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Free Range

Salt

The Butchers Hill neighborhood destination still wows

Photo: Sam Holden, License: N/A

Sam Holden


Salt

2127 E. Pratt St., [410] 276-5480, salttavern.com

More at weekly.citypaper.com

I ate the duck fat fries ($9), with rather too much truffle aioli . . . and the oxtail and buffalo-milk blue [sic] cheese ravioli ($9). I inhaled the slab of coriander- and pepper-crusted tuna ($26), nearly swooning over a spicy tuna pot-sticker that shared the plate. And even though there was little room left, I stuffed in an order of goat cheese donuts drizzled in lavender honey and a crackling of sea salt ($8). And it was spectacular.

It’s tempting to end this review of Salt right here. (As someone wiser than me has said, “There are only so many ways to say ‘delicious.’”) But I suspect there are more of you besides the half dozen or so folks to whom I gushed over my meal last week who also might sheepishly admit to having let Salt slip your mind, or whose last visit to the Butchers Hill restaurant might have occurred closer to its opening in 2006, the year Salt won the Best of Baltimore “Best New Restaurant” accolade from both the City Paper staff and its readers.

So while the lazy, sated side of me burps out, “It’s good. Just go!” my more responsible side feels compelled to outline why another visit is in order. Those of you who live in Butchers Hill or work at the Johns Hopkins Medical Campus are excused from reading, because I know you already know this, as evidenced by your presence in the dining room on the night of my visit.

It’s often hard to put a finger on just what it is that makes a restaurant good (or bad). In Salt’s case, the best I can come up with is integrity. Five years on, it’s still very much a neighborhood place, comfortable in its own skin, and welcoming to you and yours. Service is professional yet casual, serious but not humorless; the pacing is just right, and the attentiveness doesn’t seem forced or rehearsed. Rather, the staff makes it seem natural that they’re there to bring food to you.

The food is honest too, by which I mean that no matter how playful, creative, or even mundane a dish might appear, the bottom line is quality ingredients prepared well. Take that tuna, which in most hands has become boringly predictable, a whitish triangle of fish slashed through the middle with red rawness. In chef/co-owner Jason Ambrose’s kitchen, the tuna, so fresh it tastes like it was plucked from the ocean that day, is given a fragrant spice crust that gives texture without overwhelming the fish’s flavor. Served to order, the fillet reveals yielding, juicy red flesh, and in a clever twist, the spicy tuna pot-stickers that accompany the fillet mimic its texture—crispy outside, silky inside—except here the tuna is cooked to an almost confit-like consistency, velvety and creamy pink.

These kinds of twists turn up all over the menu, from a Buster Brown cocktail ($9), Salt’s take on a classic Manhattan made with maple-infused bourbon and a maple egg-white-based foam (the yolks go into the desserts, our server tells us) that spreads a subtle sweetness as it melts slowly into the cocktail, to the stroganoff ($23) made with satiny soft nuggets of braised lamb rather than the traditional beef.

Salt also manages to turn out food from disparate global influences (Asian, Latin, Italian) with a sort of effortless confidence: Not many kitchens can handle both crispy pork confit steamed buns with kimchi Brussels and pickled cucumbers ($7) and the oxtail and blue [sic] cheese ravioli, a terrific blend of savory and salty with a little sweetness in the form of roasted grapes and a shallot confit, with equal aplomb. A mild mahi fillet ($23) gets a boost from both its hoisin glaze and the accompanying spicy shrimp and shiitake gyoza. Even the evening’s ice creams span the globe from Nutella and blood orange to coconut saffron, and those goat cheese donuts bear more than a passing resemblance to the Greek honey puffs known as loukoumades.

By the end of an evening at Salt, I’ve lost count of the cones of french fries and ice cream that have crisscrossed the brick-walled dining room, and the bottles of wine from Salt’s very fine and diverse list that have been emptied in toasts and sips under Salt’s famous green lights. (There’s quite a nice draft list as well.) What I am aware of, though, is a sense of comfort and a happy reminder that five years on, the neighborhood restaurant is still alive and well and living in Butchers Hill.

Salt is open for dinner Tuesday-Sunday.

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