So, Friday night, what with it being Restaurant Week and us having some foodie friends in town, my husband and I took the rare opportunity to go out for a totally grownup dinner. I’d been wanting to visit The Salt Exchange for quite a while, and this seemed like an excellent opportunity to visit a new restaurant with folks who appreciate great food as much as we do.
Before we talk about the food, though, I want to make a point to mention the current art on exhibit, which is by Ellen Thayer. The paintings on view are a series of images of rippling water, and they’re among the most arresting and beautiful paintings I’ve seen in long while. So much “Maine Coastal Art” is the typical scenes of boats and salt marshes and rocky coastline. Thayer’s collection is zen-like and meditative and perfectly evokes everything I love about the sea. As I looked at her art throughout our meal, I realized that, for possibly the very first time in my life, I was looking at original art that spoke to me loudly enough for me to want to try and figure out how on earth we could justify the (actually very reasonable) cost to have it in our own home.
If you’ve heard of The Salt Exchange, you probably already know the deal: modernist food and atmosphere, small plates, focus on local, sustainable, seasonal ingredients. I have to confess that given their reputation I was expecting a far more formal restaurant than we actually walked into. The atmosphere, while absolutely clean, fresh, and elegant, was not so upscale that I felt under-dressed in my straight-from-work-on-Friday attire.
We had known in advance that we were there to try the Restaurant Week menu (click the link for the menu and complete descriptions of the dishes we had), and had sort of agreed that between the four of us we were going to try everything on it, but were disappointed to learn that the braised short ribs were already out, and that they had decided to sub in their 1/2 lb Angus Hamburger (of all things) in it’s place. I think everyone at our table was puzzled at the choice of the burger as the substitution, not only because of the difference in price, but because the hamburger was just so thematically different from the short ribs. I can get a great burger at a dozen places in Portland (Five Guys comes to mind) – under no conditions was I going to “waste” my one restaurant week experience on “just” a burger, even a fancy locally-sourced one. Fortunately, when we spoke to our server, she was willing to ask the kitchen if they would allow us to have either the braised rabbit leg with rabbit ragout or the Cornish game hen, which frankly saved my evening.
After ordering, we were brought a bowl of their ‘signature’ truffle potato chips ($2.00), along with a small plate of bread and butter chunks. I have to confess (although it’s sort of embarrassing) that all four of us were momentarily confused about the butter, thinking it was cheese – due largely to the way our server lavishly described the butter as it was set down. The chips, as expected, were a unique and delectable treat. Crunchy food is my weakness, and as a result I’ve tried just about any gourmet or small batch chip you can name. These were perfectly crisp, perfectly flavored, thin, with a precise snap and without any of the center softness you can sometimes find in a non-industrial chip. I would willingly pay a premium to get these in a bag and bring them home.
For my first course, I had the Roasted Pear Salad from the RW menu, as did another diner at our table, and my friend J had the Confit Pork Belly. The pear salad was probably the best thing I ate all night: the vinaigrette was extremely aggressive and flavorful without being overpowering and was a perfect complement to both the sweetness of the pears and the tanginess of the field greens. J’s pork belly was well cooked and equally flavorful – his only complaint being that it was really misnamed as a salad. Although there were greens on the plate, they really only served as a garnish to the pork belly. Still, both offerings were a delightful way to begin the meal. J also elected to get the companion wines, and felt that the Sauvignon Blanc offered with the first course was an excellent compliment to either the pear salad or the pork belly.
For the second course, J selected the Hake, his wife A ordered the beet risotto, and both my husband and I ordered the Cornish game hen from the current dinner menu that we were fortunately allowed to sub in place of the missing short ribs. The beet risotto was beautiful, flavorful, and fully satisfying. The Hake was very light, and reportedly delicious. The Cornish game hen was beautifully plated and satisfyingly moist, with a crisply roasted skin and a good contrast of textures throughout the dish. J noted that while the featured wine for this course, the Pinot Noir, would have matched well with either the risotto or the short ribs (or our game hen) it was a little overpowering with the hake.
The desert course is an apple cider panna cotta, garnished with what seem to have been pickled cranberries. The panna cotta was fine, not overpoweringly sweet, but you had to be careful not to get a cranberry on its own, as they were mouth-puckeringly tart without a significant amount of the panna cotta to balance them.
Overall, we had a delightful evening, and for $30 per person ($45 with the wines) The Salt Exchange’s Restaurant Week menu is a fine representation of who they are as a restaurant (although not a significant discount on the cost of the meal if ordered a la carte). I was pleased that they were flexible enough to allow us to choose another menu item in place of the inexplicable (and unexpected) hamburger, and although I went in expecting very small plates I didn’t actually find that the portions were unsatisfyingly small. Even my husband, a hearty eater, did not leave hungry.
Probably our one disappointment – and it wasn’t a huge issue – in the evening was the service. I sort of knew that there had been issues with the speed of the service reported in the past, and we did not experience that. Our server did, however, suggest at several points during the meal that someone in the kitchen was going to do some violence to her (“I’ll ask, and if I don’t come back you’ll know your answer”), misplaced humor which felt sort of off-putting. J also reported that at several points she kind of rolled her eyes and otherwise seemed a bit put out when we asked questions about the food, which was all the more disappointing when you realize that restaurant week is specifically designed to get people into establishments they might otherwise not go to. So: a little more welcoming and a little less “you’re not hip enough” attitude would have been welcome.
J also ordered a cocktail, called a Red Lion (gin, grand marnier, orange juice, “winter spice”, twist of lemon, $9) that we all found to be undrinkable. It sat in the middle of the table for the entire meal, and I was sort of surprised that our server never asked about it.
Overall, although it is not my favorite restaurant in Portland (there are so many choices, after all) our Restaurant Week excursion to The Salt Exchange was a delightful evening filled with great, memorable food. We never felt rushed, we were all excited by the choices and flavors available, and everyone at the table walked away satisfied. I’d be interested to try their lunch menu, and I do feel that they are unpretentious enough to make a comfortable “fancy” dinner choice for anyone here visiting the city. Despite the white tablecloths, this isn’t a place where you are expected to have a suitjacket or pearls.
The Salt Exchange is located at 245 Commercial St in Portland. They are open for Lunch Monday through Saturday 11:30 am to 3:00 pm, and for dinner Monday through Thursday 5:30 – 9 pm, Friday and Saturday 5:30 – 10 pm. Closed Sunday. You can preview their menus (including their Resturant Week menu) at their website, Like them on Facebook, or follow them on Twitter. You can also make a reservation via Open Table. They have free parking in the Memic lot next door during dinner, if you can’t find a spot on the street.
Distance from the Maine State Pier: four-tenths of a mile straight down Commercial St (about an eight minute walk).
Still can’t find them? Here’s a map.