Salt House is all about the atmosphere. The rustic space in downtown San Francisco has beautiful high ceilings with exposed wood beams and giant postcard chandeliers. Solid wood tables, mix matched chairs and original hardwood floors make up the medium sized dining room. Metal pipe light fixtures, white marble countertop and exposed brick walls give the ambiance a pleasant mix of industrial and warm. Eight cooks squeeze in the open stainless steel kitchen. It feels busy, hip, contemporary, and so does the crowd.
People pile up at the bar, some for the food, most to be seen. The restaurant has a “secret” back door to a nightclub so it can serve as a good evening warm up. All the fuss makes for a pretty noisy room. Despite the intimate candle-lit atmosphere, it’s sometimes hard to carry a long conversation. The young staff is, for the most part, efficient and attentive.
It took a few minutes for someone to show up at our table after we sat down but after our order was taken, service ran like clockwork. Courses came in at a timely fashion, empty plates were promptly bused away, glasses were never left empty.
Our waiter was quick to say there were no specials but the selections changed every day, she pointed to the date stamp printed at the top of the menu. Appetizers and entrées, despite the dry descriptions, are inventive and appetizing. Like at Conduit, instead of romanticizing the dishes, only ingredients and preparations are listed, matter of factly.
A cracked loaf of pain lepi–a branched cousin of the baguette, was set on the table over a sheet of brown paper. Butter on the side. It looked good but, to my surprise, it was like day-old bread. Not a good start.
I ordered the Foie Gras, cured / sautéed / rhubarb / kumquats. The appetizer was beautifully presented on a square plate. The cured terrine was exceptional. Served cold over kumquat marmalade, with pickled rhubarb and perfectly toasted brioche bread on the side. The balance of flavors was spot on. I would have been happy with just that. On the other corner, a generous sautéed wedge of the foie was properly cooked but required some skillful knife work around the veins. I could have lived without that.
As an entrée, I had the Dayboat Scallops, smoked trout / parsnip-bacon cake / manila clams. The dish was really good. Scallops were perfectly seared, clams properly cooked and the cake –more like a seared puree, was crisp and creamy. A nice combination of textures and flavors.
I had high expectations for dessert. Salt House is owned by the people behind Town Hall–which in my opinion has some of the best sweets in San Francisco. I ordered the Baba Au Rhum, hazelnut semifreddo / cara cara orange / biscotti. It was nothing more than disappointing. Baba au rhum is one of my favorite classic French desserts. A brioche cake is simply soaked in flambéed rhum. Brasserie Lipp in Paris has the best one I ever had. Salt House’s version was all Baba, no rhum. Dry, boring. The semifreddo–more like an ice cream, stood on top trying fruitlessly to save the dehydrated cake.
Let’s face it. Salt House is no Town Hall. It lacks the absolute quality consistency not to mention the delicious desserts. That said, this is still a pretty good restaurant in San Francisco. You can count on a hip, warm atmosphere, sharp service and, for the most part, a great dinner. I’d give it a 4/5 but, like with most families, I can’ help but compare it to the older sibling.