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November 14, 2008


Foie Gras & Kobe Beef Slider Dominic Armato

A few months ago, a thought occurred to me. Charm City Hounds has been such a great group, and we've hit some outstanding places, but while the bastard stepchild of Chowhound's Baltimore board was borne of the "combing the strip malls and back alleys in search of under-the-radar grub" philosophy -- one I lovingly embrace and strive to practice constantly -- why be dogmatic about it? There is, indeed, nothing like falling into a place like Grace Garden, feasting almost weekly with great company on outstanding ethnic cuisine, and then watching a previously unknown gem receive glowing write up after glowing write up from the mainstream press as word trickles out. But as much as discoveries like that drive us, ethnic holes-in-the-wall don't hold the monopoly on deliciousness. One thing I suppose I am dogmatic about is the belief that great grub exists at all price points and all levels of refinement, and delicious food deserves our respect independent of how much it costs or where we obtain it. So I figured, hey, just for kicks, why don't we see how everybody cleans up and I'll organize an outing to one of the swankier Baltimore eateries that have been languishing on my to-do list for months? And while I don't anticipate that this type of outing will (or should) become common for CCH, it turned out to be a good call.

Scallop CevicheDominic Armato
In truth, "swanky", even if applied relative to our usual haunts, doesn't really apply to Salt. I might be willing to concede "hip", what with the funky, creative menu, minimally high-concept name and chartreuse light fixtures. But the "Tavern" part of the restaurant's name, though usually relegated to a subtitle or omitted altogether, is no conceit. Though the brick row house just off Patterson Park now houses a rather sharp looking bar and midrange restaurant, at heart this is a cozy, welcoming neighborhood operation helmed and co-owned by the cheery and enthusiastic Jason Ambrose, who couldn't have been more accommodating when I threatened to descend upon him with 13 other food nerds for a special tasting menu that he'd have to devise for the evening. We set a price point, I asked him to show us what he could do, and he showed us a great time.

Foie Gras & Kobe Beef SliderDominic Armato
The first plate to land in front of us was a scallop ceviche, and a friend's classification of Ambrose as "a flavor guy" was immediately borne out. An obscenely fresh scallop was sliced and cured ever so slightly in an orange and lime dressing with onion, orange, cilantro, orange, Cusco corn, orange and orange. The intensity of the orange flavor -- entirely welcome -- shoved the needle from the sour over to the sweet end of the sweet/sour continuum, referencing the dish's Peruvian roots while taking a fresh angle. Though I enjoyed the dressing, what made the dish for me was just how lightly the scallop had been cured. It was just barely coaxed out of a completely raw state, succulent, cool and tender, and it maintained an extremely clean flavor that was more sashimi than ceviche.

Cape May FlukeDominic Armato
The only place where we exerted any influence was with our second course, a staple of the regular menu and one of Ambrose's signature dishes, that was a happy concession to popular demand. Ambrose places a small Kobe beef patty on a miniature bun, tops it with a generous slab of seared foie gras, dresses it with truffle aioli and a sweet onion marmalade, and serves it alongside duck fat fries. And while I'm on record as a fierce opponent of the continued debasement of the term "Kobe Beef", if the dish is always this good, as far as I'm concerned Ambrose can call it whatever he damn well pleases. A brief flirtation with my flatware succumbed to a gut instinct that a slider should be grasped by the fingertips, no matter how gussied up. It's an approach I highly recommend. Not only is there something primal about sinking into something this rich and decadent, but it gives you an incredible noseful of beef, foie and truffle aroma that you'd only get a hint of otherwise. A year, almost to the day, since I tried the (in)famous DB Burger, I learned that when it comes to putting Kobe, foie and truffles on a bun, Daniel Boulud has nothing on Jason Ambrose. This is not hyperbole. This is a dynamite dish.

