During the course of our long and increasingly complex eating life together, my wife has developed a settled taste in restaurants. Whereas I usually focus with piglike intensity on the food in front of me, her judgments tend to be holistic and intuitive. She'll often say "I like this place" before the food even arrives, and more often than not, she'll be right. She appreciates neatly packaged quality on a modest, neighborly scale, both in décor and in cooking. She likes fresh flowers on the table and has an odd predilection for main courses served in bowls (pasta, soups, stews). She doesn't mind exposed brick or communal tables -- I hate exposed brick and communal tables -- and favors small rooms with open kitchens, where you can see the action from your seat. Many of her favorite restaurants seem to have monosyllabic names (Jane, Prune), and many of them, I've noticed, are run by women.
This tidy feminine Zeitgeist is on full display at a new shoebox of a restaurant called Salt. Once upon a time, Salt, which is on MacDougal Street, in the northerly reaches of Soho, was called Stella. Stella had three partners, of which Melissa O'Donnell, who for years labored as executive chef at the fine West Village bistro Le Zoo, was one. Two of the partners have since departed, and now O'Donnell has remade the clean little space in her own image. The kitchen in the back is open, and the white wooden tables have been pushed together in communal rows. They're set with candles and, on the evenings I was there, bowls of freshly cut white roses. Tall windows open out onto the street, and muted chanteuse tunes play over the stereo. My wife examined the menu for a second or two before rendering her verdict: "I love this place. It's perfect."
I suppose I loved it, too. Certainly, the first few things to come out of the kitchen tasted perfectly okay. I fastened, with a particular piglike intensity, on O'Donnell's guacamole, which is whipped to a light, almost creamy fineness, seasoned with hints of coriander and cumin, and served with a little pile of warm tortilla chips. After that came a tasteful platter of California dates, wrapped in frizzled pieces of bacon. This cavalcade of dainty, pre-entrée comfort food continued with nice crabmeat-and-shrimp dumplings and a bowl of well-made risotto, dotted here and there with sweet, late-summer peas. There were two salads as well, one very bland, made with iceberg lettuce, the other very delicious, composed of baby spinach, chanterelles, and soft hunks of chèvre, all smothered in a warm pancetta dressing.
The entrée portion of the menu at Salt is divided into four standard dishes and a gimmicky section called "protein + 2." There are four "proteins" to choose from (the exceptionally tender Newport steak being by far the best, in my humble fat man's opinion), and a series of somewhat wan side dishes (like braised fennel or leeks vinaigrette), although the straight entrées tended to be better. For reasons I can't quite fathom, my wife is a monkfish fanatic, and she was happy to see a tenderized portion of this often chewy fish served in what appeared to be a giant white cereal bowl, over fennel purée and a subtly rich lobster broth. My red snapper (with bean sprouts and miso broth) was equally fine, as was the pasta of the day, great ribbons of cheese-soaked pappardelle speckled with sage and toasted walnuts.
There is a creaky old wine rack above the bar at Salt, and O'Donnell has stocked it with personal favorites from whimsical, far-off lands like Dog Point, New Zealand (a fruity Sauvignon Blanc), and the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon (Château Musar '97). You can sip these by the glass, at lunchtime, with a selection of toasted sandwiches stuffed with egg salad (on challah), chicken breast, guacamole and bacon (on stirato), or simple brie (on a baguette), which comes with a deliciously creamy tomato soup. For dessert, the choices are comparatively slim: a cold chocolate tart and a plum tart (with odd black-pepper ice cream), both of which taste like they've been made days before. O'Donnell's cheesecake stands up a little better, and so does a creamy little disk of latte cotto, which my wife devoured in about three seconds flat, albeit in her neat, decorous, decidedly un-piglike way.