SALT Kitchen and Tasting Bar is not Kevin Hanney’s dream restaurant. It is, as he calls it, his “second plan B,” with 12th Ave Grill being the first. Twenty-two years ago, he was in Santa Cruz putting together an upscale deli and charcuterie shop when the 1989 earthquake hit. The project never happened; and since then, his search for a suitable deli space has been interrupted. He still hasn’t found his perfect spot, but in the meantime, he did find a nook in Kaimuki for 12th Ave Grill, serving up higher-end American comfort food for the past seven years.
“I laughingly tell people, when I opened 12th Ave Grill, I was really looking for a location to do an upscale deli and takeout charcuterie,” Hanney says. “I just couldn’t find a location that was suitable for that, but you go with the flow and when opportunities present themselves, you gotta take it.”
SALT, which opened in June, was another opportunity. “For seven years I heard ‘you know what this town needs is a good bar,’” he says. “I’ve heard that a lot…a place to go and grab a bite to eat, a drink, and not be scared to go into, not a dive bar.” SALT took advantage of a confluence of events: the demand for a bar in Kaimuki; the vacating of the perfect bar space, a tall and narrow storefront on Waialae Avenue, which used to be C & C Pasta, then Bella Donna; meeting and hiring Bob McGee, a chef who shared the same farm-to-table, snout-to-tail sensibilities as Hanney; and the sudden popularity and the accessibility to local whole hogs that would enable SALT’s charcuterie program.
But, like the deli that has yet to happen, things don’t always fall into place. One morning, Hanney was talking up McGee as a good fit for both 12th Ave Grill and SALT with his charcuterie interests, but by the end of the day, McGee was let go and Hanney had installed Quentin Frye as chef de cuisine and Doug Kocol as charcutier. Hanney won’t go into the details and is instead focused on promoting Frye and Kocol.
Based on visits before and after McGee’s departure, the transition has been handled well. The small plates are all fine and good–a charred citrus ceviche, clams and chorizo–but it’s the pig that I’m here to experience, whether it’s a grilled house sausage or a pork belly (more like bacon than a slab of belly) sandwich. For those looking for an intensified experience of pig, the house charcuterie platter is a must, though it has changed somewhat since SALT first opened. There are fewer cured meats on the charcuterie platter, which may be less a function of charcuterie experience than the physical limitations of SALT’s curing fridge, which is no bigger than most home refrigerators. (Hanney is currently building another curing box.) Still, charcuterie encompasses more than just cured meats, and the recent assemblage of a silky chicken liver pate, breaded and fried headcheese, and a deliciously porky offal terrine earned their right to be on the house charcuterie platter, along the more technically difficult coppa (cured pork shoulder) and fennel salami.
At 26, Kocol is among the younger chefs in Honolulu, especially as the steward of SALT’s charcuterie program. He employs one of the oldest forms of food preservation–salting and curing meats. Along with Hanney, Kocol is responsible for butchering the two to three pigs SALT receives weekly from Shinsato Hog Farm; determining the grind size and casings for the sausages; and preparing and hanging lomo (cured pork loin), guanciale (pork jowl), salami, prosciutto and other charcuterie that gets pork fiends in a tizzy. (Oh, and in the evening, Kocol is also sous chef at 12th Ave Grill.)
Charcuterie is more akin to pastry than cooking; it relies on repetition, practice and patience. Every restaurant Kocal’s worked at since he was 18 has produced charcuterie. “It’s one of those things that not many people do anymore. I have deep, deep feelings towards it because [preserving meat] is part of our history as humans,” Kocal says. “I don’t feel like cooking is an art, I feel like it’s a craft, but there’s a couple things about cooking that could be considered art forms, and I think charcuterie is one of them. It’s so meticulous, so specific, and when it comes down to it, you don’t necessarily have 100 percent control.”
There are few things (if any) that we have perfect control over, as Hanney could probably attest to, but an element of caprice mixed in with a lot of work and preparation gives us wonderful things, like charcuterie and SALT.