Salt appeals because of the umami factor

Thursday, July 27th, 2006

Salt offers a classy version of a ploughman’s lunch. And, it’s the first of its kind in Vancouver

Mia Stainsby

Owner Sean Heather prepares a plate of cheeses and cured meats at the Salt Tasting Room

Too eager to wait, I went in only a week after Salt Tasting Room opened. It’s a new concept for Vancouver and Sean Heather, Gastown’s grand food poobah, has done a great job of it.

He already claims paternity to Irish Heather, Salty Tongue, Shebeen and Limerick, all popular, all easy-going and fun but with sibling differences. Salt would be the first that could be called sexy with its modernist lines, Alt Pop music and trend-setter moves.

I loved Salt and, really, I shouldn’t. As one who tries to appease the migraine beast, I tread gingerly around the specializations here — cheeses and cured meats. But as I say when I’m in France, mowing my way through the nation’s cheeses, I can’t let head-banger migraines keep me from life’s great pleasures now, can I?

I could say Salt offers ploughman’s lunches or deli plates, but that would be a lie. It’s a very classy version of them. Maybe the French charcuterie or Italian salumeria would be a more appropriate comparison.

Salt Tasting Room is like a guerrilla space-shuttle re-entry. It makes a bold first move into Blood Alley, where businesses have long departed, leaving an edgy drug-influenced culture behind. And there’s a lot more to follow with other new developments going in. (Salt is in a progressive, green building with grass roof and geothermal heating.)

One of the reasons Salt appeals is the umami factor — umami being that fifth taste we never knew we had until scientists affirmed it. It’s the savoury taste found in fermented and aged foods, as in cured meats and cheeses. Umami is seductive. At Salt, the naked, elemental flavours of cheese and thin sheets of cured meats, accessorized with condiments, reel you in quickly and mercilessly.

Coincidentally, it’s said that the glutamates behind this umami taste are intensified with salt — Heather had named the place Salt because the substance is used in making cured meats and cheese.

On the first visit, you learn the drill. On a giant blackboard, there are three columns. Cheese, Meat and Condiments. There are about 10 items in each column and they are fleet-footed — there one day, and not, the next. For $15, you order three items from each column and they arrive matched according to taste with a cheat sheet. For about $10 more, you can order a tasting flight of wines or sherries (the place is big on sherries), which also come with a cheat sheet telling you what’s what. It’s labour intensive for the service staff, writing down nine items per person but then, the kitchen gets off easily, doesn’t it.

Here’s the other thing — Heather scored a tag team of the city’s ace names in mixology — Chris Stearns (former Lumiere bar manager) and Jay Jones (former West and Nu bar manager), hired to run the front of the house as manager and assistant manager and as often as not, doing the waiter thing. They’re a dream team from the point of view of sales and for the customer too, with their contagious enthusiasm in promoting different drinks. All wines come by the glass and in taster size so you can make up your own flight.

I like the opportunity to try out new cheeses and artisanal cured meats. I don’t order cheese plates at restaurants because by the end of the meal, I’m usually too full for any more umami. Here, you make a meal or snack of a few lovely cheeses, meats and condiments with bread and wine.

Heather buys his meats from small producers like Oyama Sausage, JN&Z Deli, British Butcher and Seattle’s Salumi (celebrity chef Mario Batali’s dad’s shop). A little goes a long way since the food is so protein-rich. Sausages are sliced paper-thin and there’s just enough cheese to satisfy your curiosity.

Under condiments, you must try the Spanish pressed fig bread if it’s there. I loved the combination of St. Andre cheese with Similkameen honeycomb — for my husband it triggered flashes of honey and butter sandwich memories. Team it with the Spanish pressed fig bread and it’s heaven. The Jeff Van Geest cognac-flavoured terrine (he of Aurora Bistro) is lovely, as are the paper-thin sheets of smoked pork tenderloin.

There are a couple of desserts so far, made in the Irish Heather kitchen — the chocolate ricotta mousse is a like chocolate velvet.

Salt is the first of its kind, at least in Vancouver, and now I’m waiting for a cheese-only tasting bar, migraines be damned.


Overall: 4

Food: 3 1/2

Ambience: 4

Service: 4

Price: $/$$

45 Blood Alley. 604-633-1912. Open 4:30 p.m. to midnight every evening. (Open for lunch in future.)

Restaurant visits are conducted anonymously and interviews are done by phone. Restaurants are rated out of five stars.

© The Vancouver Sun 2006


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