Salt's new chef maintains focus in the Central West End
Photography by Kevin A. Roberts
Dinner Wed–Mon, brunch Sat–Sun
Average Main Course: $21
Reservations: Don’t leave home without ’em.
Dress: To quote Coco Chanel, “Classy and fabulous.”
Chef: Josh Roland
The table for two in front of the giant window looking out onto Lindell Boulevard is No. 3 on the list of the most romantic dining spots in St. Louis. Any seat here, though, is high on the list for “gracious dining,” the sort enjoyed by serious adults in places that, of late, couldn’t be harder to find if they entered the witness-protection program.
Salt’s wonderful and gracious for many reasons, one of them being what it’s not. There’s a felicitous lack of trendiness here. No ingredient genealogies are on the menu. You won’t find dodecahedron-shaped plates or other dishes resembling geometry exercises. But Salt does have creased linens, comfortable tables, and deft service. A menu of limited offerings provides unlimited potential for discriminating diners. And a fairly new executive chef, Josh Roland, knows the difference between silly and serious.
The Greek Revival mansion is imposing on the outside, but airy and charming inside. What begins with a grand left-hand volute ascends in a swooping walnut staircase. And yes, those beautiful restrooms that were upstairs when the building housed Savor are still there. Artwork is quirky—with odd cartoons alongside portraits of American authors—but not offensive. Though wooden floors and tall ceilings can combine to make interior spaces like echo chambers, Salt’s numerous small dining rooms keep noise under control. While the atmosphere is relaxed, there’s a thoroughly pleasant formality that’s endearing.
The menu leans heavily on Salt’s predilection for first-rate protein. The duck catches one’s eye; it’s stunningly tasty. A breast is split and pan-roasted, the skin caramel, glistening, and crackly. When the waitress suggested medium rare, we upped the ante and asked for rare—and we got it, the meat the deep, vibrant rosy carmine of a January sunset. The duck’s generously basted with sorghum, providing a subtle, lip-smacking sweetness. It’s a genius addition, a combination of sweet and savory that’s how duck à l’orange would like to taste. The braised greens (kale) accompanying the duck are, unfortunately, foul. The tough, fibrous stems taste like well-boiled AstroTurf.
Speaking of duck, we’re generally opposed to interspecies relationships on our plate—things like turducken, for example. We make an exception when duck fat cozies up with chicken. Battered perfectly, with what tastes like a dusting of fine cornmeal mixed into the flour, the boneless chicken is deep-fried in Daffy fat to a crusty mahogany. The “blistered” green beans alongside are nicely textured and taste like a July garden. Mashed potatoes are buttery-smooth, satisfyingly starchy; they complement that chicken like “next year” does Cardinals baseball.
Salt’s pork cheeks are braised to luscious tenderness in a soy-sauce broth. (It tastes like a succulent pot roast.) The cheeks are accompanied, to good effect, by grilled apple slices and a salad of young spinach tossed with creamy whole figs. Delectable. Sadly, steak lovers won’t be able to say the same about the rib-eye. The meat’s flavor is superb—it’s been masterfully grilled—but the cut is carelessly chosen, with too much gristle. This was the only serious flaw, and one that’s easily remedied.
A chicken-liver pâté, a pork terrine, smoked trout: Appetizers are all tempting enough, you’ll consider making a meal of them. Pork belly is rarely a bad idea. Here, it’s splendid, braised to tenderness, then paired with small pickling cucumbers that are piquant and just al dente. Is the finocchiona really that, we nagged our waitress, and not it’s gamier sister, sbriciolona? It is, she assured us. Remember the summer sausage at Nickerson Farms back in the ’60s? Finocchiona is like a more aromatic, tastier version. Almost jerky-dry, it’s house-made and bursting with meaty, herby flavor. With dry toast and house-made mustard, it’s a thoroughly engaging charcuterie item. Half a dozen cheese plates beckon. Go with the sensational Idiazabal, a nutty, lightly smoked sheep’s-milk cheese.
Do we really have to tell you how impossibly good the duck-fat French fries are? They’re even better dipped in a mildly garlicky mayo. Pork rinds taste like they came from a bag—which isn’t to say they’re not delicious—and are dusted with an addictive spicy barbecue powder. What elevates them is a smoky aioli that should increase your already-high regard for this porky snack.
Two salads are worth mentioning. Salt’s signature salad includes greens tossed with pickled onion, slivers of salted almonds, and blue-cheese curds. Even better is a salad of peppery frisée with thick bacon lardons, a poached egg, and cheddar cracker croutons in a sherry vinaigrette.
The deep-fried red velvet “twinkie” dessert isn’t as awesomely decadent as it sounds; accompanied by coffee ice cream, the portion’s small enough to be manageable. The flourless chocolate torte is so gooey, chocolatey, and explosively sweet that sharing is strongly advised.
A Munchkin-short wine list would still satisfy both diminutive oenophiles and you. If anything could make that duck better, you’ll find it in a bottle of 2006 Tudor pinot noir. The pork cheeks won’t be hurt a bit by a glass of 2009 Frank Family Vineyards Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon; the 2003 Hattenheim Pfaffenberg Kabinett Riesling is as unpronounceable as it is perfect with the magnificent duck fat–fried chicken.
St. Louis has its share of trend-o-riffic eateries, some good and a few outstanding. Salt isn’t trendy. One meal here should convince you just how nice—how “gracious dining”—that can be.
The Bottom Line: A beautiful, straightforward menu served in a four-star setting.
WEB EXCLUSIVE: Read more on finocchiona and sbriciolona, as well as how to pair wine with fried chicken.