By ANNE DESBRISAY
This big corner space of Preston Square has had two fairly short-lived restaurant tenants. The latest is called Salt, and I rather hope it’s third time’s the charm for this one.
Salt is a tall, dark, mod space, divided into bar, dining room, and patio. The design is generically industrial, though the chandeliers and custom iron work lend lustre. One wall is all windows framed with dark drapes. It overlooks a corner patio with fire pit, lounge furniture, and a nicely tended vegetable/herb garden in full swing. Another wall introduces a built-in of backlit spirits around a slick electric fireplace. The lounge at the front has a marble bar-top curved around a baby grand piano. The dining room proper is very dark, the walls and ceiling painted black. (Or possibly navy to match the drapes; hard to tell.) Outside the kitchen pass is a handsome shelving unit, loaded with carefully considered bits of culinary nostalgia (an old Joy of Cooking, a few ‘we love the whole pig’ cookbooks, many jarred preserves). It all looks designer-great.
Two problems marred my initial enjoyment of the place. One, was the pong of bleach, or some sort of industrial cleaning solution. (Not an unusual whiff at bars and restaurants these days, but a regrettable one: doesn’t whet the appetite.) And two, it was freezing cold. And quite dark. It was a welcome that had me bracing for a middling meal and a final bill that looked like it would be hefty.
The cold was dealt with by a gracious server. The smell faded (or we got used to it). The bill was indeed sizeable, but the food, as it happened, was disconcertingly delicious.
That may have to do with the fact that Salt, which is open 18 hours, seven days a week, has three chefs: Aaron Wong, most recently at Play; Jessica Hendren from Town; and Ryan Edwards, formerly of Taylor’s Genuine Food & Wine Bar. Three great restaurants.
The dinner menu is divided into small and large plates, and steaks. The pricing is a bit confusing. Small plates range from $12 to $39; large plates start at $16 and climb to $32.
We began at the bottom, with an elegant salad starring house cured and smoked salmon. On a long plate were three moist piles of the fish on a bed of pea shoots, dill fronds, carrot tops, and spinach, topped with pickled pearl onion, fennel, and jalapeño, injecting a bit of heat. Piped blobs of a luscious avocado mousse lent richness, and oiled caraway toast, crumbled overtop, gave crunch.
And then a dish so rich and good I ordered it again for lunch. (Partly so I could see it enough to photograph.) Billed as ‘pierogi gnocchi,’ these were big, bronzed pillows of gooey smoked potato, seasoned with a whiff of garlic, the soft texture within offset by the crisp out. On top were scattered hunks of blue cheese and strings of caramelized onion, some young arugula leaves, while creme fraiche perked up with pink peppercorns was the moisture beneath.
We loved the dish called “Kraken vs Halibut” and though the name suggests the fish would arrive wrapped in the octopus tentacles, the two elements were kept apart. I’ve had lousy halibut of late. Dry and dull. But this was a splendid finger of the fish, with a powerful sear and soft, moist petals of flesh set on a carpet of minted summer peas. Other successes included the salt brick chicken infused with lemon and bathed in brown butter, and a dry aged 20 ounce striploin for two with choice of sides and sauce.
Salt has a climate-controlled, dry-aging room — the only restaurant in the city with one of those, our server tells us — and their cuts are reported to hang for at least 45 days. This was a very fine steak, the meat musky, grilled to rare, sweet in places, and with a pronounced flavour of ripe cheese.
The one dud came at lunch with a so-whatish bolognese, the fresh pasta overcooked, the basil puree served as a streak on the plate, rather than mixed in where it would have done more good.
The wine list offers lots of bubbles by the glass, which is very good of them, and a generous, well chosen list of reds and whites in two pours. There’s a good craft beer list and though I can’t vouch for the ‘craft cocktails’ the young women chatting up the bartender appeared to be happy with them.
Salt’s a fine addition to an ever more interesting Preston Street.
Open daily from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Large Plates, $16 to $32
345 Preston Street, 613-693-0333 saltottawa.ca