Salt the Bistro in Boulder has unfulfilled potential
Wood Grilled Pesto Chicken Sandwich at Salt the Bistro. See the full slideshow from Salt the Bistro.
When I first moved to Boulder, I'd get a little rush every time I was heading home on 36 and coasted over the hill that looked down on the town below. It was a picturesque reminder that I lived in a perfect community of happy people doing important things who never got so caught up in their responsibilities that they wouldn't quit at 5 p.m. to go meet their friends on Pearl Street for happy hour. And like all the other insufferable folks who liked to brag that they call Boulder home, I made sure everyone knew how great it was. "Did you hear that this is the best place to start a business?" I'd say over coffee, often interrupting discourse on some other topic altogether. "How about that it's the happiest town in the country? The most intelligent? Did you know that we're healthier than anyone around?"
I pondered getting a Prius and a golden retriever and a yoga membership and clothing made of all-organic cotton, symbols that I'd figured out the secret to life — and that secret was living in the Boulder Valley.
Gradually, though, the novelty wore off, and I stopped all the arrogant speeches when I realized I was alienating my friends. But then Bon Appétit named Boulder 2010's foodiest town in America, validating my decision to live here. When I gave up my career in the New York financial industry for work in food and wine, I returned to my home state of Colorado — but rather than settle back in the southern suburbs, I moved to the base of the Flatirons because of Boulder's excellent, close-knit restaurant community. I could enjoy small-town living while also reaping the benefits of a big-city restaurant culture, since interesting new restaurants were always opening.
At this time last year, for example, Bradford Heap — chef-owner of Colterra in Niwot, and previous part-owner of the Chautauqua Dining Hall and the now-closed Full Moon Grill — returned to the Boulder market and picked up the lease of the recently defunct Tom's Tavern, a beloved dive that had stood solid for decades until the recession hit and owner Tom Eldridge passed away. In its stead, Heap opened Salt the Bistro, so named because of the historical importance of salt, an element worshipped in many cultures both because it's necessary for survival and because it's "a symbol of well-being and friendship," according to the restaurant's menu, which also cites wisdom from ancient sages who considered salt a master of food.
I like that. Salt is a flavor carrier: Nine times out of ten, its proper use is what ultimately makes a dish work. Naming a restaurant after salt extends the metaphor to the whole dining experience, calling out the X factor that makes a meal at a great place more than the sum of its parts. Those great places have figurative salt, and patronizing them leaves a good taste in your mouth.
Heap's vision for his Boulder bistro was a neighborhood joint — for a neighborhood that included all of Boulder. The million-dollar refurbishment of the dining room preserved the tin ceiling and exposed brick walls (to channel Tom's Tavern, if you believe the PR line) and added dark woods, warm, earthy tones and a charmingly visible wood-fired oven. And then there was the menu: beautifully constructed plates of New American food made of ingredients from local farms, a heartfelt focus. The locavore philosophy extended into beverages, with abundant Colorado beer and wine choices gracing the lists. Heap seemed to have created the quintessential Boulder restaurant, and almost from the moment Salt opened last October, the town's foodies lined up in droves and never left.
On a recent Saturday night, the wait was an hour and a half — longer than the wait at any nearby establishments. Like many at the restaurant, I was on a date, and though we'd come from a depressing movie that put us both in a funk, Salt's comfortable digs and friendly staff soon had us in better spirits — especially after we started sipping drinks: him a tequila-and-tamarind concoction from the choose-your-own-adventure cocktail list that lets you select ingredients rather than an actual drink, me a glass of juicy red barbera (one of four non-Colorado wines). We played the who's-on-a-match.com-first-date game until bar seats opened up, then abandoned our count when the smiling bartender delivered two appetizers featuring pork belly from the local Long Family farm, a small producer that raises pigs on organic feed and without antibiotics or hormones and sells only a very small quantity of high-quality meat. Those delicious cuts of pork are so in demand by Boulder's restaurateurs that Long has to turn down some requests.
The first starter was crisp flatbread topped with soft melted leeks, creamy burrata and a smattering of strips of the meat, a tried-and-true combination of flavors improved with good consideration of texture. Flatbread is one of the things Salt does best: I had another version, topped with peaches and prosciutto, one day at lunch, and liked the play of crunch and supple give as much as I liked the way the sweetness of the peaches was counterbalanced by the saltiness of the prosciutto. Our second starter was a deconstructed BLT sandwich with a cut of pork belly the size of a deck of playing cards plated with a breaded and fried heirloom tomato, juicy fresh tomatoes and crisp toast. It was lovely, which is a word I kind of hate but is useful for describing something that's inoffensive and nice, but not much more.
Stuffed full of pig, we opted for lighter entrees. The housemade fettuccine featured local vegetables, including more tomatoes, sweet corn and firm zucchini tossed in a basil pesto. But ironically, the bland dish needed more salt. The pan-roasted barramundi had too much salt and was also slightly overcooked. The bed of earthy lentils, lightly caramelized cipollini onions and slick local chard beneath it was excellent, though, and I appreciated the strips of tart honeycrisp apple that topped the entire dish, an element that balanced mouthfeel as much as taste.
We finished date night with a "tiny treat," a bite-sized $2 dessert (a rich truffle infused with the sweet spice of ginger the night of our dinner) and the chocolate caramel salt tart: a wedge of crumbly crust topped with a layer of rich caramel and a thin, silky shell of dark chocolate, chilled until firm and then sprinkled with Cyprus sea salt. It was delicious, pretty enough for a photograph — and straight out of Saveur, which got it from Brooklyn's Marlow & Sons. I knew this because I'd made it at home right around the time Salt opened (although Saveur's version had more cocoa in the crust).
On a return meal, I once again found Salt suffering from seasoning problems. I'd ordered the Tom's Tavern burger because I love Grafton cheddar, but under the cheese, the meat was over-salted. I ate about three bites before abandoning the burger completely in favor of the late-summer vegetable tasting, by far the best thing I've eaten at Salt in the past few months. The plate included a savory cold stew of ratatouille, the tangy tomato balanced by earthy eggplant and sweet, crisp peppers; a subtly sweet corn soufflé, as creamy and rich as a vegetable can be; a green bean salad bathed in a light, tart crème fraîche, supplemented by more perfect tomatoes; thin slices of eggplant rolled over ricotta, Parmigiano-Reggiano and housemade mozzarella and baked; a zippy white bean cake made spicy with curry; and a crisp, pan-fried risotto cake that lent density to the selection. Salt is key to preparing vegetables right; the seasoning enhances the flavor of the earth, raising produce from tasteless to titillating. And the level of salt in each of these dishes was exactly right.
It would be wonderful if everything at Salt rose to the level of this plate: interesting and well-prepared, preserving the restaurant's focus on quality ingredients while challenging the diner with new flavor combinations. Unfortunately, while I've never left a meal here thoroughly disappointed, I've also never been blown away. Salt's got a seasoning problem, and it extends beyond the food. Every detail at this place, so painstakingly crafted to fit perfectly into an ideal rendering of a Boulder restaurant, is fine on its own — but added together, those details equal exactly a sum of the parts. Nothing more, nothing less. Not a single element acts as an X factor to enhance the magic. There's no flavor-carrier, no salt.
And in the foodiest town in the country, a place with all kinds of mind-blowing experiences just steps from this bistro's gorgeously refurbished doors, a restaurant needs salt if people are going to give it another shake.
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