Pillar of SALT
Salt Bar & Kitchen started as the offshoot of 12th Ave Grill. Though calling itself a “bar with food,” it was our Weekly readership’s top pick as new restaurant in 2011 and is this year’s Honolulu Magazine restaurant of the year. Chef/Owner Quinten Frye is also a semifinalist for the James Beard Rising Star Chef of 2013. Somebody up there likes them.
Although Martha Cheng gave the charcuterie a whirl for an August, 2011 essay, we’ve never gotten around to a full review. Why? The menu seemed to be evolving. Nine months passed. When I returned for my second visit I still had quibbles. To someone raised on real Touraine rillettes, the charcuterie board’s version ($21) tasted like repurposed kalua pig; the accompanying all-star salumi were a tad bland; and the catch of the day ($21), opakapaka, was a scratch. One of us ordered the cheese board ($18) and was not pleased when it arrived without the server-advertised Pt. Reyes Blue and on a piece of wood so small there was no room for cutting. A delicately phrased complaint had no effect, but when the diners next to us ordered the same they got much larger board and portions. (Cheese envy runs deep.) Only the appetizers shone and there was a sense the place was chasing trends a little too strenuously. Exhibit A: poutine. Cheese curds with gravy over french fries? Who needs Montreal’s heart attack, when we already have Spam musubi?
The star that night was a long narrow plate with charred tako, chorizo, vegetables and broiled grape tomatoes aligned as if on a brochette ($12). It was like grazing your way up the Peloponnese Peninsula. I was happy to see it on the menu when I went back again, but the flash-fried oysters ($13) rivaled it in the foodie firmament. Mexican peppery and lightly adorned with citrus and herbs, they made us want to stop right there and eat nothing else.
This time, the house-made charcuterie board ($21) was lean-back-in-your-chair impressive. Everything had evolved: the rillettes done right, rough-hewn and streaked with fat; the chicken liver with maple balsamic delicious, unctuous; a pork belly terrine inspiring greedy stabs with the toasted bread; the bresaola papery and savory and the mortadella a moist flap of flavor.
A Tibetan Buddhist monk in our party, visiting from Dharamsala, gave special thanks for his brown butter gnocchi entree ($18)–monastery food sucks, apparently. Everyone raved over its layering of pancetta, manchego, oyster mushrooms, lemon confit, tomatoes and garlic puree. The one suggestion: Warm the plate. Gnocchi cools fast.
On a previous visit, we had ordered hamburgers and soon wished we’d been braver. The Maui Cattle Co. grass-fed burger ($13) is big, the patty flopping outside the bun, but I think it’s time for a burger-on-every-menu moratorium anyway. The problem is that diners like us, hungry and impatient that night, are easily led astray.
This time we ventured boldly. “Hook, line & sinker” was monchong (market price, $26 that night), fresh and topped by a crispy sheet of parchment which, it turned out, was the “sauce”–with spices literally awww-inducing. While bland duck confit pot stickers ($8) disappointed, the “duck duck ramen bowl” ($15), a new menu addition, was pleasing: chunks of tasty duck breast in a roasted apple broth, with shiitake mushrooms and a “space egg” plopped on top.
But the comfort food prize goes to the brick-pressed Jidori chicken ($24), served under a dark red mole with quartered roast fingerling potatoes and a roasted “Mexican street” ear of corn very lightly dusted with a cumin-chili pollen and the husk yanked back over the stem. (It looked like a Children of the Corn doll.) The all-natural-feed, no-drugs, free-range Jidori chicken is famous for same-day slaughtering and for not being pumped full of water.
Even if flown in from LA, it was the juiciest bird I’ve ever tasted, and that mole moves it into my top column for Mexican dishes in Honolulu.
That we still have many dishes to go before reaching the limits of a not-large menu is an indication, I think, of how satisfying things can be at Salt. The trio of dessert choices ($8 each) looked good but we were sated–until, that is, the Monk sighed. I picked up on it immediately and we ordered the creme brulee with churro to share. Sharing became a problem. The still-warm Mexican fried dough stick, cinnamon/sugar crusted, is perfect for dipping into a perfect creme brulee. Who knew? Now we do.
On the libations side, a bottle of Val de Loire Chardonnay, refreshing and un-oaked, went surprisingly well with everything, including the mole. The wine list is tight and intriguing, if on the high side. Those who like their craft cocktails and microbrews will enjoy, I suspect, the bar at Salt, which is downstairs and packed, as are the small side tables. When the bar patrons grow up and pair off I know they’ll appreciate the upstairs dining area and service as much as we did.