Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Salt Tasting Room - Living up to the Hype

The Hype

I haven't been this excited about a place in a while. And the funny thing is that I was just about this excited about the place before it even opened. Credit the internet and the phenomenon of opening soon blogs. Like the Opening Soon show on Food TV, opening soon blogs allow you an inside peek at what it takes to put together a new restaurant business. Besides a little promotion, it seems to provide the owners a fun way to document this very exciting time in their life and keep their friends and family up to date, as well as an outlet to vent about the process. How can you not get pulled along in the anticipation of a new restaurant opening as you listen to all of the trials and tribulations (and triumphs) the owners and staff go through to get the project off the ground. So the blog was one factor in my excitement. But really, this place is something to get excited about before ever seeing it just because the concept itself is just too cool, and there's nothing exactly like it in Vancouver. At least not right now. I'm sure copy cats will soon follow with the success of Salt Tasting Room (Blood Alley, aka Trounce Alley, between Abbott and Carrall St., Gastown, 604-633-1912). So what is this groundbreaking concept? Here's the deal: it's a wine bar, with cheeses and cured meats. So simple, it's genius. Why hasn't anyone put one of these here before? But it has to be executed right for it to be so exciting, so here are some details. It's got the coolest of cool Vancouver addresses - hidden away in Blood Alley, Gastown (officially known as Trounce Alley, if you're looking for it on a map). They have a full sheet of interesting wines by the glass, and they have tasting flights of three wines, three selections of meat/cheese, and three condiments (about $29 or $27), all paired up for you by an incredibly impressive staff. Everyone there is a pleasure to talk with, and ask questions of, so don't be shy. They'll all make recommendations and explain things without an ounce of pretension. Part of the pre-opening buzz was that two of the most well-known Vancouver cocktail crafters were on board. Chris Stearns left Lumiere and Jay Jones left Nu to join the restaurant where there will be no cocktails at all on the premises. If you want to put together your tasting platter, you can choose your own trio of meats/cheeses and condiments to accompany ($15). Terra bread is served with everything. It doesn't really sound like a full dinner, but we consumed enough calories to satisfy us soundly, especially with an extra trio, dessert and extra alcohol. So it can be your dinner or your drinking and nibbling place. They're currently open 4:30 - midnight, 7 days a week, but it looks like they are planning to stay open later in the future. Before going, I was half expecting there to be some veggie antipasto platter or salads or something to provide a vegetable component, but whatever, you can eat your veggies another day. Or make sure to order the piccadilly relish as one of your condiments - that's got some bits of zucchini and things in it. Mmm. I think there are some roasted peppers too in the condiments list, but let's face it, this place is cool because it's NOT about being all granola. It's about indulging in wine and cheese and salty meat. Prices feel fair, particularly if you are dining with just one other person (and compared it to what one might spend gathering cheeses, cured meats and wines for an evening), which makes the place feel like somewhere you can drop by over and over. The owners are Sean Heather, owner of Irish Heather Gastropub, Shebeen Whiskey House, Salty Tongue Deli, Limerick Junction Irish Pub and Fetch Hotdog Cart, and Scott Hawthorn, who owns the wonderful old building Salt is in, among other gastown spots. A great little gastown story that is on the opening soon blog is his Parking Spot concept. He received a tiny 120 ft. space included with an actual parking spot he purchased, and decided to use that space to showcase local art and design.

Living Up to the Hype (Plus an Extra Helping of Hype from Me)

Blood Alley is full of character even these days - quaint old-looking streetlamps cast eery glows here and there in the night, craggy old cobblestone still covers the ground (unlike, say, the alley behind Storyeum), metal balconies with all sorts of gritty characters poking out from their apartments, another interesting assortment of characters pokes out onto the balcony of a club during its monthly fetish parties. It's a great place to include on a summer evening's city walk, if you're looking for a walk to really sink your teeth into. But Blood Alley is full of character because of its history too. It is said to be named for the butcher shops that used to be there, around the turn of the last century, that would rinse out the blood into the street at the end of each day. As well, public executions were held in Blood Alley Square.

So to start, on my first visit, I had fun before I even arrived, just because I love the location so much. I also love going to restaurants that feel a bit hidden away. We had made reservations for the four of us for fairly early in the evening, 7:30, on the second night of operation, a Thursday. We find the black salt shaker banner, and walk into a nice room, not too many people, with a very relaxed vibe and lots of creative looking types having a good time. It's got a blackboard painted wall in the back, with the cheeses, meats, and condiments listed (with origins in brackets for many, such as the local Oyama Sausage Company). It's all open space, old brick walls, zinc bar, and clean Brent Comber furniture (which I'm a fan of really because I heard him speak once, and he's quite charming). The simplicity of the room and the food is very refreshing. There's a great long communal table on one side. And there's a real epicurean sort of joy in it all. A forcemeat from Chef Jeff of Aurora Bistro here, a roadtrip planned to Seattle to acquire some Salumi meats there, a hearty recommendation for a particular glass of bubbly here, a little taste of fresh Okanagan apricots and cherries there. I remember a moment where Crime Lab Restaurant Boy pointed out another table "look, they're taking photos of their food like you do!" I felt so at home! We had exceptionally fun foodie company with us too, so our table of four was able to put a nice dent into the menu. I was happy to see the option of a pre-selected flight ($29/27), as I was a bit too spacey to really focus enough to make all those decisions to put together my own trio ($15 now, $14 then). Three of us ordered the themed flights, Made in BC, Sherry, and Red & Meat. The fourth chose a selection of cheeses, with accompanying condiments, and a glass of bubbly was recommended to pair with them. The beautiful photo of the spread says it all. Of course we all shared, so look at all the wonderful things to taste on this table.

