Under-hyped excellence in Cambridge
Your haute-cuisine home away from home
798 Main Street, Cambridge
Tuesday – Saturday,
6 p.m. – 10 p.m.
Great restaurants can sometimes become too popular for their own good. As positive publicity for a restaurant grows, tables become harder to reserve and expectations can become so lofty that your meal could never reach them.
In the case of Salts, hype is almost entirely absent, though I can’t understand why. Based on my experiences at Salts, I cannot think of a restaurant in Boston that I have enjoyed more. Yet even though it is a regular entry of Boston Magazine’s list of 50 best restaurants, receives favorable reviews, and boasts high Zagat scores, it’s rarely mentioned when asking people about their thoughts on the best restaurants in Boston. But rest assured, Salts is definitely one of the best.
The owners, Gabriel Bremer (chef) and Analia Verolo (maître d’), say on the restaurant’s website, “Eating at our restaurant is like spending a little time in our home.” That sentiment is clear in the restaurant’s overall feel. The small dining room has wall hangings and tables around its sides, with white tablecloths, simple wood chairs, and some homey candles. The room is dimly lit and has no visible kitchen or host’s station. Together, this creates a very relaxed and surprisingly quiet space. The service is professional and is always prompt when clearing empty dishes or refilling water glasses. Often, the chef will bring dishes out from the kitchen himself, to serve and sauce them at the table.
The menu at Salts serves what a better foodie than me might call “locally-influenced haute-bistro fare,” or “French-inspired new American cuisine.” Across the menu you’ll find a variety of classically inspired dishes with a new spin. Whether that is some new-fangled molecular gastronomy technique or simply a fresh take by the chef, you’ll find dishes that are by equal parts familiar and innovative. In every case, the plates are beautifully and carefully presented. Snobbery aside, it’s all damn good.
In the appetizer section of the menu, you’ll find a mix of soup, salads, and smaller plates. My favorite is the Bergamot Cured Ocean Trout with shaved rye bread, compressed cucumber, radish, pea greens, and Greek yogurt sauce ($17). Similar in concept to lox and cream cheese, this dish ups the complexity a bit and gives a bright and balanced start to a meal. I also really like the “French Onion Soup” ($15). This soup is a deeply rich and full-flavored broth with Berkshire pork, caramelized onions, a sourdough crouton, and Gruyere “Ravioli”, which is actually a gel-encapsulated sphere made using a sodium alginate solution; a pretty neat trick originally used by Ferran Adria at El Bulli in Spain.
For entrees, it really just comes down to personal preference. The Sweet Potato Agnolotti ($28), Painted Hills Beef Ribeye with bone marrow custard ($36), and Roasted Sturgeon with heirloom potato gnocchi ($34) have all been excellent. And while all this talk may be well and good, if you only ever eat one thing at Salts, it should be the Whole Roasted Boneless Duck for Two ($68). This lavender-honey glazed masterpiece is served with roasted pears and root vegetables from the owners’ farm in New Hampshire, and is easily the best duck I’ve ever eaten. This crispy skinned beauty is brought out whole from the kitchen and then carved in front of you as you try not to drool all over yourself. It’s a substantial amount of food as well, and could likely feed three people. Two hungry diners could order this without any additional courses and have leftovers to take home. If you decide to splurge on this duck, though, be sure to reserve it in advance, as there are a limited amount of them per day.
If you still have room for dessert, your best choice is the Yuzu Custard with honey ice granita, candied black sesame and huckleberry sauce ($14), which the chef once called “dinner and a show” when serving my table. The dessert came out looking like there was cotton candy on top, but it was actually a cloud of fine strands of honey-ice. As he poured the sauce on top, the ice quickly melted away to reveal the yuzu custard. Aside from the entertainment, it is also a sweet and refreshing dessert, with the smooth custard, icy sauce, and crunchy sesame making an interesting combination of flavors and textures. If this dessert doesn’t really sound like your cup of tea, the Lemon Soufflé Tart is also very good ($12).
After having such memorable experiences at Salts, it’s amazing that the restaurant has remained so humble. Gabriel and Analia seem to be perfectly content running their quiet space on Main Street and avoiding the glitz and glam that chefs at other top restaurants actively seek out. It is obvious from start-to-finish that Salts is a labor of love for them. And though the prices clearly make Salts out of reach for most occasions, if you ever have need of a restaurant for a graduation dinner, an anniversary, or to celebrate winning the lottery, I’d recommend that you give it a try.