Hawaii was in need of SALT about as much as I was in need of a good man. The island of Oahu has always harbored a plethora of mouth-watering ethnic cuisine and renowned chefs such as Sam Choi and Roy Yamaguchi pushed haute pacific rim cuisine to a level where universal accolades were garnered and celebrity status was achieved. However, until now the island has lacked a sophisticated small plates eatery where meats are cured in house and the cart de jour features dishes such as SAUSAGE STUFFED CALAMARI and OXTAIL EMPANADAS.
Conceived by 12th Avenue Grill’s Kevin Hanney, this tiny gem is located on Waialae Avenue, the popular Kaimuki strip that is a mishmash of ethnic joints, coffee houses and the occasional comic book store. Some of the island’s best restaurants reside in this area, a stone’s throw apart: Town, 12th Avenue Grill and the local favorite, Big City Diner. Now Salt has been birthed into the busy neighborhood and it too can reap the benefits of the contiguous parking lots (locals burn with a disdain for valet) and the convenient location.
I had only strolled off the plane, into the comforting oven of humid Hawaiian air, a few hours before entering Salt. On the island a “plate lunch” is to locals as Whataburger is to Texans. It’s an inevitable stop on the way home from the airport. It’s comfort food that is synonymous with Hawaii itself. Served in a white Styrofoam container, a plate lunch is classically composed of two scoops of moist white rice, a hamburger patty, thin strips of Korean beef “Bugolgi,” or panko breaded chicken strips “Katsu,” and a scoop of creamy macaroni salad. The continuum of all plate lunches being the mayonnaise-heavy “mac salad.” I had ingurgitated a local “plate lunch” within 25 minutes of touchdown and polished it off with a chilly glass of mango juice.
Salt is a two-story shoebox with a handful of tables on the second floor. The bottom floor doesn’t feel much wider than a hallway, with a full bar racked against one wall and a narrow counter and row of stools lining another. The lighting could be a few watts dimmer, but this is coming from someone who would experience life exclusively in candlelight, if given the choice.
I attended with two couples. The first being my parents, the second being newlyweds, my cousin, Megan, and her husband Blaine. Up until recently Salt didn’t take reservations so we walked in at 7:30 without a safety net. Given that there were so few tables in the upstairs loft area, we were told that a table for five wouldn’t be available until 9 pm. This left me scrunching my nose as we schlepped to the bar area to dine at the counter.
Had the opening dish, the Oxtails Empanadas, not been the perfect bite of juicy pulls of warm meat enveloped by a flaky, crunchy batter, I would have pouted about not having a table for the rest of the evening. But with the first chomp of the empanada, all was forgiven. They are garnished with a sweet mixture of white raisins, caramelized onions and cherry tomatoes that is cold to the touch and tastes of plums. I could have gone home with about 10 more of the empanadas in my belly and been perfectly happy.
…Until I had the flatbread. Had I departed before the flatbread, I would have missed the evening’s MVP. Every night the menu features a unique flatbread and this evening it was topped with crumbled goat cheese, halved baby tomatoes, a toss of crispy arugula and house-cured lomo, charcuterie made from pork loin. For a restaurant that endeavors to cure their own meat, the lomo is a testament to their success. Once a week, Salt acquires one to two whole pigs from Glenn Shinsato’s eponymous farm, the exclusive USDA-certified hog abattoir on Oahu. These pigs are butchered and cured in-house in the restaurant’s certified walk-in. The result: beautiful homemade charcuterie which is placed on the menu in a variety of dishes. The lomo is like bacon’s delicate cousin - warped into a bite-sized airy crisp and so thin that if one held it to the light, it gleans with transparency. The flavor is sharp and savory, hitting the tongue with notable pow. If I’ve had one good idea in my lifetime, it is to sell these lomo bits by the sack. Undoubtedly more sinful than a bag of potato chips, I would buy “Lomo Chips” in Costco sized proportions. I would churn it into artisanal gelato and stand back and watch it usurp the salted caramel ice cream craze. I would serve it with popcorn and a spin of truffle oil and market it as “pig popcorn.” In short, there is no end to the affair I would have with Salt’s lomo.
The CRAB BRUSCHETTA is served as a pair and accompanied by a smear of tart aoili sauce. The crab itself is fresh, and chunky, mixed with diced tomatoes and cilantro leaves, and piled on a lightly charred slice of buttered french bread. The result is an antipasto that appropriately features the plump crustacean flavor and the salty kick of the nearby pacific.
Shinsato’s pork encored for the GRILLED SHINSATO PORK STUFFED CALAMARI, served with a Pollack splatter of smoked tomato creme fraiche and a molehill of frisee. The calamari plays the role of a chewy doughnut with the spicy sausage as the filling. The sausage itself is smoky, almost gamey, and while I enjoyed the creativity in the mash-up of squid meets hog, the merging doesn’t provide a palatable metamorphosis the way I had hoped it would.
The ROASTED BEETS SALAD features juicy golden and purple beets with an earthy heap of arugula and a flick of crumbled goat cheese. Fresh and un-bothered by a notable dressing, it thoroughly satiated my desire for something green amongst the swine-heavy menu.
At this point in the evening my father and Blaine were in discussion as were my mother and Megan. I took this as an opportunity to order a dish overlooked by my dinner-mates but one I couldn’t get off the brain after catching a glimpse of it on the menu. The FRIED EGG is a single serving of an arancini-esque golfball, fried to a light crisp on the outside and enveloping a balmy soft boiled egg on the inside. I loved the balance of the breaded shell and the silky liquid sunshine that oozes on the plate. After one bite, I ignored the garlic bread served on the side. The egg is too distinguished to have it lost in anything other than its own textures and flavors.
The PORK BELLY SANDWICH is a tender slab butchered from Shinsato with a farm fresh Ka Lei egg sprawled across its entirety and served on a buoyant bun. Much to my delight I found heavily seared bites of pork amongst the tenderness and the lemon aioli spread added the right amount of tang to the saltiness.
What should have been a wondrous climax to a brilliant meal somehow sputtered out on the final entree, a mound of RAVIOLI topped with a scatter of enoki mushrooms, pepperdew and zucchini rounds. The subtlety behind the enoki is better suited for a dish that only requires a hint of added flavor but in this case the ravioli needs more wallop. The pepperdew contributes with a stroke of spice but all of the ingredients and flavors are incongruous.
Now, getting back to that “good man” comment I offered upfront. As we washed back the meal with wine and beer, Megan turned to me and said, “You’re glowing, Tiff. I just love your new highlights.”
“It’s not the highlights,” my mom jumped in. “Tell her Tiff,” my mother urged.
I rolled my eyes at my mother. Then I internally reprimanded myself for rolling my eyes at my mother. How quickly we revert back to our parent-child roles the instant we’re back under our parents’ roof.
I turned back to Megan, “I started dating someone.”
“You’re beaming. I knew it!” Megan yelped.
I let the yarn unravel. I explained the remarkable and serendipitous ways in which a thousand stars had to align in order for our paths to cross. It involved a rainstorm in New York City and a guy waiting for a taxi. It involved a girl in L.A. writing about Babbo. It was a dozen intricate ironies that lead to the first hello. Then, over countless twirls of impeccably al dente bucatini and endless glasses of deep reds, I learned the immeasurable ways in which he was, well, just right. More so than Mozza’s Ricotta & Egg Raviolo. More so than Waverly Inn’s Truffled Mac & Cheese.
Finally, readers, I can talk about a man actually worth writing about.