The Spread

Their clever solution to organizing all of this really titillates the geek in me. Everything is all labelled! They simply put down a sheet with all the selections written down and lined up, complete with spots for the wine glasses all marked down. I really enjoyed the pairing aspect of the evening. For fun, try crossing over and trying your wines with the food that it's not paired with, to help you appreciate the actual pairing. For one of mine (on my second visit, not pictured here), I discovered the "unpairing" nearly ruined the experience of the meat compared to the pairing that really enhanced it (I can't really remember for sure, but I think it was the Palandri Cabernet Sauvignon with the ox tongue that really didn't do the tongue justice. Or maybe the wine suffered. Or maybe both. I dunno. Remember, I was drinking...and you know how I get).

The Sherry Flight (for that evening)

A Selection of Cheeses and Condiments

Topping things off are some surprisingly good desserts. I guess I shouldn't be surprised. But I was definitely impressed. The chocolate mousse was rich and very deeply flavoured.

Chocolate Mousse

The Creme Brulee was even better. And on my second visit, with Cheeseboy, a week later, the Creme Caramel was good too.

Creme Brulee with Persimmon Slices

Sometimes I get tempted to keep a place secret so that I can have it all to myself, but it's no use with this place. The secret's out, and on my second visit, on a Thursday evening, the place was absolutely packed, and filled with that "beautiful people" crowd that seems to be searching always for the latest thing. But the secret is out with the foodies of the city too, and that actually makes it kind of fun, and it's a good place to go when you're feeling social anyway. My second visit was quite entertaining in a very different way, because there was only room at the bar for us, and we were seated right in front of Sean and his beautiful meat slicer. We could watch him and the others work. I love it when I can see someone in the middle of a dinner rush just stop and take a moment to place something just so. To me, it really shows that they care. Reminded me of a moment watching a cook in Guu with Garlic. When Sean handed us a little extra sample of local cherries, it almost had that same homey feel that I used to get as a kid when my dad was cooking and would hand me a little sample of something. Their condiments will change all the time too, and one delightful accompaniment was the fresh Okanagan apricots right at their peak, served with my smoked pork tenderloin. There was a point where we were waiting a bit for our final dessert wines, but as I mentioned in an earlier post, the staff are wonderfully hospitable and very professional, and apologies abounded, and everyone was so nice, we didn't think twice about it. There were too many yummy things to name everything we had, and everything will be changing constantly anyway. Even the ox tongue that got a fair chunk of attention on the thread in Waiterforum (in Waiterblog) changed in flavour from one week to the next, so I won't go into too many details about individual items. I expect that the ever-changing selection is part of the charm of the place that will allow people to have a new little gustatory adventure each time they go. Now that I've thoroughly gushed, I hope everyone else has as good a time as I did. If not, try ordering an extra glass of wine!


too_much_thinking said...

What a brilliant place! And such a tasty review too! Oh so want to go...

Dumpling_Girl said...

Thanks, too_much_thinking! If you go, let us know if you like it.

vancouverfoodie said...

After that healthy dose of buzz, I gotta say that I'm busting to go and try the spread there too!

SaabKen said...

Wow, that's amazing. A restaurant that can read my wife's mind. We GOT to go there. Thanks Nancy for blogging STR.

Would be a good venue for Nancylanders soiree.

Dumpling_Girl said...

What a great idea, Ken...the long table would be perfect for a Nancylander meet. Let me know if you and Mrs. SaabKen enjoy it. Thanks!

Dumpling_Girl said...

From my cuz:
"Okay, I have to remember to try not to read your blog too late at night. I started reading your Salt Tasting Room entry and found myself craving wine and remembering I had an open bottle in the fridge. I poured a glass,
started reading some more, then found myself craving food to go with the wine and ended up cracking open a can of smoked oysters which I ate ALL BY
MYSELF, with Triscuits! Dangerous blog, man! You should seriously have warnings at the start, like the parental discretion thing, but maybe "Potential Food Cravings May Be Elicited. Proceed With Caution." ;)"

Thanks, Wanda! Of course, now I have a craving for smoked oysters and Triscuits! Gee, thanks. :) I get the same effect when I read eGullet. Last time I read through a thread arguing the merits of various deli sandwiches in town (authentic Montreal smoked meat sandwiches, New York style brisket, etc.) and I couldn't rest until I went to Kaplan's Star Deli (on Alberni St., off Burrard) and got one of their Montreal smoked meat (flown in weekly) sandwiches on rye. Man, that was one big craving, but it was so good to satisfy it. The sandwich was wonderful. Tender meat, glistening with fat, piled high, it really feels like a huge indulgence. Also took home some of their yummy chopped liver for sandwiches the next day. Next time I'll remember to take a photo of my sandwich - food porn. Let's see how many Nancylanders have to go get their smoked meat fix after that! Evil! Guess reading the discussions on the forums is kind of like food erotica then (when they're not posting pics). Deli meats, chocolate...Sometimes cravings are always lurking just beneath the surface, and it just takes a little poke to unleash them.