Is it fair to write a review when you have a head cold? This one might not be the sassiest. At least I'm not eating at the restaurant with a head cold, but even so, I have a feeling the punchy flavors of the food at ~SALT HOUSE~ would still prevail. I've eaten at Salt House three times: once during the opening at the end of October, once for lunch, and again for dinner, and each time the place has featured an explosion of bodies. Borderline carnage. There they are, guys with ties and hot chicks and stylish couples and hipsters, all packed at the bar like it's practically trench warfare, clustered around the communal table, bumping the back of their chair into yours while you're eating. Hey, it's tough to be popular (I'm talking about the restaurant, not me, silly).
It's been interesting to watch the restaurant evolve, and I think the seasonal focus and rotating dishes mean the menu will be constantly in a state of flux, some winners and some losers both getting their fair share of rotation. The food is masculine and rather swashbuckler in style, with gutsy flavors and some daring combos, and is pretty meat-heavy. But the food also has some elegant plating when it's called for, and many of the preparations show some underlying sophisticated techniques.
Some call the style gastropub, the restaurant calls it "contemporary tavern" fare--it's food that's built for a foggy or soggy San Francisco night, or after a rough day of work and you just want something savory and satisfying. Not the kind of food if you are trying to eat light or avoid meat--go hit Café Gratitude instead, and hey, you very well may have the last laugh when all is said and done.
A natural place to start are some fresh oysters listed on the tall blackboard, but I also have to throw a vote in for the baked oysters ($13), a sextet of Kumamotos laden with bacon, leek puree, and spinach. If you're starving, nibble on the wicked mixed nuts ($6) with truffle honey and sea salt--I wish I could buy these at the store, my waistline says thanks God I can't.
The sheer novelty of ordering the indulgent poutine ($10) should happen at least once, but attention French Canadians: do not be disappointed when your fresh cheese curds are amiss, and you find some inauthentic cheese in its place, like cheddar or Fontina. It's still delicious, and worth the extra sit-ups tomorrow. The pork belly's ($12) texture weirdly reminded me of brisket, more dry than custardy--it did sport some intense porky flavor, which melded like a champ with the runny poached egg and the chunky Parmesan tuile.
The kitchen has a deft hand with charcuterie. If the boudin blanc is on the menu, order it; a downright dreamy and luxurious sausage--I've had it with braised red cabbage, and house-made sauerkraut. I also enjoyed the Merguez ($11), which was juicy and haunting. (Hey, that's what my notes said.) It was served with some chickpeas and carrots that needed more cooking, but I loved the deep savory tang of the chermoula; it was one of my favorite dishes.
Lighter eaters can pick at the bright ricotta salad ($11) with chicory, Asian pears, and toasty hazelnuts, or the tower of Dungeness crab ($15) and perhaps let their non-fat phobic friend eat the fried baby artichokes on the side. Although I am not quite sold on Niçoise olive and crab as a winning combination--the flavors were a little challenging for me. Others seem to dig it. Discuss.
Mains include more hefties, like a deconstructed cassoulet ($24) with flavorful gigandes, garlic sausage, and duck confit, which also turns up in the Muscovy duck leg confit ($22). The wild striped bass ($26) didn't really thrill me--the puree of spinach reminded me of baby food, and I wasn't in a high chair. Oh, and vegetarians, don't freak out: you can ask for the vegetarian dish that isn't listed on the menu.
At lunch our table feasted on the crispy shrimp ($13) (read: fried) with a kicky (read: downright spicy) dressing over just-blanched green beans (read: a touch undercooked) and topped with thin ribbons of pink Serrano ham (read: delicious). I couldn't resist the pork Cubano ($15) that was pretty good but not magic, so my quest for a swoon-worthy Cubano continues. Donde eres?? (Sidebar: the one I just munched at Falletti's on Broderick was pretty tasty, but not very authentic, although they do use a sandwich grill press.) My dining companion tucked into the juicy house-ground burger ($15) with the punishable-by-death onion rings that were more like onion strings: tiny, crispy, and almost like Zuni frites, but onions. You will eat them all.
For dessert, I was totally lip-locked with the lemon pudding cake (all desserts $8) with a swirl of browned vanilla marshmallow on top. Meanwhile, the warm rhubarb gratin with crunchy oats and lavender cream made me feel like I was a hippie in Big Sur, eating dessert on an est retreat. (Not very fitting for the urban vibe.) I also got bored with the maple walnut tart after a few bites.
Salt House just shimmers during the day, light streaming in through the tall windows, and glows at night. The welcoming space housed a printing press in the 1930s and has a long layout, truly a relative to Town Hall, its big sister. The look is the essence of industrial chic: brick walls (some painted white in areas), a high beamed ceiling, well-used wood floors, and a dramatic Don Quixote mural whose colors are echoed in the moody red and black bathroom. (The women's bathroom also has a one-way window that looks into Harlot, the new club next door: voyeur-iffic.)
Details I liked: the milk jug water carafes embossed with a punky Salt House logo, the pain epi from Acme that is served wrapped up in brown paper (all the better to dunk into the poutine short rib gravy), the inspired light fixtures made from what looks like postcard racks, the mismatched flatware and seating (ranging from parlor chairs to bistro seats), the friendly staff's white shirts and striped aprons, the random antique-y touches like the rustic ladder leaning against the wall, the small host stand table, and the stuffed pheasant perched in the front. I also noted Beck playing, which struck me as apropos.
I recommend requesting a seat in the back of the restaurant; not only is the bar hubbub farther away, but you can watch the busy open kitchen bang it out--most of the staff sport headbands and handkerchiefs, like a band of brigands. You really can appreciate how much hard work goes into the feeding of the 75 folks seated in the restaurant--that kitchen hustles. Hard. So if your dishes arrive a little late, you may be a touch more understanding. And if you like your sausage or your supper, it's easy to salute the line as you walk by.
545 Mission St.
Cross: 1st St.
San Francisco, CA 94105