Review: Salt in St. Louis

Salt, 4356 Lindell Blvd., St. Louis, 314.932.5787,

Some may think it a bit odd, macabre even, to eat dinner in the same room your great-grandmother was laid out for viewing. But there we were, noshing on pork rillettes and scooping the marrow out of a big bone, in what used to be the front parlor of a funeral home. But as one dining partner explained, her Nana had been gone for a long time. A glass of Bordeaux, please. And cheers to Nana.

Since those days, the gorgeous white Greek Revival mansion on Lindell Boulevard has been several things, including the restaurant Savor and a special events satellite space for Overlook Farm. Enter chef Wes Johnson, who recently made the space home to Salt, his first restaurant. Those familiar with the local culinary scene know Johnson from his time at The Scottish Arms, then The Shaved Duck and, most recently, at Eclipse, a post he vacated to open Salt.

There’s a side entrance to the restaurant accessed through the inviting patio. But, whether I was supposed to or not, I liked the grandeur of waltzing through the massive front entryway, pausing to take in the majestic balustrade sweeping up to the second floor (home to some exquisite restrooms) before walking past one, two, three cozy dining rooms on my way to the dark, handsome bar and the hostess stand. Why, yes, I will try the gin-based Ornery Hound cocktail, just one of five fun cocktails mixed by the bar staff. The wine and beer list is compact, well-thought-out and reasonable; you can get a decent bottle of wine for under $30.

Johnson said he made minimal changes to the interior, adding only white tablecloths, hanging some new artwork and painting the pea-green walls a lighter shade of pale yellow. The biggest changes are in what’s coming out of the kitchen. Johnson calls Salt “an American larder restaurant,” emphasizing that he cooks from a purely Americana pantry. Where Savor’s menu collapsed under its own global reach, Salt lives up to its “Simple. Essential.” tagline by focusing its roster on five categories: Cheeses, Charcuterie, Small Plates, Large Plates and Sweets.

But what sounds simple is often more complicated back in the kitchen. From the small plates side of the menu, a single seared sea scallop in a mustard sauce with scallions sounds simple enough, until it arrives sealed in a tiny canning jar and you’re instructed to unscrew the top to release a puff of cedar smoke pumped into the jar by some kind of smoke gun contraption. Now that’s whimsy. It’s also delicious, though the impression of cedar was barely distinguishable. The wine-braised marrow bone was disappointing: greasy, tasteless and off-putting with none of the expected buttery richness. Scooping out marrow is never elegant or even appetizing, but there was hardly any substance to scoop, mostly just oily, liquidy fat. The asparagus and goat cheese gratin, also a surprising letdown, was too dry and suffered from woody stalks and no sense of the advertised honey-sherry vinaigrette. The soup of the day, this time pork sausage and peas in a beef broth, was rich with porky fattiness, although another dining partner found the slick mouth feel too unctuous.

From the charcuterie side, a ramekin of pork and black garlic rillettes proved addictive. Order this. Breaking through the salt-sprinkled cap of congealed pork fat reveals a core of spreadable potted meat made from shredded pig mixed with spices and black garlic, making for a mellow, almost sweet taste and a smooth texture. Served with crunchy flatbread, we kept eating despite knowing bigger dishes were to come.

Service was crisp and informed, despite a long lag between salad and entrées during one visit. And even though some bread would have been nice to sop up the pan juices of the duck entrée, there was nary a quibble about the duck’s crisp skin, delicately sweetened with a good shellacking of sorghum syrup and the bed of Swiss chard. Do not confuse the pork steak entrée with that typical St. Louis mainstay of summer backyard barbecues. This unsauced, thick, dense, fatless cut is not your father’s pork steak. In what at first comes off as a doomed relationship, the accompanying apple butter risotto surprisingly makes for a harmonious marriage. The guanciale lardons on top sure didn’t hurt either, adding even more porkiness to contrast the risotto’s sweet, tender, chewy fruitiness.

Roasting with hay is all the rage on the coasts, so we had to try the hay-roasted hen on the menu. Johnson uses an airline cut breast and roasts it on a bed of alfalfa, green grass and hay, supposedly to keep the meat succulent and impart an earthy flavor. And while the bird was indeed juicy and flavorful, it lacked the expected infusion of grassiness from the barnyard staple. This not to say the dish was a clunker – far from it, especially with the accompanying grilled potato cake and mound of grilled local vegetables, but it felt more like anticipation than reality. I suspect an equally satisfying roast chicken could be prepared without mowing the yard.

Sweets are simple but slightly altered takes on the traditional: cheesecake made with oat crust and goat cheese, bread pudding made with lingonberry. The most whimsical, in keeping with Johnson’s style, is the “candy bar,” a dessert somewhere between a Twix, Baby Ruth and Snickers. It’s a cookie covered with nougat and chocolate and topped with toasted cashews. I expected a crunchier, crispier cookie and a less cloyingly sweet impact; a couple of cups of local Goshen coffee made it all OK.

And maybe that’s the best thing about Salt: Even when it doesn’t live up to what’s written on the menu, there’s always something that hits perfect pitch.

Where: Salt, 4356 Lindell Blvd., St. Louis, 314.932.5787,
When: Dinner: Mon. and Wed. to Sun. – 5 p.m. to midnight; Brunch: Sat. and Sun. – 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Don’t-Miss Dish: Hay-roasted hen, pork steak, pork and black garlic rillettes.
Vibe: Housed in an old manse with several dining rooms and an inviting patio, Salt is elegant and comfortable. Don’t miss the restrooms or a tour of the basement wine cellar.
Entrée Prices: Large plates, $13 to $18; small plates, $4 to $9