Steak 'n EggsDominic Armato
Our third and fourth courses were notable in that they were both dishes that I would ordinarily regard with a certain level of suspicion, but which won me over nonetheless. I'm ordinarily not a fan of stacking seafoods. I think the results tend to get messy. But the Cape May Fluke worked in both oyster and lobster surprisingly well. The fish, tender and moist, was set atop a root vegetable and bacon hash, topped with an exceptionally crispy breaded and fried oyster, and dressed with lobster butter. I think it worked because the oyster and lobster (a very subtle flavor in the context of the dish), were treated as accents rather than costars. The crunch of the oyster kept the rest from becoming texturally bland, the butter nicely married root vegetable and fresh fish, and the dish only fell short of excellence, in my estimation, for want of a bit of brightness. I think a touch of acid would have made it pop, and even the tabasco in the oyster's marinade may have done the trick had it been a little more prominent. But the fact that I cared so much that it was thisclose speaks, I think, to its ingenuity. Even in its 95% state, I really enjoyed it.

Ice CreamDominic Armato
I was a little dismayed, initially, to discover that our second beefy offering of the evening would be tenderloin. In most cases, I'm not a fan of tenderloin. I find its flavor underwhelming and its texture overvalued. But I can, on occasion, be won over, and this was one of those times. The Steak 'n Eggs was Ambrose's play on breakfast, incorporating all of the requisite elements into a creative dish that was undeniably dinner. He first added interest to the usually bland tenderloin by lightly smoking it, then seasoned and cooked it perfectly, topped it with a fried quail egg and an espresso demi-glace, and paired it with a blue cheese stuffed doughnut hole. Tenderloin needs to be dressed up, in my opinion, and rarely have I seen it done so creatively and skillfully. It's still filet, and I have my prejudices in that regard, but I was surprised by the extent to which I enjoyed it.

Cookie JarDominic Armato
Our final course, "Childish Desserts", was skillfully prepared, if not nearly up to the enticing standards of the rest of the meal. Racks of ice cream cones lined our long table, featuring a very intense vanilla, light chocolate, and a dulce de leche that, sadly, I didn't have the chance to sample. Cookie jars contained an assortment of specimens, including some particularly nice macarons. But with the caveat that I'm one who would often elect to receive another savory course over dessert, I could have done without. It was a pleasantly sweet finish, to be sure, but my brain was stuck on the earlier courses and, quite frankly, still is. Our opportunities to get out for nice dinners have been precious few here in Baltimore, but Salt is, thus far, my favorite. There are seats at the bar, the kitchen's open pretty late and I hear the lamb stroganoff is awesome. I might have to sneak out a few times before we skip town.

2127 E. Pratt Street
Baltimore, MD 21231
Mon5:00 PM - 10:00 PMBar closes at 11:00
Tue - Wed5:00 PM - 10:00 PMBar closes at 12:00
Thu - Sat5:00 PM - 11:00 PMBar closes at 1:00


I'm so glad you got to go to Salt. I work at Hopkins so I'm very close by, and for nice celebratory occasions sometimes we'll there. I love the sliders and duck fries.

Great report. Love the pictures.

I'm so glad to know about your blog and loved the opportunity to relive the dinner through your words. That slider gave me some of the most delicious bites of my life! (I bit it...) Your lead picture captures exactly how wonderful it was.

The scallops were a close second - I'd be happy to make a meal of those two dishes.

Thank you for your organizing and reporting.

Wangus - I work at Hopkins, too. Let me know if you'd like to get a group together for sliders at the bar one day :-)

Susan: absolutely!

I'm working at the Children's Medical and Surgical Center (one of the interlocking buildings in the main complex). However, I'm working in North Carolina until after the new year as a research collaboration between two investigators. So it'll have to be sometime in 2009, but we'll figure out the details then.

Nice to meet another hopkins member!

Hey Andrew...sounds good! Why don't you get in touch when you get back. I'm in the School of Public Health now but may be going back to SOM soon, so I'll give you an off-campus email. [email protected]

I'll start saving my pennies - I know I could put away two or three sliders after a hard day's work!

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