The salt point

Pub date December 5, 2006

As a partisan of salt, I could hardly help but love a restaurant called Salt House, and I did — and do — but … how funny that there apparently are no saltshakers at the bar. I was casting about for one, wanting to salt something up a little while waiting for someone to arrive, but I had to settle instead for pouring myself more water from the glass jugs the staff set out for your very own. Water is nice, of course, but sometimes only salt will do.
Salt House is the latest project from the brothers Rosenthal, Mitchell and Steven, who for the last decade or so have run the kitchen show (and I mean this quite literally) at Wolfgang Puck’s Postrio, where the exhibition kitchen is of the capital-E sort. The first stage of the Rosenthals’ exit strategy involved opening their own restaurant, Town Hall, in an old SoMa building a few years ago. Salt House is their Chapter Two and coincides, more or less, with the end of their reign at Postrio.
Like Town Hall (which is just around the corner), Salt House has been installed on the ground floor of a venerable structure, a century-old building that used to be a printing plant. The restaurant’s street-front space is boxy, fairly narrow, and deep — like a garage bay for an 18-wheeler, if there are such bays. In keeping with SoMa’s postindustrial fashionability, there are exposed wood beams (including a kind of indoor arbor, sans greenery, near the host’s station) and exposed brick, along with a line of light fixtures that look like barrels beginning to explode above the dining room and neoquaint incandescent bulbs dangling over the zinc bar.
Mostly, though, I noticed the windows, huge multiglazed modern marvels that admit oceans of light while giving the entire redo a distinctly sleek, Mies van der Rohe cast. If you want to know if an old building has been rehabbed, look at the windows; if you see a certain waviness, like heat rising from pavement on a hot day, you are probably looking at original window glass and an unrehabbed building. If you see gleaming perfection, a sheen like the undisturbed surface of a pond, you are looking at renovation money, and perhaps at Salt House.
The food might be called California pub food, but it is pub food of a high order. As at Postrio, the Rosenthals have orchestrated a brass band of big flavors. Even the little bar snacks are vivid: the house-made “pot o’ pickles” ($5) — an array of vegetables including cauliflower, baby carrots, pearl onions, and wax beans — jumps with a vinegar charge in its fist-sized crock; and the mixed nuts ($5) — almonds, pistachios, a cast of thousands — are roasted with one of life’s great improbables, truffle honey, along with sea salt. (This was the dish I was trying to salt up at the bar, incidentally. The sea salt had settled at the bottom of the crock, a fact we discovered only when the crock was nearly empty.)
Nearly every dish has some flavor kazoo. In the poutine ($7 at dinner, $10 at lunch), basically a plate of potato chips dribbled with short-rib gravy, it’s the layer of gorgonzola, which not only gives a textural effect like that of nachos but adds a tremendous charge of pungency up the nose. In the shellfish stew ($19), mainly mussels and shrimp, it’s a broth infused with saffron aioli. In the pizzalike preserved tomato tart ($11), it’s the intensity of the preserved tomatoes — along with the squares of luxuriously buttery pastry crust they sit on. In the chili-roasted oysters ($13), it’s the fiery chili sauce, which, it must be said, makes the dish a little top-heavy.
The watchword for fish is crispy. This cannot be a bad thing. A mackerel filet ($9) wears a waistcoat of golden panko (Japanese-style bread crumbs), while pan-roasted skate wing ($24) gets a nice searing on both sides before being plated with roasted, quartered brussels sprouts, chunks of salsify, and dabs of a tarragon salsa. Skate wing, with its corrugated texture, is one of the most interesting fish to eat — getting the last of the flesh away from the bone is like cleaning stray hairs from a comb — and yet we should not be eating it. Too late I learned from Seafood Watch that skate are seriously endangered and should be avoided. Like sharks, they reproduce slowly, and they are taken through the highly destructive method of trawling. (Mackerel are in the “best” category, but that was just a lucky stab for us.)
I would be glad to learn that skate had been replaced on the menu by petrale sole or some other type of local, floundery fish that might not be as fascinatingly ribbed but isn’t teetering on the brink, either. The Rosenthals are eminences here; if they set a good and conspicuous example, others will follow. It would be a great help to ordinary diners if restaurants simply refused to buy and serve any seafood whose populations aren’t in sustainable shape (per Seafood Watch or some similar authority) and indicated as much on their menus — maybe with a smiling or dancing fish icon?
Sundries: desserts ($7) are mostly in the American grain, including a lewdly moist warm chocolate Bundt cake and some nostalgia-laced butter pecan ice cream, presented in two scoops. The house-blend wines, including a fruity-floral white, are available on tap (from steel barrels) and are presented in several sizes of nifty apothecary bottles, near relations of the water jugs and perhaps of the saltshakers, if they ever come to pass.<\!s>SFBG
Mon.–<\d>Fri., 11:30–<\d>1 a.m.; Sat., 5 p.m.–<\d>1:30 a.m.; Sun., 5 p.m.–<\d>midnight
545 Mission, SF
(415) 543-8900
Full bar
Wheelchair accessible