Salt is a delightful little restaurant on the left edge of SoHo that you could easily overlook. It is neither large nor pretty, and the block on which it resides doesn’t get a lot of foot traffic. But chef Melissa O’Donnell does wonderful things with her seasonal menu—enough to overcome a slightly unpleasant space.
The restaurant opened as Stella in the summer of 2001, which turned out to be an inauspicious time to be starting a business in Manhattan. After 9/11, two of the three owners left, leaving O’Donnell to re-fashion the place, which she re-Christened “Salt” (one-word names having been in vogue back then). As of 2007, she appears to have a success on her hands, judging by the brisk Friday night traffic. A companion restaurant called Salt Bar on the Lower East Side offers small plates to go with wine, beer, and mixed drinks.
The space at Salt is dominated by three long communal tables running the length of the restaurant, with only a few two-tops in the front, by the windows. We were lucky enough to have one of those, but they’re squeezed pretty close together, and it’s not easy to maintain a conversation. The wooden tables are painted a bleached white, which at least makes the everthing bright and cheery.
Appetizers ($6.00–12.50) and side dishes ($6) are on the left side of the menu, entrees on the right. The latter are divided into two groups, “protein + 2” ($25.50–28.50) and “chef’s entrees” ($19.00–28.50). The “protein + 2” category offers a fish or meat course, with your choice of any two side dishes—not a bad concept, even if the category name is ugly.
The appealing bread rolls, brought to the table in a ceramic planter, were large and doughy. They weren’t warm, but at least you could tell they weren’t the generic dinner rolls many restaurants settle for. Butter was soft and easily spreadable.
Goats cheese brulee, leeks, radish sprouts, cantaloupe, raspberry vinegar
I was torn between a number of appetizer choices, but when we saw the “goats [sic] cheese brulee” delivered to an adjacent table, our minds were made up. It’s an enormously clever idea, with the warm fried goat cheese contrasting the cool vegetables. This was a a dish so well judged I would have been happy to have it in a four-star restaurant.
Whole grilled Dorade Royale, balsamic reduction
Whole grilled Dorade Royale ($26.50) was a hit too, with the balsamic reduction giving the skin a delightfully tangy flavor. I had to work a bit for my supper, but the impeccably prepared fish flaked off the bone without great difficulty. I chose asparagus and the Yukon Gold potato puree for my two side dishes, but with the fish sitting on top of them, they weren’t easy to get to. My girlfriend had the Alaskan King Salmon ($25.50) with the same two side dishes, and she too seemed pleased.
I suspect we may have hit the jackpot at Salt. There were two major reviews in 2002, Adam Platt in New York and Eric Asimov in the Times ($25 and Under). Those were the days when the $25 and Under column reviewed real restaurants. Anyhow, Platt thought the composed entrees were better, while Asimov preferred the “protein + 2” (while hating the name as much as I do).
The wine list isn’t long, and it offers a reasonable number of choices below $50 (always the litmus test at a mid-priced restaurant). We had the Ridge 2004 from Three Valleys, California ($48), mostly a Zinfandel, which has a nice peppery taste.
The servers did their job and left us alone with a carafe of tap water, which on a warm evening should have come with ice. But aside from that, the service was just fine for this type of restaurant.
I didn’t expect much from Salt, but Melissa O’Donnell’s kitchen delivered a fine performance. Perhaps the overall level of the menu can’t match what we had, but the goat cheese brulee and the grilled Dorade made about as good a meal as I’ve had in a long time.
Salt (58 MacDougal Street between Houston and Prince Streets, SoHo)