If there was ever proof positive that service makes the meal, it happened Tuesday night at Salt House.
I started the evening as a skeptic. I’ve always thought Town Hall (Salt House’s big sister) was overrated, and I assumed the apple wouldn’t fall far from the tree. Plus, I was relatively sure that once the apple fell, it would be hastily fried in bacon fat and served with pork loin. While the meatier half of my prediction held true—the menu is no picnic for vegetarians—the stellar service and damn-fine-tasty, singular vegetarian alternative won me over.
The short of it is this: If you’re a vegetarian looking for any kind of choice in the matter, don’t go. But if you’re willing to take what you get, and you’re lucky enough to have the waitress we had, then check it out and tell me if you agree.
The dinner party was a birthday celebration for my friend Mary Michael (happy birthday, MM) and we were joined by four of the most ass-kicking ladies the city of San Francisco has to offer. The evening had a television quality to it—you could almost see the cameras tightening in to catch a smile here, a toast there. Cut to camera B, and we’re all laughing in big, genuine, infectious waves. So maybe I was predisposed to like the food. I mean, when you’re having that much fun, your taste buds want in on the action, right? (Nah. I was having fun at NOPA and I still thought it was crap.)
We were seated at a nice big table in the back, which was good, because it helped us hear each other a little better. The acoustics in Salt House are for shit. Then our waitress came over to greet the table and we all fell instantly in love. The woman was a walking, talking ray of sunshine, I tell you. She found out that I was a vegetarian, and instantly came to my aid. The news that you’re going to have literally no choice about your dinner is much more bearable when it comes from the lips of someone who sounds genuinely concerned about your dining pleasure.
She broke it to me gently. There was one (ONE!) appetizer without meat. I mean, usually the app menu is good for at least a few veggie salads: The first course is often a vegetarian’s best bet. But this woman, our server, was so nice, I couldn’t be bothered to bitch about it. I ordered the Bellweather Farms Ricotta Salad with Asian Pears, Chicory and Hazelnuts, and I was happy to do it. (Even happier when it arrived proved to be delicious.)
When it came to entrees, though, there was nothing on the menu for me. Not a single, solitary vegetarian option. Not even my arch nemesis, risotto. (Delicious, but boring after the 700th serving.) Our waitress, however, let me know about the chef’s special alternative. He could cook up a dish of Fingerling Potatoes cooked in Brown Butter over Creamed Spinach with Green Garlic and Mushrooms, she said. Well, fuck. Count me in! But why the hell don’t they just put it on the menu in the first place? Were they trying to cut costs by rationing ink? Again, I couldn’t complain because she was SO PRETERNATURALLY NICE. I really felt like she was on my side in this whole wacky vegetarian thing. And that, dear readers, is the difference between a restaurant I’m gonna dig, and a restaurant I’m gonna bitch about. All it takes is a little love. All we really want, any of us, at the end of the day, is to feel considered.
Case in point. The rest of the table ordered a dish of the Poutine. (Or, as the birthday girl aptly named it, “The KFC bowl”.) It’s crispy fries, covered in Fontina, served with Short Rib Gravy. Our waitress, who will heretofore be referred to as “Angel”, let me know that she’d be bringing the gravy on the side and could pour it in a way that would stay off my fries’ designated territory. It was kind-hearted comments like that, made totally casually, that let me know she had my back. Thank you, Angel. Thank you.
I should also mention the house-made pickles, which were perfectly zingy and laced with cumin. The resident pregnant lady at our table ordered them, but I think I ate the lion’s share.
When Angel arrived with my entrée, I was a little nervous. Frankly, it looked small. But she believed in me, so believed in her, and trusted that the dish would do me right. And it did. I had forgotten to factor in the brown butter—say-shee-ay-ting. It turned out to be just the right amount of food. If I were in the mood to split hairs, I’d say I wished there’d been a bit more protein on the plate. Maybe more mushrooms or something, to make it seem substantial instead of just filling. On the whole, however, I was really pleased. The color of the spinach with green garlic popped off the plate, giving what might have otherwise looked like a pile of indeterminate veggies a point of visual interest.
The other clever thing about Salt House, if I may continue this unexpected love-fest, is the house wine. Not because the wines are outstanding (they’re fine, in fact, but nothing to write home about), but because they’re available in these groovy, medicinal-looking bottles in sizes small, medium, and large—6, 12, and 24 ounces, respectively. We all know that wine by the glass is a huge rip-off, and sometimes a full bottle is overkill at the end of the night. Twelve ounces to the rescue. Plus you get to feel all Euro, drinking your wine like that.
Dessert was a blur of yummy. It’s a sad fact that my busy workweek kept me from writing this sooner, which means I’ve forgotten the sweet and sordid details. I usually grab a copy of the menu to jog my memory, but damn if I didn’t forget that, too. All I can say with certainty is that we ordered three desserts to share, and they were all good.
So, yeah. Salt House. It’s Meat City, kids. But to belabor the metaphor, it’s a city that’s kinda cool if you know where to go and who to hang out with. Like Cleveland, or so I’ve been told.