By Omar Mamoon
By Kate Williams
By Pete Kane
By Molly Gore
By Lou Bustamante
By Anna Roth
Arriving at Salt House after dark is exciting and a little mysterious: The trim little 100-year-old brick building is currently the sole occupant of its block, wedged between a parking lot and a construction site. Welcoming golden light spills out from its huge plate-glass windows, affording you the kind of relief you'd get seeing Grandmother's house after a long trek through the woods in one of Grimm's fairy tales.
Entering the place brings you right into the 21st century: This is urbane up-to-the-minute city dining, wittily inserted in an industrial space that once held a printing press (ah, times gone by). Its exposed brick, massive metal support beams, and wood floors still bearing evidence of the past now are complemented by wood tables, a long bar, and an entirely open kitchen. From that busy kitchen issues forth the kind of American cooking known as new, which means that on its menu you'll see charmoula along with chickpeas (part of the house-made merguez sausage appetizer), Serrano ham adorning the crispy-shrimp starter, with spicy green beans and almonds, and Medjool dates and kumquats adorning the duo of foie gras. Not quite your grandmother's kitchen.
The most unusual dish on the menu is the poutine, which I'd heretofore only seen in Montreal and not in fancy places, at that. It's an anomaly at the top of the sophisticated starters list. An I-dare-you-to-order-it dish: French fries dotted with bits of cheese, could be fontina, could be Bravo Farms cheddar, sided with a pitcher of thick, meaty short rib gravy. You can pour the gravy over the dish, or dunk the potatoes in it. In Canada, the decidedly lower-class poutine generally came to the table as fries drenched in gravy, minus any such exotica as cheese curds. Here it's apparently an in-joke hommage to the Canadian origins of co-owner Doug Washington, who refers to it as a "horrible dish a gutbomb" but ruefully admits that the version cooked up by co-owners and chefs Mitchell and Steven Rosenthal is "better than what I had in Canada."
545 Mission(at First St.)
San Francisco, CA 94104
Bitter Widow $9
Pickled vegetables $5
Pork belly $12
Shellfish stew $23
Tai snapper $27
This admission was heard on an episode of Opening Soon, the restaurant TV show that also in a past season devoted a half-hour to the trio's earlier restaurant, Town Hall, a bigger place with a similar aesthetic a few blocks away. The Salt House entry chronicled the quixotic efforts of the trio to open their dream of a less-upscale place offering "tavern grub with tons of choices." (Did the inevitable trials and tribulations inspire the mural of Don Quixote adorning the back wall?)
Peter, Anita, and I couldn't snag a reservation at the early hour we wanted, but the hostess said we had several options, including dining at a counter set in the front window, at the bar, or at a communal table. We arrived to find the counter full, the bar hidden behind a huge amorphous mass of happy folks, and (hallelujah!) two chairs about to open up at the end of the group table. My pals sat while I staked a claim by standing until another tall chair opened up. I was surprised, however, by the narrowness of the table: I'd expected something like the huge communal table set in a large alcove at Town Hall, not this slender plank.
Anita and I sipped exceptionally well-made and delicious cocktails. Hers, a Bitter Widow, with vodka, Campari, and sweet vermouth, and mine, a spicy ginger julep, while we perused the one-page menu, simplified somewhat from the Rosenthals' original expansive vision. Under shellfish selections, there's a list of oysters, seven that night, from California, Washington, Prince Edward Island, and New York, at $2.50 to $3 each, and a shellfish plateau at $42. Then there's 10 appetizers, three "snacks" of house-made pickled vegetables, marinated olives, mixed nuts with truffle honey, and seven entrees. We started with the poutine (of course), the pickled vegetable, pork belly with asparagus, a poached egg, and Parmesan, and a spring vegetable salad, which proved to be a fortuitous assortment. The astringent sharpness and bright colors of the pickles and the salad worked well, both in the mouth and visually, against the beige and brown richness of the potatoes, and the porky richness of the little rectangle of crunchy-skinned belly. The spring salad, containing threadlike green beans and tiny tomatoes as well as greens, was fresh and pretty, though I would have liked more assertiveness from its mild green garlic vinaigrette.
On to three rather delicate mains, all looking very pretty on stark-white china, either deep bowls or big shallow plates. Gently cooked curls of tai snapper came with still-toothy calamari braised in red wine and fennel. Anita loved her bowl of shellfish stew: plump shrimp, even plumper mussels in the shell, and clams in the shell, punched up with orange zest and adorned with still-crisp sugar snap peas and melting leeks. I was more enamored with the accoutrements of my roasted Fulton Valley chicken, asparagus, preserved lemon, fingerling potatoes, and the nice salty surprise of chorizo sausage, than I was with the bird itself, a semi-boned creation sliced into thick and somewhat stolid chunks. As lucky as I felt to snag an end of the communal table, it was difficult to enjoy my meal, buffeted by the truly extraordinary noise level and the bar crowd pressing against my back. And the dullish desserts, a "chocolate bar" that was a slab of ganache encrusted with chopped peanuts, and a rather inexplicable warm filo-dough pastry stuffed with underripe strawberries, didn't inspire us to linger under the charming chandeliers that look like they're made from old postcard racks because they indeed are.