Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Dish on Dining: Salt House

New hotspot needs more time to cure

545 Mission St. (near First Street), San Francisco
(SOMA/Financial District)
Lunch, M-F, 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner, Sun.-Mon., 5:30 p.m.-midnight, Tues.-Sat., 5:30 a.m.-1 a.m.
PH: (415) 543-8900
(Reservations/major credit cards accepted)

Sometimes it's not always best to be first.

I was so excited about the talk surrounding the arrival of Salt House--the new venture from the people behind the ridiculously popular Town Hall--that I wanted to try it right away. So I visited the hip dining spot just four weeks after it opened in what was once an old printing press warehouse from the 1930s.

In less than a month, it is already difficult to get a decent Saturday night dinner reservations. And on the Saturday night that I was there, you could tell Salt House was the place to be because also spotted dining with her own party of four was Elizabeth Falkner, executive chef and owner of Citizen Cake.

The restaurant has the typical California downtown feel with its exposed brick walls, large chalkboard to post its raw menu, and open view of the kitchen. I liked the communal table in the bar area, which has high stools to provide you with a great perspective on fellow diners.

It's still unclear from the menu what Salt House hopes to be. You'd think with a name like Salt House, it'd emphasize fresh seafood. But its self-declared contemporary California menu had an eclectic mix of fish, poultry and meat. (The restaurant has a limited menu, with about six entrees and an equal amount of appetizers. It also has a separate raw menu highlighting Pacific oysters.)

I did like its approach to the wine list, breaking its selection into categories determined by the main personality of the wine, such as medium, spicy or big for reds; and sparkling, crisp, aromatic, and rich for whites. (Although, I was a bit confused by the category “esoteric” under the reds.)

I started with the Kabocha squash and chestnut soup with braised rabbit. It was a delightful starter with tender pieces of rabbit and nice crispy nuggets of chestnut. My dining partner had the beet salad with smoked salmon and creamy horseradish dressing. It came out looking like a dragon roll because of the row of salmon on top of frisee all covering golden and red beets. While I love beets, I didn't understand the combination with the saltiness of the smoked salmon, which overpowered the beets' sweetness.

Then came the wait. A sure sign of a new restaurant is the off timing of the kitchen. It seemed almost a half an hour between our starters and our actual entrees. As I chatted with my dining partner, he commented on the many bus staff that mingled around the kitchen entrance, waiting for dishes to serve.

When our meals arrived, I got a big whiff of the pan-roasted skate wing I ordered. And it wasn't a pleasant whiff. It was one of those smells that hit you in the face to remind you that you're eating fish. I couldn't help but think that our dishes may have rested too long because they looked tired and slightly dry. My skate wing tasted fine and the Brussels sprouts on the side were excellent. But I wasn't thrilled with my choice. My friend loved his duck confit, which was tender (what wouldn't be tender after sitting in your own fat for hours?), but I felt the accompanying seasonal persimmon sauce was crudely executed with bits of persimmons.

We ended the night with the warm pineapple upside down cake for dessert, with whipping cream served in a separate pour. My friend enjoyed the cake, which wasn't too sweet or tart. But I couldn't get past the odd texture of cornmeal I felt in certain parts of it. (I think there were also bits of coconut to contend with.)

A minor note: Salt House serves Acme bread at its tables. And while Acme is one of the brand name breads in town, it still would have been a nice starter to have warm bread freshly made on the premises.

With a limited menu, you'd expect Salt House's dishes to be a winner at every bite. But there were only some things good while other elements were OK or unsatisfying. The inconsistency from the kitchen to the front room can reflect Salt House's fledgling steps, but with San Francisco's fickle crowd, the “jackasses” (their term, not mines) behind Salt House had better snap everything into place or find itself just another pile of salt.

Single guy rating: 3 stars (perfect for foodies who like to take risks)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Salt House in San Francisco


Passionate Eater said...

Wow, I have been thinking about trying Salt House for a while. But it looks like you beat me to the punch... By quite some time! Great review, and I love your ranking system!

Single Guy Ben said...

Thanks Passionate Eater. Since I did this review, the Chronicle came out with their review and they "loved" Salt House more than I did. Granted, the restaurant may have worked out their kinks since it opened. Coincidentally, the Chronicle, despite its glowing words, gave Salt House just 2.5 stars out of 4, which was just slightly better than my rating. So we're about on the same page, it seems.