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Sep 26, 2009 08:06 AM

Salt Exchange in Portland ME needs work

Food tasted great. Soup lukewarm. Service poor. Long wait for wine. Long wait for each service. Claim tapas but most plates not 'share-able'. Entree size steak more like tapa size. Although the food was well prepared, would NOT recommend.

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  1. Sounds like they will be gone by next year........
    Do it better and do it right -- or get out......

    1. The original comment has been removed
      1. “Rising to new lows in dining,” best sums up our July 15 experience at the Salt Exchange. My husband, our 16 year old son, our 23 year old vegan nephew, and I arrived on time for our 8 pm reservation, one four top was ordering, three tables were finishing and departed before our drinks arrived, five people stayed at the bar.

        Our server arrived, explained the “small plates” concept and told us we should order everything at once as some items took quite a while to prepare. We ordered a Rhubarb Cosmo, a Pirate Rum Punch, two ice waters, and looked over the promising menu.

        During the next 15 minutes, our server returned to our table three times to tell us the bartender was working on our drinks and asked each time if we were ready to order, reminding us to order the entire meal. The first two times she dropped by, our young gentlemen asked for the bread and ice water, please. On our way in, they had spied the filled breadbaskets at the far end of the bar. Ice water arrived after ten minutes.

        Drinks arrived after 15 minutes, whereupon we ordered 4 items for the table as starters and, keeping an open mind, asked about items we planned to order once we tasted the first offerings. We had to ask for bread two more times.

        The Pirate Rum Punch was a thoughtful blend of rums and fruit, tall and cold, it hit the spot. I could not detect rhubarb in my drink, but thankfully, truly enjoyed the beverage in my glass.

        By the time we had finished our drinks and had a disappointing bite from the basket of stale, sliced bread, our first dishes arrived. We cleared and stacked used dishes and glasses to make room for Six Oysters on the half shell, Tuna Nicoise Salad with white anchovy, croutons & Harissa, a vegan soup of Sweet Corn with Jalapeno Johnnycakes & Chanterelle Mushrooms, and Clam Fritters with Lemon Aioli & Potato cream.

        Once again, we were told we should order our complete meal at once as some items took quite a while to prepare. The busboy arrived. We replied we planned to order as soon as we had a bit of the first course. Our server left without asking about wine with the food, which was a notable and unfortunate first in our many years of dining experience.

        My husband’s, origin N.E., oysters were cold and fresh. My son’s Tuna Nicoise, featured plenty of anchovies, several thick tuna slices, a very satisfying xxx Harissa Sauce, greens & croutons. My vegan nephew’s Corn Soup was pureed to a consistent texture with far too much salt to distinguish the salted corn soup from the taste of the salt absorbent Chanterelle Mushrooms set into the middle of the bowl. Nobody remembers the Johnnycakes. My Clam Fritters were nicely cooked, crisp outside, done through, hot and tender on the inside. Clams were minced very fine, to be unnoticeable as a contrasting texture or flavor.

        Our server returned once we lay down our forks, in surrender, I suppose. We paid and left a 10% tip, 1/3 our usual for usual excellent service.

        Without hesitation, we headed uphill to The Corner Room for the Zen artistry of Chef Harding Lee Smith who cooks with love and prepared that night for us a sublime “rescue” meal. His food is the quality that we find only in treasured, family-run kitchen & bars in and around Tuscany. Oh, those Stuffed Zucchini Flowers, Chicken Livers Toscana, melt on the tongue Lardo, Papparadelle & Mushrooms, Lobster Risotto, the thoughtful wine list, the staff, the servers! Now, that’s a true “dining high” experience!

        1. We tried Salt Exchange last weekend. I agree, the "small plates" are not large enough to share, and some aren't even sufficient to be an appetizer for one person. We started with seafood/sausage gumbo that was very tasty, in a dark roux (sp?), with a perfect amount of spices with just enough of a kick. The gumbo was definitely the star of the night. The crab crostini was a major disappointment. This was tiny, a single small round of bread with a crab mixture with the crab minced so tiny as to be tasteless -- and it cost $12! For that price I expected there to be generous chunks of crabmeat.
          We also had a ceasar salad with anchiovies, and the dressing and anchiovies were good. The mussels, of which there were only 6,were delicious, served on open shell with bit of bacon set under the mussel and an excellent sauce. Would have been terrific if there was more sauce and additional bread to sop it up. For dessert we had the gingerbread with homemade pepper ice cream, the gingerbread was rather dry but that could have been overcome if served with a larger dollop of ice cream.
          On the plus side, the service at the bar was excellent, the house specialty drink with muddled cucumber and the selection and sizes of beer offered were very good.
          Not sure if we'll return. We did love the gumbo and the mussels, but the other items we ordered were just ok, or, in the case of the crostini, disappointing. We had thought this would be a good place for drinks and small plates, but there small plates are tiny and not made for sharing even if there are only two of you.

