Dining Update: Eclectic Sea Salt broadens its appeal
Michael Bauer, Chronicle Staft Writer
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
Some restaurants start strong and then slowly lose momentum. Others such as Sea Salt in Berkeley continue to build and expand. When Sea Salt opened in 2005, it had just 85 seats. Now there are nearly 200, the interior has been spiffed up with fresh flowers and a full-service bar, and the menu has grown.
While seafood is still at the core, there are now meat dishes, including, on the most recent menu, a hanger steak with celery root mashed potatoes ($28).
One of the other changes is that chef Anthony Paone, who was doing double duty at sister restaurant T-Rex, is now at Sea Salt full time. The menu has always been, and continues to be, a little quirky, with some unusual seafood sandwiches such as barbecued eel bahn mi ($14) with cabbage slaw and house-made potato chips; a bacon, lettuce and trout ($15); and an exceptional steamed lobster on torpedo roll ($25).
The short menu is divided into 11 smaller and larger plates; diners can mix and match at will.
I'd be more than happy to confine my main courses to the steamed clams ($15), which wouldn't be a "smaller plate" for anyone else except the Jolly Green Giant. Served in a copper bowl, the clams share a buttery broth with chunks of browned potatoes, crumbles of fennel sausage, broccoli and two thick pieces of grilled bread.
The clam chowder ($9), filled with perfectly diced potatoes, is another great starter. Other smaller plates include some more unusual offerings: cured tuna heart ($12) with pickled onions and dried beans; monkfish liver torchon with cucumber, sea urchin and caviar ($14); and whole fried smelt with green goddess dressing ($12). For lighter tastes, Paone offers four salads including a mix of greens ($9) with mandarins, crumbles of feta cheese and green olives in a tangy vinaigrette.
The five larger plates include fish and chips ($18), which has been on the menu from the beginning and is one of the best examples to be found in the Bay Area.
We particularly enjoyed the grilled Hawaiian swordfish topped with a creamy basil aioli with English peas, carrots and green garlic. Arctic char ($25) comes on a bed of chopped asparagus and fava beans with a Meyer lemon creme fraiche, the perfect spring combination.
The lemon pie ($7), another Jolly Green Giant dessert, easily serves two. The 5-inch tart shell is filled with thin slices of lemons, much like a Shaker filling, crowned with pastry and a frilly line of whipped cream. The brownie sundae ($7) is nearly as light as a souffle with the chocolate square topped with salty caramel ice cream, a dollop of whipped cream and salted pecans; it's a great dessert.
The service, like the food, has an eclectic friendly quality. It supports the neighborhood vibe, but not at the expense of professionalism.
Rarely does a restaurant that gets larger actually improve the food, but with Paone watching the line, that's exactly what's happened.
2512 San Pablo Ave. (at Dwight Way), Berkeley; (510) 883-1720.
Lunch, dinner Monday-Friday 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; 10:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. Full bar. Reservations and credit cards accepted. Easy street parking.
|Overall||Rating: THREE STARS|
|Food||Rating: THREE STARS|
|Service||Rating: TWO AND A HALF STARS|
|Atmosphere||Rating: TWO AND A HALF STARS|
|Noise Rating||Noise Rating: FOUR BELLS|