Perhaps it wasn't the brightest idea for the owners of Salt to think they could get away with opening as a "grocery" store, trying to make a sneaky end run around the moratorium of new restaurant openings on Ossington's restaurant row. Because soon after opening they were forced to shut down. Thankfully for them, when Joe Pantalone lost his run for mayor, the moratorium came down faster than the falling pizza dough at the neigbouring Pizzeria Libretto.
And we're glad it did. Salt is not just
one more haunt to line this street of tragically hip eateries: it is further proof that it doesn't take oodles of cash to create a chic and sexy boite for sipping and supping in this town. Despite what seems like a modest design budget, co-owners William Tavares and veteran restaurateur Albino Silva (Chiado, Circo, Adega, Senhor Antonio and Oasi) have taken cosy to a charming new level: mid-century modern chairs of no particular pedigree complement rustic wooden slab tabletops framed by warmly stained plywood shelving filled with "groceries" like pickles, preserves, Portuguese olive oils and, of course, imported sea salt all set aglow by the magical lighting of mismatched chandeliers.
First-time exec chef Dave Kemp, former chef de partie at Splendido, and most recently, chef de cuisine at Prego, turns out some pretty fine, well-executed and inexpensive finger foods oozing with culinary sincerity. But don't let the low price per item lull you into thinking you can gorge your face off. It can add up as most dishes are on the smaller side and you could find yourself ordering quite a few to satisfy a normal adult human appetite. Of everything sampled, the only real disappointment is a trio of grilled sardines ($10) on a baguette with too-roasted fennel that lacks even a hint of anise or that familiar crunch. A Basque-style lobster bisque ($7) is surprisingly both fragrant and flavourful in spite of a dishwater-thin broth. A razor thin wagyu beef crudo ($10) is as delicate as it gets, a drizzle of truffle oil and quail eggs adding real dimension and depth. And a charcuterie with culatello ($12) is literally the tastiest piece of ass you can get this cheap.
With all the local bakeries in town, you might think that chef would think to use something other than standard-issue Ace Bakery baguette. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but for every f%$#ing dish? Nevertheless, this time it is heaped with pricey oyster mushrooms, garlic and parsley ($8); near perfection except for the fact that it is in dire need of a salt shaking, a recurring problem in too many dishes, an irony not lost on yours truly at a place called Salt.
Salt cod quenelles with parsley aioli ($5), really just a trendy version of latkes - are crunchy outside and pillowy within. Serrano croquettes ($5), like tiny gourmet pizza pockets, explode in your mouth, alas, they too could use a hefty bit of seasoning. Fortunately an easy fix. But there is nothing to improve on with the duck confit ($16) served on a velvety bed of mashed parsnip and potato with a mini-moat reduction of plum and sherry. And a wagyu short rib sandwich with carmelized onions and horseradish aioli ($11) goes down perfectly with a Chihuahua martini ($10) with fresh grapefruit rimmed in Himalayan mountain salt.
The problem with tapas is they don't take too long to prepare and that means dishes that keep parading to the table without enough time to savour between plates. Slow down. Part of the fun of this type of service is enjoying a leisurely pace over a nice glass of wine. At times it felt like a Russian banquet, with one dish piled up on the other. In fact the only time there is ample time between servings is after we sent back a virtually raw order of cinnamon churros with 70 per cent Belgian chocolate ($8). A second is only marginally better, but complimentary glasses of Moscatel de Favaios demonstrate how eager management is to please. And it is precisely how well pecadillos like this are handled that make it a true barometer for how long a place will last.
And Tavares seems pretty confident that it will. His next venture is almost ready to open. Look for Fishbar three doors down that promises more enticing small-plate sea offerings.