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Head to Salt for flavorful food

Where in Baltimore can you spend $21 on a tiny burger and fries and think they are worth every penny? Try Salt, the new restaurant and bar in the Butchers Hill-Patterson Park area.

The burger ($14) is a Lilliputian chopped sirloin, perfectly grilled and wonderfully flavorful. It's enthroned on a small, warm, soft roll and topped with a generous piece of velvety foie gras instead of lettuce and tomato, truffle aioli instead of mayo and red onion marmalade instead of ketchup.The crisp sticks of potato are deep fried in duck fat, which adds a texture and flavor only those who remember potato chips fried in lard can imagine. And they aren't oversalted (despite the name of the restaurant), so you can taste the potato. They come in a paper cone with a trio of sauces: white truffle, chipotle and orange mango aioli. Ignore that last one; just because we're conditioned from childhood to eat ketchup doesn't mean any other sweet sauce works with french fries.

Salt's food is New American at its best, which these days means regional foods with Asian and South American influences. Salt's owner-chef Jason Ambrose has worked in local kitchens as varied as Henninger's, Soigne, the Atlantic, Simon's of Butchers Hill and Taste. But this menu, like the restaurant, is very much his own creation. He named the place Salt, he told me over the phone, because of one of his first food memories, when he saw his grandfather putting a little salt on honeydew melon. He tried it, and realized for the first time what a seasoning could do.

It doesn't hurt, as he says, that the name is short, sweet and easy to remember; but don't think it means that salt is a primary ingredient in the various dishes.

If mini-burgers and french fries aren't your idea of a first course, Ambrose creates a sort of decadent guacamole out of avocado and lump crab meat, which he sandwiches between two crisp tortilla chips, then garnishes with two fat chili powder-dusted shrimp. He marinates thin slices of kobe beef in coffee, then skewers and grills them, for a sharply flavorful sate, enhanced with a tropical dice of mango and pineapple.

Explosive flavor is Ambrose's trademark, starting with the sun-dried tomato tapenade that arrives at the table with olive bread after you're seated. He surprises when you least expect it. Lamb stroganoff sounds straightforward, but the braised meat arrives in a handsome white bowl with a few tender wide noodles, fresh baby spinach and wild mushrooms in a delicate but emphatically seasoned gravy. Chunks of pork tenderloin scented with bourbon and ancho peppers have a Caribbean flair. The pork, skewered on a piece of sugar cane, lies on a hash of sweet potatoes and Andouille sausage.

Housemade ravioli stuffed with duck confit are out of this world, more like an Asian noodle soup than the Italian original, with a wild mushroom sauce caught somewhere between a broth and a thickened soup. It's almost, but not quite, better than the pasta.

Ambrose takes a hunk of sushi-grade tuna and sears it with cracked pepper. Coriander, soy and ginger are in the mix. The center is ruby red and still cold unless you ask for it otherwise. A piquant seaweed salad and spicy little Asian pot stickers filled with cooked tuna keep it company.

Given the name of the restaurant, I suppose it's no surprise that the sweets aren't as thrilling as the savory dishes, but they are competently done. There's a creme brulee, of course, and a decent macadamia nut tart. I enjoyed the blueberry pie with freshly whipped cream, and I loved the whimsy of three miniature ice cream cones rimmed in chocolate and filled with two different gelati and an ice cream. The after-dinner coffee was freshly brewed.

Salt has its problems -- they just don't involve food. The No. 1 problem is parking. There is none. (I'm told the restaurant is working on it.) Next is the fact that Salt doesn't take reservations. Don't even think of going in prime time; the place has already been discovered.

And then there's the noise. Salt is divided into a dining room and a bar, two small rooms with high ceilings, bare wood floors, exposed brick walls and large, handsome light fixtures. It's hip, fun and good-looking, but there's no fabric to absorb sound.

In spite of those negatives, Salt is still the best new restaurant to come along in '06. The fine food is complemented by the affordable bistro wine list on back of the menu, about 30 bottles in all. And these days when you find this good a restaurant that's still trying to keep most of its entrees under $20 -- well, I have to say run, don't walk. (Especially since you won't be able to park your car anyway.)

Food: ****

Service: ***

Atmosphere: ** 1/2

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