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The Maddening Crowd 

Seasonal New American food in a reimagined industrial setting draws a noisy throng downtown

Wednesday, May 23 2007
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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."

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.

The Salt House's location, an oasis of charm tucked in among downtown office and residential towers, explained the overwhelming after-work crowd, and that therefore things would be much more sedate and quieter when Aline and I arrived for our 9:45 reservation. Ha. The bar crowd was almost as dense, and every table was full; we had to wait a few minutes for our table. We were seated at the edge of the main dining space, in comfy high-backed red leather chairs (other tables have wood-slatted ones). Though Peter had assured us that the back of the room was quieter when he returned from an exploratory foray, I found it just as loud, painfully so, as before.

The five baked oysters, lightly blanketed with spinach, bacon, and leeks, weren't quite the treat I'd expected. Nor was the foie gras, which seemed a bit stingy at $17. Two tiny collops of sautéed foie gras, barely two bites each, propped up on a hillock of frisée, and a two-bite slice of foie gras torchon, on a plate adorned with schmears of puréed dates and kumquats. The lightly cooked halibut charmed with its sweet, tender partners of shrimp, delicate green artichokes, and baby turnips. The similarly springlike lamb shoulder stew, with threadlike ramps and onions, would have pleased me much more if its English peas had not been sadly overcooked. I wondered if I was being nit-picky, reflecting on how easy it is to overcook fresh peas, as I'd done at home more than once. But, I thought, I wasn't charging myself $24 a plate, either.

Our desserts, a chilly pineapple ice cream cake and a re-run of the rather inexplicable strawberry roll seemed calculated, again, to free up the tables. But we did linger over coffee. Because, toward 11, when the place was emptying out, we could hear each other speak.

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Meredith Brody

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