Salt Exchange in Portland
Although Portland is certainly not shy on good food, I am almost beside myself to welcome the Salt Exchange on Commercial St. This new restaurant adds a fresh new palette to the existing restaurants in town.
My guy and I stopped in Thursday, which I think was only the fourth night of service. The space was very clean and modern, but with comforting continental touches. The green ceiling was a particularly nice detail. The staff was extremely friendly and everything was timed and prepared exceptionally well, amazing for a first week!
The menu consists mostly of small plates. We decided to order a bunch and split everything. Highlights included the lobster with basil and orange sabayon, a particularly rockin' Caesar salad, sheep's milk ricotta, a lamb entree served with sweetbreads and an amazing bean side. The desserts were also great. The financier came with a truffled honeycomb, which made my date moan embarrassingly loud. Whoever heard of truffling honeycombs? I am an instant addict, for sure. The portions were just the right size to let you sample a lot of different tastes. Even with a $45 bottle of wine, the bill came in at under $120 for 5 dishes, two desserts, and two coffees (not including tip).
The flavors and presentation had a contemporary flair that I haven't seen much in Portland, where I think most restaurants tend towards big rustic flavors (555, fore St..) but also not veering too far into gimicky feats of micro gastronomy, just beautifully, layered, fresh, innovative, and delicious. If this is the quality of week one, I can't wait to see what happens at Salt Exchange in the coming months.
I went there and was seriously disappointed. Every attempt, at every junction, seems to be to make the most profit out of the tiniest serving. I have no problem with small portions at all (loved 158 in SoPo and a big Bar Lola supporter here), but Salt Exhange does things like serve no bread, because as I was told, it would fill people up and they wouldn't order as much. Beyond being tight and tacky in the extreme, this practice leaves the palate in a bad place at times through the course of a meal.
The fish was "Ocean Perch": what we called redfish in Harpswell where I grew up, and used, pickled in waste, as lobster bait. With all the fish in the sea, if you're going to serve someone 2 ounces of it, couldn't it be a palatable, quality fish?
There was some very (very) good food served, but there's plenty of very good food to be found in Portland where the owners are not so slavishly squeezing the blood from turnips.
The service (I ate at the bar, which I do fairly often in Portland) was pleasant except for one nasty new phenomenon entering diners' experiences. It's bad enough when a waitperson asks you, fork-in-mouth, how the meal is, but the new trend is to cheerlead it: "How about them mussels???!!!", "Pretty amazing turnips, eh?", forcing you into a kind of fight-or-flight mode ("No, the turnips were soggy, but I would never have brought it up if you hadn't forced the issue*."), which is not where I want to be mid-meal. PLEASE don't put me in such an uncomfortable situation. It makes me want to leave the restaurant: not a good thing. This happened with every serving, meaning it happened a lot in this small-serving restaurant.
A small dinner for one at the bar with a drink, glass of wine and dessert cost $89.90 with tip.
*No mussels or turnips in my meal, I'm just extemporizing here.