April 2005: Black Salt

This popular seafood restaurant is owned by the same people who created Addie's in Rockville, Black's Bar & Kitchen in Bethesda, and Black Market Bistro in Garrett Park.

Chef Jeff Black has another hit on his hands with Black Salt, a seafood restaurant and market in DC's Palisades

Enter Black Salt, the first DC restaurant from Jeff and Barbara Black, and you'll find yourself in a fish market. Slabs of raw fish and prepared fish dishes are laid out on crushed ice in the cases, and shelves hold drinks and condiments. Behind the market is a bar of granite and stainless steel, and behind the bar a dining room with a partial view of the kitchen. It's an attractive conversion of a building used for many years as a drugstore, and although chef Black feared that the space was too large, the full house every evening has proved him wrong.

The Blacks, who own Addie's in Rockville, Black's Bar & Kitchen in Bethesda, and Black Market Bistro in Garrett Park, have a talent for finding the right combination of restaurant and neighborhood. The warehouselike spaces of Black's Bar & Kitchen are perfect for the crowds seeking somewhere to eat in downtown Bethesda. The action at Black Salt, as is fitting for a residential neighborhood, is largely invisible from the street, and the menu of fresh seafood served in a stylishly retrofitted space seems right for the neighborhood's affluent, professional residents.

The menu is divided into small plates, appetizers, and main courses. Over drinks, one might order several of the small plates, priced between $2 and $6–a single white anchovy over microgreens, dressed with lemon and black-olive oil; a wood-grilled sardine with olive persillade; braised baby octopus with chilies, garlic, and tomato; a single fried oyster crusted in cornmeal and served with a sauce of sour orange and Tupelo honey; or a broiled shrimp wrapped in Serrano ham.

Appetizers are more substantial. Fried Ipswich clams are nicely fried and served with aïoli and romesco sauce. Wild rockfish cheek with foie gras is an unusual treat, tender, flavorful, and served with a crisp potato gaufrette. A dish of yellowfin tuna with Japanese cucumber, papaya, Asian pear, and a mignonette made from sweet rice wine and the citrus fruit yuzu sounded busy but was a delicious combination of flavors and textures set off by the pristinely fresh tuna.

The menu of main courses consists of some items repeated from day to day and others that vary depending on the fresh fish available. There's usually a wood-grilled dorado served over creamy polenta with roasted shallots, sun-dried tomato, and a rosemary butter sauce. The fish has been perfectly cooked, and the treatment, whose plethora of ingredients might offend purists, is delicious. A star of the menu is the whole black sea bass, fresh, moist within, perfectly crusted, and served with a combination of sweet-corn salsa, chipotle rice, and black-bean sauce. On some evenings it has been garnished differently, but the Mexican combination is hard to beat. The menu includes an appealing trio of fish stews–an Italian cioppino, a French bourride, and a Spanish zarzuela. The bourride, while chock full of first-rate fish, shellfish, fennel, and potatoes, was almost cloyingly rich.

The lunch menu offers a number of sandwiches, including a good oyster po' boy with a spicy chipotle remoulade–though it would be better if the bread were closer to a genuine New Orleans loaf. The broiled crabcake is very good, largely lump crabmeat and dressed with lemon-caper aïoli.

The most popular of pastry chef Susan Wallace's desserts is a refined Key-lime pie topped with whipped cream and surrounded by a compote of huckleberries. Her sampler of crèmes brûlée–orange vanilla, pistachio, and chocolate cinnamon–is also delicious, and the chocolate hazelnut crunch cake with caramel and chocolate sauces is the dessert of choice for chocoholics.

The wine list is nicely chosen and moderately priced. The small number of Loire Valley wines, which would seem to be a natural with this food, is a puzzle.

Food: Eclectic seafood menu with some meat options.

Price: Moderate to expensive. Dinner main courses $24 to $35. Dinner for two: about $85.

Value: In line with other top-flight seafood houses.

Bottom line: An accomplished seafood restaurant whose appeal reaches beyond its neighborhood.

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