Shaking up Salt

What happens to a successful restaurant when the chef steps down?

By Suzanne Loudermilk - November 2013

Shaking up Salt

What happens to a successful restaurant when the chef steps down?

By Suzanne Loudermilk - November 2013

The pan-roasted halibut with eggplant caponata -Photo by Ryan Lavine

When Salt opened in 2006, Baltimore was agog over the inventive cuisine that was presented in the friendly tavern setting on the cusp of Patterson Park. Co-owner/chef Jason Ambrose may have single-handedly put duck-fat fries and foie-gras-and-Kobe-beef burgers into our collective consciousness—and stomachs. Local publications raved about the food; it garnered four stars from The Sun and several “Best of” nods from others, including Baltimore magazine. About the only complaint was the lack of parking in the neighborhood.

As the years passed, the restaurant under Ambrose and his business partner and mother, Jane, continued to flourish. The parking issue had also been somewhat addressed with new angled spaces.

But there was a glitch. The chef was getting restless. “I wanted a little bit of a break,” Ambrose says. “I’d like to do something else.”

He wasn’t just going to bail on Salt, though. After all, he and his mom still own the place. For his replacement, he looked no further than his own kitchen, turning to sous chef Brian Lavin, who had been with him for three years. “He seemed to embrace it,” Ambrose says. “He has a strong work ethic.”

On recent visits, Lavin, 26, appears to be keeping the cooking vibe alive and well at Salt. And while the new executive chef is adding his own interpretations to the New American menu, many of the offerings are familiar from the restaurant’s early days: those duck-fat fries, for instance, and the sliders, now made with Wagyu beef.

Another mainstay is the coriander-and-pepper-crusted tuna. After sampling the sushi-grade fish with the spicy coating and ginger-soy glaze, we can understand why it remains a staple. The Asian flavors resound with a mound of delicate seaweed salad and tender pot stickers bundling shredded tuna.

The ambiance of Salt continues, too, with its still-trendy wood floors, exposed brick walls, and free-flowing jazz emanating from a sound system. The congenial space is divided into a small dining room on one side and a bar with tables on the other. The dome green lights hanging from the ceiling cast a signature glow.

Service is casual but efficient. On one visit, we were enamored with an oven-roasted duck surrounded by date purée, roasted figs, chickpeas, and tzatziki sauce. The bird’s rosy meat was so moist and succulent, we asked our waiter about its origins. He quickly went to the kitchen to inquire, returning to explain that it was a Rohan duck raised at a small farm in New York state.

That’s the kind of select sourcing the restaurant is doing, whether it’s a Duroc pork chop, Skuna Bay salmon, or East Coast halibut. Lavin also mixes up his starters and entrees with various accompaniments on a constantly fluid menu. On another evening, the duck breast was served with grilled porcini and farro salad, strawberry purée, and sherry gastrique.

When we ordered the chicken-liver pâté to start, our server praised the chef’s preparation of pâtés and terrines. Indeed, the velvety mousse-like spread was earthy and delicious, especially spread on grilled bread (we could have used more) with blueberry jam and spiced pistachio butter. Another appetizer, the crispy pork-belly confit, was as beautiful as it was mouthwatering with charred white-corn polenta and a melon-and-cherry-tomato salad enhancing the pleasantly fatty meat.

A few weeks earlier, we had started our meal with a wild-sockeye-salmon crudo (tartare) with a cucumber-and-radish salad dressed in fresh herb oil and a chilled melon-and-cucumber soup with shaved Serrano ham, black-pepper yogurt, and watercress oil.

Our main meals were successful then, too—from a free-range grilled half poussin with gnocchi, morel mushrooms, roasted garlic, and arugula to pan-roasted halibut with eggplant caponata.

The dishes constantly sing with ingenuity as do the desserts. The goat-cheese doughnuts, dotted with vanilla sea salt and drizzled with lavender honey, have been on the menu for years. We’re glad they haven’t been lost in the chef shuffle. We also appreciated the cheese plate highlighting the intriguing flavors of a Spanish Manchego, Oregon smoky blue, and Italian Quadrello di Bufala.

These days, you’re likely to find Jason Ambrose in the front of the house, schmoozing with diners instead of orchestrating meals. But he’s already planning his next venture. He recently signed a contract on a building in Locust Point. It won’t be another Salt, though. “It will be nothing more than a bar that does food,” he says.

Maybe he’ll call it Pepper. Just saying. We haven’t heard the last of Salt’s founding chef.

›› Salt: A New American Tavern,2127 E. Pratt St., No. 1, 410-276-5480. Hours: Dinner: 5-10 p.m. Tues.-Thurs., 5-11 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 4:30-9:30 p.m. Sun. Cuisine: Seasonal New American. Price: Appetizers: $7-15; entrees: $18-28; desserts: $7-10. Atmosphere: Neighborhood bistro setting in a corner row house with a small, brick dining room and a cheerful bar with tables.

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