Some restaurants are like rock stars. Everyone talks about them. They’re in every magazine, every newspaper, on every blog. First people can’t wait to be the one who discovered them, and then people can’t wait to be the first to dismiss them as nothing special. They have their devotees, their die-hard fans on one end of the spectrum and on the other end, a whole host of critics with complaints justified and unjustified.
But the point is, everyone knows about them. Rock stars, movie stars, and restaurants. Or maybe it just seems that way because I talk to a lot of people about food. But you know a restaurant has hit the big buzz when your mom brings it up:
“Salt? One of the women from work went there. They make you sit at long tables with other diners.”
Well, yes, Mom, they do. Sort of.
Since opening in last fall, Salt of the Earth has steadfastly proven itself the new diva of the local dining scene, which is kind of funny, considering how aptly named it turned out to be. While the restaurant has high-end trappings – at least for this city – the general feel, pace, and atmosphere of the restaurant is casual. Let me put it this way: I was wearing an old dress, my dining companion was wearing cords. We saw people in business type dress, we saw people in jeans. Nobody flinched. Nobody stared. It didn’t seem to matter in the slightest.
The main dining area of the restaurant is bordered by two opposing focal points: The large blackboard with the daily menu (the entire menu, including drinks, starters, entrees, and desserts, etc) on one side, the wide open kitchen on the other. The bar lines the far wall. There’s a smaller, more intimate setting upstairs and a few high-seater tables in the windows near the entrance, but the majority of the seating is exactly what my mother presumed, long tables lined by little benches. Oh, and of course, the counter seating that lines the open kitchen, which is exactly where me and my dining companion, Meghan, found ourselves when we visited this past Monday evening.
We started off right with cocktails. I can understand why those who are uninformed might chafe at being restricted to the pre-designed cocktails, but they are missing the greater game plan. The intention is to begin the meal on the right notes that will carry through the entire meal. In my case, I headed down a floral path with the vodka cocktail, a mix of Boyd&Blair, Creme Yvette, rose and elderflower. Our server summed it up perfectly: “It’s like when you see a beautiful flower and you want to take a bite of it. This drink tastes like biting a really delicious flower.” It was like drinking an edible flower patch. There were even tiny buds in my glass. Considering how potent the drink was, I still found it very, very refreshing.
Refreshing was also at play in Meghan’s gin drink, a cocktail of Bluecoat, Dolin Blanc, mint and cucumber. We expected to see a large slice of cucumber or even small, chewable chunks, but there was just the taste and a slightly texture. Otherwise, the drink was like a more vegged-out gin and tonic. The piney notes of the Bluecoat played well with the mild sweetness of the other elements, and the mint finished off the taste with a palatable sense of coolness. Nicely done.
Neither of us have ever tried snails, so we figured now would be a good time to start. They came in a mix of pasta, fennel and watercress, topped by melt-in-your-mouth sweetbreads and a creamy, garlicky sauce. The snails were chewy but not rubbery, like mushrooms with more resistance. But if I had wanted to focus purely on the snails, I was defeated in my efforts by the pasta, sweetbreads, and greens, all of which served the terrific base sauce better than the main ingredient. It’s hardly a quibble, however. We polished off the dish and briefly considered opting out of our entrees for another round.
I’m glad we didn’t opt out, because our entrees were fantastic. Meg’s softshell crab came fried in a tempura-like batter, resting atop seaweed, horseradish, potatoes, and tartar sauce. Combining the tartar sauce, potatoes, and crab, the dish took on a potato salad like consistency, but the individual flavors rang out. Meg did say she was a little disappointed that the potatoes were cubed and a little crunchy, as she might have preferred a softer version, but I did think it gave the dish a nice earthy counterpart to the soft, slippery seaweed and the fried crab.
We both agreed that the seitan baguette was a winner. I have had vegan bahn mi (a Vietnamese street food classic) before, at the Brillobox, where marinated and fried tofu took the place of the pork. It was pretty tasty. This, however…. Let me start by saying that this was hands-down the juiciest seitan I have ever eaten. It had the chewiness of the typical fatty pork used on bahn mi, and the right amount of heat to back it up. Chilis and jalapeno and pickles and cilantro, and then a squeeze or two of lime to bring the flavor back to an elemental tang. The mushroom pate was a really nice addition, as its flavor mellowed out some of the extreme heat of the other ingredients. It also had a habit of popping out of the baguette (which was marvelous) and dropping to the plate. No worries, that’s what furtive fingers are for.
I had gone into Salt intending on ordering a cheese plate for dessert. It wasn’t hard to convince Meghan, who is one of the more adventurous cheese-eaters I’ve known. Amid of scattering of nuts, apricots, apples and maple were generous slices of Calkin’s Creamery “Skinner’s Falls” and Common Folk blue cheese. The blue cheese was perfectly ripe, sharp, soft, and a little jarring to the palate. The creamier, lighter white was good on its own, but better when paired with the other elements on the dish.
[On a side note, our server made mention that the greens on the plate were from a farm just up the road. So of course, I had to exclaim a little delight, because he was referring to the Garfield Community Farm. The mustard greens that we were so enjoying on our cheese plate can also be found in my latest CSA package.]
We left Salt feeling elated, stuffed, and, thanks to our dessert wine pairing with the cheese plate, just a tiny bit buzzed. I also left feeling a bit gratified about the whole hype surrounding the restaurant.
There is reason why people talk about a place, just as there is reason why people talk about a rock star or movie star. We have a fascination with things that are ubiquitous but somehow unknowable. The only big difference is that with restaurants, provided that you have the funds, the time, and the ability to get there, you can actually get to know a place really, really well.
Salt of the Earth makes itself knowable and worth knowing from the time you walk in to the time you pay your bill, finish your sherry, and walk out the door. Unlike some chance giggly meeting with a famous person, I left feeling like I wanted to run into this new friend again. If I had more money, I’d probably eat there once a week.
As it stands, I will probably use any excuse to go back.