely pleasurable bites.
Prince Edward Island mussels ($10) are served cunningly in a hinged copper pot—the shells go in the lid—that elevates the table experience. They’re good, too, bathed in a tomato-saffron-garlic sauce, flecked with cubes of serrano ham. (The good olive bread is not right for mopping, though.)
Entrées satisfy enormously—such as the sweet crust of a sugarcane-skewered pork tenderloin ($18) and the juicy meat underneath, the sensibility of its ancho bourbon glaze and the surprisingly delicacy of an accompanying sweet potato and andouille hash. Such as the ample, tender meat in a helmet-sized bowl of lamb stroganoff ($18), with perfectly cooked wide noodles and the nervy but welcome introduction of fresh spinach. Such as the early-June yellow-corn tomato salsa and creamy white-corn polenta that helps make a meal out of a garlicky and buttery free-range chicken breast ($17), itself a model of juiciness. And, finally, an oven-roasted salmon fillet ($19), leant interest by lump-crab and potato gnocchi and a thoughtfully applied tomato chive beurre blanc.
Salt caught on instantaneously. Plan your first visit for an early weeknight and prepare to wait, with a glass of Spanish white wine, by the window, under the green lamps.