Next to white king salmon, microgreens and garlic roots, the hottest ingredient in New York restaurants this fall is salt. Yes, salt. But given New York chefs' tendency to gild the lily, this isn't just any ol' table salt. We're talking Hawaiian black-lava salt, African red-clay salt and Peruvian pink sea salt, eagerly purchased at $30-$80 per pound (compared with about 25 cents per pound for Morton's). These coarse-grained varieties of salt are used to punch up flavor, add a delicately crunchy texture or effect an unexpected color contrast, such as that of a red salt on a white piece of fish. Pastry chefs are even scattering granules of finely nuanced sea salt, or fleur de sel, on sweet foods, such as roasted melons, ice cream and chocolate cake. Finishing the desserts with salt, they say, heightens and balances their flavors.
Are St. Louis chefs keen on filling their salt cellars with the fancified new varieties? "I think it's a ridiculous idea," says Stephen Gontram, of Harvest. He admits that he's salted vegetable desserts, such as candied beets, but insists that seasoning should be used to pick up flavor, not to add texture. Vincent Bommarito, of Tony's, agrees that the exotic salts serve little purpose. "Sea salt and kosher salt are all we need here," he concludes. But Steve Komorek, of Trattoria Marcella, welcomes the trend. "I think it's neat," he says enthusiastically. "After all, salt is the spice of life." On Komorek's last trip to New York, he tasted the red-clay and black-lava salts and was impressed by their purity and the subtle mineral flavors they imparted to the food. Thom Zoog, of Shiitake, expresses perhaps the most circumspect view of the craze. "The new salts offer an opportunity to experiment," he says, "but the proof is in the pudding, as they say. It has to taste good." In place of ordinary salt, Zoog seasons the food at Shiitake with a mixture of roasted, ground Sichuan peppercorns and kosher salt. To find a recipe for a similar spiced salt and to order luxe salts for your own kitchen, visit Dean & Deluca, a New York specialty-foods retailer, at www.deandeluca.com