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Restaurants & Bars 1

the new Salts

MC Slim JB | Apr 10, 2004 01:55 AM

I find out that the new Salts is open (thank you, Sauce), and like a true Pavlovian race over for dinner. It's an old tug-of-war with me: the desire to try out a new-new place vs. the repeatedly-learned lesson that the shakedown cruise is always bumpy. Who but a fool would expect anything but imperfect kitchen work dulled by less-than-clockwork service? I know in my gut that it's better to wait until they've worked the bugs out, but I still show up in the early days, every hopeful.

Good news: an amuse bouche that really is a genuinely appetite-sharpening mouthful, a fine dice of barely-cooked beets and a thumbnail of chevre. The bright-green pea soup seems barely cooked, like fresh puree was just heated up to serving temperature, with a few whole peas added for peppery, textural interest. It tastes like spring, and a floating marshmallow-sized cylinder of cool foie gras pate makes a perfect foil, almost like a liver-flavored dollop of creme fraiche.

The "pot-au-feu" is non-traditional: veal sweetbread, tongue, and short ribs. The sweetbread follows a recent trend I don't like: a nearly fist-sized portion of an organ that's overwhelming in richess. I'd rather see half of it in small pieces with a crispier coating. Still tasty, though. The slices of tongue are few, delicate, and lovely: nothing quite like that texture. The short ribs are the best bit, though again there's too much of them. Like my beloved beef short ribs, but finer-grained, leaner, lighter. These rest in a small puddle of very good broth and al dente baby vegetables. Accompaniments of pickles (gherkins and ramps), sea salt, and grainy mustard seem a bit superfluous.

Mixed news: tasty rolls are marred by concrete-like crusts (overbaked or overwarmed?), saved by heavenly butter served in a cute little covered dish that my date is tempted to steal (and no doubt others will).

Bad news: very long pause, nearly 30 minutes, between appetizers and entrees. It shows: a small plate of papparadelle with spring peas, duck pancetta, and cepes is clearly warmed over and dried out. It doesn't help that it boasts only a couple of pinhead-sized duck cubes. Might have been good within minutes of the chef assembling it, but it is really tired by the time it hits the table.

Service is friendly but oddly off-kilter. A little more hustle and attention to table bussing would be welcome. There's plenty of staff on hand for this smallish dining room; we wonder what the heck they're doing in the long pauses between sightings. It feels like the kind of half-baked service you get on very slow nights in some places, but the house is about full, exactly when one expects more efficient service.

One standout: a room centerpiece of a well-stocked cheese table. We order a six-item plate after marvelling over the assortment up close for a few minutes. Standouts are a dark-orange, crumbly old Cheddar, an Irish blue, a salty Sardo, and a Basque semi-firm cheese. Prettily cut and accompanied by membrillo, comb honey, dried figs, and a whole-wheat, cracker-like flatbread (odd, but it works). The excellence of this course helps plow under the meal's earlier shortcomings.

Wines run heavily to French and American, with a handful of options under $40, and most in the $45-70 range. I am very happy to see nearly 20 half-bottles on this list. We find a respectable Chateauneuf-de-Pape for $45, which to our great pleasure is served at cellar temperature. (At home, we serve our reds too warm and our whites too cold, but we're not a French restaurant.)

Decor is not an improvement over the old Salts; it has the slightly unfinished, cheap-accoutrements feeling that Dedo had in its first months.

Three apps, an entree, wine, the big cheese plate, and an oloroso sherry run to $130 pre-tax and -tip. This is hardly the worst early-days experience I've had recently (that would go to Excelsior), but I'm hoping at least for more sprightly service and better kitchen pacing on future visits. But we do plan to go back!

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