Dining

Review: Salt Bistro

August 2010

Salt Bistro
(out of 4)

Food
Service
Ambience
1047 Pearl St., Boulder, 303-444-7258

The Draw A casual, come-as-you-are bistro that emphasizes an ever-changing menu of fresh, seasonal ingredients and smart, flavorful preparation.

The Drawback Because Salt doesn't take reservations for parties fewer than five, the wait—especially on weekends—can be lengthy.

Don't Miss Spiced Pear Rickey, seasonal vegetable tasting, Long Family Farms pork chop, and dark chocolate caramel salt tart

Price $$$ (average entrée price $20)

Years ago, my grandfather, a kind man who wore a ready smile and black suspenders, owned a small fruit orchard and gentleman's farm in northern California. When I was growing up, I'd spend lazy afternoons there picking—and pilfering—beans, tomatoes, peaches, and figs. It wasn't until I was in my 20s, long after my grandfather had died, that I fully appreciated how special it had been for a city kid to spend summers indulging in just-picked produce. Most of my friends had no idea how deeply red a ripe tomato really was, or that there were salad options beyond iceberg.

I hadn't thought of my grandfather's garden in years, but the memories snapped back while eating at Salt Bistro in Boulder, Bradford Heap's homage to farm-fresh food.

It's become cliché for restaurants to promote a tripartite focus on local, seasonal, and organic ingredients. And, unfortunately, many of these claims seem more aspirational than real. Not at Salt. Here, local products such as Oxford Gardens chard (near Niwot), Hazel Dell mushrooms (Fort Collins), and Long Family Farms pork (Eaton), are listed liberally on the menu.

And yet I confess: When I first saw the farmer and rancher callouts, I thought Heap, the 49-year-old Boulder native who also owns Niwot's Colterra restaurant, was overdoing it. "If you enjoy anything on your plate today," he writes, "it's because it came from [the farmers and ranchers mentioned]." Heap's earnestness seemed a little too forced, a little too Boulder co-op for my taste.

But then I tried Give Peas a Chance and, despite its Lennonesque name, all thoughts of overkill evaporated. The colorful all-veggie starter was stunning in its simplicity. Tender oyster mushrooms nudged up against sweet glazed carrots; lively sugar snap peas sat next to spring-green asparagus; fava beans added texture; dried tomatoes added color. And the whole ensemble was anchored by a single, large ravioli filled with sweet pea purée. I haven't been so enchanted by vegetables since I sat in the dirt in my grandpa's garden.

Heap is at his best when he allows the produce to dominate. Take the fava bean bruschetta, an appetizer that blends mashed fava beans with pecorino and a dash of mint; the grilled pear, a half slice of Anjou pear topped with creamy Gorgonzola and crunchy walnuts, and served alongside a crispy triangle of polenta; and the seasonal vegetable tasting. Heap changes his menu almost daily depending on the fresh produce available, so the vegetable tasting I ordered will likely be different from yours. My plate featured plump potato gnocchi, braised leeks, savoy cabbage, and a collection of veggies—asparagus, Tuscan beans, and mushrooms—all roasted in Salt's wood-fired oven. The only detractor was the listless pink beet risotto cake.

But even when meat takes the starring role, Heap focuses on the essential flavors. His brined and wood-grilled pork chop was savory and succulent the way pork rarely is, but should be. The same goes for his rosemary rotisserie chicken, served with a chewy vegetable bread pudding and natural jus. And while I enjoyed the oak-fired sirloin served with crushed Yukon gold potatoes, sautéed shallots, and arugula, it would have been even better without the deep purple Cabernet butter.

Among the less successful entrées were the nettle fettuccine and herbed green risotto. Although both were satisfying—the pasta was made in-house with Oregon nettles, and the risotto was served with wild prawns and a peppery ahi tuna—they lacked pizzazz because the starch was emphasized at the expense of more flavorful ingredients. The other disappointment was the grilled smoked-salmon flatbread, which had far too much salty salmon to enjoy more than two bites.

I'm a huge proponent of Heap's buy-local philosophy, which is why I was hugely disappointed by his wine list. Only three local wines, two from Sutcliffe Vineyards and one from the Infinite Monkey Theorem winery, made the cut; the lion's share of the 110-plus listing is from Italy, France, Germany, and the West Coast. While the Colorado wine industry is not yet fermenting in the same league as Europe and California, there are certainly more than three good Colorado wines.

Despite this disconnect, there is synchronicity between the menu and the atmosphere. Salt is located on the west end of the Pearl Street Mall, in the space formerly occupied by Boulder's beloved Tom's Tavern. Heap renovated the space but maintained the comfortable tavern feel in the exposed brick walls, pressed tin ceiling, and extensive use of recycled and reclaimed materials. The overall vibe is one in which you'll feel equally comfortable wearing flip-flops and ordering a burger—or meeting a promising new friend for a Saturday night date.

One caveat: Arrive early. Salt doesn't take reservations for less than five people, and the wait can be lengthy. Two friends and I arrived at 6:10 p.m. on a Saturday and weren't seated until 7:30 p.m.; fortunately, the cocktail list kept us entertained. I give high marks to the Spiced Pear Rickey, a sweet-tart blend of spiced pear vodka, pomegranate juice, fresh lime, and zingy tangerine.

After visiting Salt several times, I'm convinced that Bradford Heap is the real deal. His thoughtful dishes speak of a dedication to origin and seasonal flavor. And, thanks to Heap, I've rediscovered a sense of place—my grandfather's garden—that I'd long forgotten.