Of all the reasons why you should try the duck fat-fried chicken at Salt, Wes Johnson's terrific new restaurant in the Central West End, I can think of no higher recommendation than this: On a day when the heat index reached 110 degrees, when chicken fried in duck fat and served atop mashed potatoes would seem to be the least appealing entrée in the history of the universe, I picked every last morsel of meat from the bones — and finished the taters, too.
The dish begins with a classic buttermilk marinade. The kitchen then dredges each piece in nothing more than flour and fries it. Both steps are taken only after you order the chicken; your server will inform you that this will take eighteen to twenty minutes, a bit longer than other dishes here.
The exterior of the chicken is a deep, deep brown, very crisp and, for all its gnarled breading, surprisingly thin. Frying the chicken in duck fat doesn't make the meat taste like duck. Instead, it gives the chicken an almost beef-like level of savoriness — so rich that, to give it the proper accent, I sprinkled a bit more salt on the meat than I usually do. For additional contrast to both the fried chicken and the mashed potatoes, Johnson serves pickled watermelon rinds on the side. Their flavor is piquant, the texture snappy.
Those who have followed Johnson's career, which has included stints at the Shaved Duck and Eclipse, know his affinity for duck fat. In addition to the fried chicken, at Salt, he's brought back my favorite dish from his time at the Shaved Duck, duck-fat frites. These are thinly sliced and heaped in a tangle like a bird's nest. As with the fried chicken, their depth of flavor is difficult to convey, though those who ache for the days when McDonald's cooked its fries in beef tallow will likely feel a pang of nostalgia. On the side, for dipping, are small ramekins of housemade ketchup and, for those who find duck fat not quite rich enough, mayonnaise.
"Duck fat just has a great richness and flavor to it," says Johnson. "You can't really go wrong with it."
Salt opened this April in the space that famously — or infamously, depending upon your appreciation for the macabre — was converted from a funeral parlor into the restaurant Savor. (After Savor closed, it briefly operated as a special-events venue for Overlook Farms.) If you didn't know that this used to be a funeral home, you'd probably wonder what crazed architect designed a house to look like this.
At any rate, the layout is much the same as it was at Savor, with the bar and multiple dining rooms on the main floor, the ornate bathrooms — the women's room, my wife informs me, must be seen to be believed; the men's room ain't too shabby, either — and the "Egyptian Room," where Savor used to host a cabaret and magic shows, upstairs. In a welcome change of pace from my recent experiences, the dining rooms are well lighted.
When it comes to the food at Salt, Johnson traces his philosophy back to his grandparents and father: "Keep things simple. Use what's available." On the back of Salt's menu is the phrase "an American larder restaurant," which I found an apt description of the fare here: ingredient-driven, and rustic to the point that several dishes are served inside Mason jars.
In fact, one of Salt's standout dishes is served inside a sealed Mason jar. This is a single plump scallop, seared and then dressed in a cracked-mustard sauce. Sealed inside the jar with the scallop and its sauce is a puff of cedar smoke. The aroma strikes you as soon as you open the jar and then, having whetted your appetite, quickly dissipates. It's a clever trick — it isn't Johnson's own, nor does he claim it to be — and it would be nothing more than that if the scallop weren't so tasty, its buttery sweetness nicely offset by the sharply flavored sauce and your memory of the woodsmoke.
The scallop is one of several small plates. Indeed, if you include the à la carte selections of cheese and charcuterie — the housemade pork terrene is outstanding — small plates comprise the majority of the menu. These include both conventional bistro dishes, like mussels broiled and served in a fiery broth spiked with garlic and Mexican chorizo, and more idiosyncratic approaches, like pork meatballs in a blackberry jam. The pairing seems incongruous, but the flavors — the pork leavened with fennel, the blackberry bright and fresh — mesh well. Another unexpected but successful combination of savory and sweet is a wedge of warmed brie topped with a chutney of roasted peaches and, for a kick of heat, poblano peppers.
The duck fat-fried chicken is one of only five traditional entrées. For those who enjoy actual duck meat with their duck fat, the "sorghum-lacquered" duck adds a gentle molasses sweetness to plump, juicy breast meat. As you might expect from someone so besotted with duck, Johnson nails the balance between crisp skin and luscious fat. The pan-seared strip steak is a good piece of meat, a coriander-fennel crust adding a bright note to the beef's natural flavor, but the steak is almost upstaged by its two sides: rich, spicy creamed corn and German potato salad with its one-two punch of vinegar and bacon.
Desserts include a simple tart of seasonal berries topped with salted-caramel ice cream, and that inescapable local favorite, bread pudding with bourbon sauce, here distinguished by lingonberries. This, too, is served in a Mason jar, which is cute, but spooning the stuff out of there is a bit more work than it is worth.
On my visits, the service was very good, especially given how busy the restaurant was. However, I was definitely made as a restaurant critic, so you should take that analysis with a grain of, um, salt.
The wine list is modest in scope: domestic and Old World reds, most in the $30 to $60 range; whites offer more variety, but fewer selections. The "culinary cocktails" include the "Ornery Hound," a refreshingly tart and subtly complex concoction of gin, yellow Chartreuse, grapefruit bitters and fresh ruby-red grapefruit juice.
The "culinary cocktails" moniker is a rare note of pretension in a restaurant otherwise refreshingly free of it. Johnson's team, he says, is "just trying to enjoy ourselves — to be professional, but not so serious."
I hope that Johnson won't mind me concluding on a more serious note, then: Salt is the best new restaurant to open in St. Louis so far this year.