Externing in a supermarket, I knew I would at some point miss the restaurant kitchens I was a bit more familiar with. I have made it my goal to trail at numerous restaurants- working several kitchens and sitting at some tables- throughout Baltimore during my time in the city. This past weekend, Jason Ambrose of SaltTavern (New American cuisine) received me, demonstrating that the salt is not bound to the shelf in the spice cabinet or the shaker on the table; nor is it shackled to its black and white companion- pepper. He shook his salt shaker vigorously, sprinkling on every plate a generous dash of ingenuity complimented by a helping of his own food memoirs.
While many of his dishes are inspired by the season, some are birthed from his childhood and beyond. The name itself, Salt, lingers from the youthful memory of his grandfather salting each piece of his garden fresh melon as it was en route to a descent down the tip of his tongue. Regardless of where the dishes and the kitchen arose from, they arrive at a complexity of flavors, realized as each bite or drop crept into the miniscule pockets of the tongue, encapsulating the taste buds. I constantly caught myself repeating the phrase, “That’s…good! Man, that’s good.”
(below: my beloved spoon that served as the paint brush on my palate all night long, cradling numerous sauces, dips, ice creams, and little snacks)
I didn’t get to do much prep work, as the few tasks I was assigned to took longer than I, and I’m almost sure the chef, anticipated. As the wait staff trickled in, I realized dinner service wasn’t too far away and the doors would soon swing open to a lively dining room and colorfully lit bar. My favorite colors, black and blue, make a statement, leaning on the walls and dripping from the blue ceiling. The silver light fixtures overflowing with green interiors hang from the ceiling. Black stools line the backlit granite bar whose outskirts of blue and tints of green glow; the bar is studded with mirrors and bottles, of course. Blue and black also line the backs of the cozy banquettes and chairs. Warm lighting glosses over the crannies and crevices of the beige brick walls that enclose the dining area.
The cool scheme even continues into the warmth of the kitchen, to the very corner I was wedged in. The line (of production) was rather small, leaving little space for me and ordering for efficient teamwork among the three cooks. Two of them, Brian and Conrad, from what I could see, cooked mostly entrees and a few appetizers from the menu. Conrad prepared the grilled entrée(s) as he shared the grill with the guy I worked most closely with, Jamie. Where I stood, the view that best fit within my range was, as dictated by the size of the kitchen, the appetizer/dessert/fryer station. This station was sometimes shared, sometimes owned, by outstanding pastry chef, Aja Cage.
(below: vanilla salt)
Though she was out the day I was in, the work she left behind and the gestures and speech, sometimes speechlessness, of her co-workers spoke very well of her. What was dished out of her collection wasn’t necessarily innovation but was certainly worthy of celebration. You could tell that she was proud, and protective, of her work, which was done well. Goat cheese doughnut holes rolled onto a plate, eventually brought to a halt by the sweet, seizing power of lavender honey, and sprinkled with vanilla salt! Follow the doughnut trail to the tip of the plate and find a “double shot” of coffee ice cream- the best I’ve tasted- like coffee, with maybe four creams, three sugars…Whatever the ratio, she had it right. It didn’t taste strongly artificial or artificially strong and didn’t taste like cardboard box. The doughnuts, balls of convolutional flavor, have a pleasantly sharp tang mellowed by the floral qualities of the delicate sweetness of the honey. A variety of other ice creams were scooped: pistachio, ricotta, burnt orange, caramelized orange, and eventually key lime. The dessert station also featured a chocolate-hazelnut torte with accompaniments (ricotta ice cream, hazelnuts, crème fraiche, orange sauce) and a corn based budino, topped with a puddle of a blueberry compote- which packed a bit of zing- a cradle of bruleed peaches (which on this night I had bruleed) and one of Aja’s shortbread cookie square. I hope we didn’t leave our fingerprints of imperfection within her fortress.
(above: station invasion; below, the caring, detailed instruction left behind to protect Aja’s work and reputation)
From the same station, French fries emerged, to be served with a trio (chipotle, truffle, and malt) aiolis. Chipotle was my favorite- sweet and spicy. The crispy, duck fat fried fries were showered in love, an embrace issued by salt, cracked pepper, and fresh rosemary. Though it was seemingly the most popular, it wasn’t the only one. Through the window we passed, not just a house salad, but also Salt’s take on the nicoise, featuring grilled octopus, a spinach mix, caperberries, green beans, potato slices, baby lettuce, olive vinaigrette, and two petite quail eggs. A fun dish of the season was a grilled peach and Maytag-blue salad on a light bed of microgreens, tucked in with thinly sliced sheets of serrano ham, blanketed with a drizzle of Vincotto (literally, cooked wine), some good stuff. I’ve never encountered it (Vincotto) before but from my beloved tasting spoon dripped the velvety drops of melodious flavors barely like that of a balsamic vinegar. Vincotto has more of a syrupy consistency, and rich grapey flavor, made from the reduced juices of unfermented but naturally withered grapes. It was reminiscent of deeply colored, non-alcoholic, carbonated malt beverage, malta. What I’d do for a bottle…What I would do with a bottle. Possibly the most treasured appetizer, though, was the foie gras and wagyu beef slider, nestled on the cushion of a toasty, buttery brioche bun, with truffle aioli and red onion “marmalade”, as a glistening ring in its case.
(above: almond tomato shot and pork belly “BLT”
After watching, for hours, the shaping of these sculptures and tasting their mediums, it was almost time return to my own home kitchen. But I had been convinced and decided to first have a seat and dine in. My decision had been made almost street blocks away from my arrival at the restaurant earlier that afternoon. Yet being in the kitchen, putting a face to the name of each of these dishes, it was no longer as easy. Instead of going for the dead giveaway- star of the show, the foie gras and wagyu slider, I chose a compromise of two items that, together, would just surpass its value: the pork belly and heirloom tomato BLT, served with a cool spanish almond tomato soup shooter and the squid ink orecchiette with charred chorizo and squid ragout. As my dishes were set on the table, a smile set in, stretched across my face. As I bit in, the soft yet toasty brioche comforted me, the pork and lettuce crunching beneath the force of my mandibles, and the tomatoes gushing forth torrents. These torrents were soon washed away by the rush of the cool tomato and almond soup. The exhaustion of my typing fingers would seek to skip the almond in the name, but the bold presence of the almond within the soup and the proclamation of the snapping slivers that garnished it wouldn’t allow. Overall, the dish was good. I would have preferred a more pronounced pork flavor, perhaps by means of adjusting the pork to everything-else ratio- or maybe the taste of straight up bacon. The flavors were a bit mild compared to the introduction to every other dish I encountered while in the kitchen. The orecchiette delivered on flavor. My first bite cooled, while at the same time tickled, by refreshing presensce of mint combined with the slight piquancy of the chorizo. The pasta, however, was rather dense, closer to putting a dent in the “dente” then it was to al dente. But I must repeat : It tasted, and felt, darn good.
Chef Jason is a calm and cool individual. He stands at the pass, but not passively, inspecting the plates headed out the kitchen and makes sure the servers get it out hot. I am sincerely appreciative of his warm hospitality and welcome, not only into his kitchen, but to his table and into his network. I hope a seat is left open for me for the day I return to Salt and have my foie gras and wagyu beef slider. I shall be back before my time in Baltimore is ended. Chef Jason Ambrose, you, sir, are worth your Salt.