Occupying a corner of a particularly attractive block of townhouses near Patterson Park, the building bearing the sign “Salt” has the come-hither look you want from a neighborhood restaurant: classy, subtle, pristine. The enticement continues inside, where an intimate, understated space has welcomed folks for more than a decade with imaginative fare.
That fare underwent tweaks with the arrival last spring of executive chef Conrad Nieberding, who introduced more small plates and heightened international flavors. Asian fusion flourishes abound — kimchi, lychee, lemongrass, nuoc cham and gochujang are among the ingredients that pop out. Middle Eastern and Latin American influences are part of the mix, too. Clearly, no walls are being built at this self-described “New American tavern.”
A group of us got a diverse, mostly satisfying taste of Salt on a night when business was light, making it seem even more personal. It’s just as enjoyable when the scene is livelier, complete with patrons ensconced at the long, beautifully lit and appointed bar. The cocktails we tried from that bar, including a peach old-fashioned, proved satisfying, if not distinctive. There’s also a concise, nimbly chosen and very reasonably priced wine list.
From the smaller-portion offerings, the crispy-fried bok choy made a great impression at our table, revealing terrific texture and a delectable, slightly smoky taste. The cabbage rested on an assemblage of grapes, smoked walnuts and sumac yogurt, which made for a piquant melding. But it was the veg that really jumped out.
Another winner was the cornbread — hot, moist and vibrantly flavored (aided by smoked fennel salt), served in a small castiron skillet. A medley of cold, pickled vegetables placed on top provided a piquant touch but seemed superfluous. (The cornbread is among the dishes not available on the winter menu. I hope it returns.)
The squash consomme — a gently spiced broth surrounding root vegetables and foie gras wontons — proved an elegant starter. For some of us carnivores, foie gras is a food too far (we consider the usual methods for producing it to be inhumane), so I worked around the wontons. Those at the table who partook felt that ingredient hardly registered.
Salt’s duck fat fries continue to be a staple, and rightly so. They come with two sauces — black truffle and Old Bay malt vinegar aioli — but don’t really need either. Served in a traditional paper cone, they tasted so fresh and un-greasy that I immediately craved a classic, sizzling steak to go with it. That was not to be.
Among the menu’s “big plates” I tried was a pan-roasted, dry-aged strip steak. Presented in neat little slices, it could not have been much more tender. But the flavor had a vaguely sweet element to it that didn’t quite work; I was reminded more of pork tenderloin than of fist-pumping beef. Sharing the plate were vibrantly roasted Brussels sprouts and, less welcome, a squash apple puree and some confit shallot butter. The whole package suggested that the kitchen had not considered the potential advantages of a less-is-more concept.
That suspicion was reinforced by the pan-seared tilefish entree. The flaky filet, cooked with nuance, was impeccable. But it swam awkwardly against a tide of sunchoke puree, rapini and kabocha squash sauce. Doesn’t anyone serve a plain piece of fish anymore?
No disappointment, though, with one of the sandwich choices. It was piled thick with mojo-marinated roast pork, given an emphatic kick from sunflower mole verde, dijon and seasoned red cabbage, all served on a perfect ciabatta.
Seasoned Salt fans will take comfort that you can still get the restaurant’s signature dessert, the goat cheese doughnuts, served with lavender honey and coffee ice cream. Almost like doughnut holes in size and reminiscent of fritters in texture, they are delectable.
Another dessert, a honeycrisp bourbon waffle, was an airy, flavorful concoction finished with a maple tuile and maple foie gras ice cream (the consensus at the table: more maple than foie gras).
The creamy, caramel/sea salt ice cream that came with the chocolate pecan pie would make a worthy dessert on its own. Too bad the heavy-on-the-chocolate pie had a gummy texture and bland crust.
Those few disappointments aside, something about the place — the imaginative menu, the smooth and welcoming service (and one heck of a lucky parking space) — made for a decidedly enjoyable evening. This clearly is a restaurant still — yes, I am going there — worth its salt.
Rating: 3.5 stars
Where: 2127 E. Pratt St., Upper Fells Point
Contact: 410-276-5480, salttavern.com
Open: 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday; 5 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Prices: Small plates and sandwiches $8 to $15; entrees $18 to $35.
Food: New American
Noise/TVs: Moderate noise level; one TV (sound kept off) above the bar.
Service: We were quickly and pleasantly greeted at the door and served at the table.
Parking: Street (Good luck with that.)
Special diets: They can be accommodated.
Reservation policy: Accepts reservations.
Handicap accessible: Yes
[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star.]