          The Salt Exchange
          245 Commercial Street, Portland, ME 04101

          3 Replies
          1. re: maina

            You had excellent service at the bar? Lucky You!

            We were there during Restaurant Week, our first dinner out together since our daughter was born. We ended up choosing a 3-course off the RW menu. Service was slow at first, the bar was busy but the restaurant wasn't (it was early). After we finally ordered, the first two courses came along in a timely fashion. The dishes really were so small but generally tasty. But then the wait for the entree course. We were so happy to be out so we were patient and upbeat. But still, no food. I look at the clock. Eventually, the bartender notices us again and tells us its coming up soon. We wait and wait. Then he says it will be right up, "they are plating it as we speak." We continue to wait. and wait. The food never came.

            At this point I tell my husband its been a half hour since I last checked the time, which I had checked because we had already been waiting so long. Making it easily over 45 minutes. We were SO hungry at this point.

            Finally we get the bartender over, and tell him "We'll take the check." To which he replies, "Ok." Didn't ask, is there a problem, nothing. My husband goes to the bathroom, sees the manager and says why have we been waiting over a half hour for our entree. (My husband misspoke, it was at least 45 minutes.) He says something about everything coming out and once and THEN says the bartender said you were waiting for 15 minutes. What? I'm thinking, "he told you your customers are leaving without their entrees after waiting only 15 minutes and you believe that? You don't want to ask them if there was a problem, anything?" I've just never had such a ridiculous, unprofessional experience at such an upscale restaurant. I still can't believe it. I'm normally not one to get "mad" about a restaurant experience, I just don't go back. But this, this experience made me angry.

            The babysitter was kind enough to stick around long enough for us to pop over to Nosh for a quick bite because we were starving. What an incredibly expensive and disappointing evening. My husband keeps teasing me for tipping the bartender after all that, but Karma is a bitch so why take the chance. Needless to say, I will not ever go back.

            1. re: foodquest

              We also were in Portland last weekend and ate at Salt Exchange. I would say hits and misses. We arrived at 5:30 ( had a show to go to ) to an almost empty restaurant and were seated promptly.

              Our first courses were dates wrapped in duck prosciutto and the mussel. The prosciutto was completely overwhelmed by the dates but the mussels, 6 served on the half shell, were tasty. Next came carpaccio of beef and the gumbo which were both good, the gumbe taking alot of flavor from a nice brown roux.

              For our main courses my wife had the tenderloin of beef which was ok and I had the pork belly which was not crisp and fairly tough I didnt finish the portion.

              We did not have dessert and probably will not return as we felt the misses outweighed the hits. We did not feel like we got a good value either

              The Salt Exchange
              245 Commercial Street, Portland, ME 04101

            2. re: maina

              When you find a restaurant willing to challenge the taste buds with a savory dessert (which on our visit included goat cheese ice cream), I'm all for it. Don't go expecting a giant plate of prime rib, however. But every small dish we had was delicious and not unreasonably priced ($8 - $15), the wine list is fine, and there was a very interesting cask conditioned Maine beer on tap. Our waiter was knowledgeable and personable. What's not to like?
              Swordfish gumbo with Chorizo (5 stars).
              Fennel Salad drizzled with a port wine balsamic reduction (5+ stars).
              Pork Belly on lentils with citrus (4 stars -- could have been a bit crisper).
              Swordfish with napped mashed potatoes (5 stars).
              Almond cake with Chilean pear quarters in a honey/herb drizzle with goat cheese ice cream (5+ stars)
              One small gripe: the design is a bit spartan. Get rid of the green paint on the ceiling -- it's wood and would be rich and mellow as wood, not paint.