2009-02-05 / Cuisine

Sea Salt's a rare treasure in an ocean of culinary options

Just like olive oil, cheese and chocolate before them, sea salts have become the darlings of the culinary literati. They bear entrancing names — fleur de sel, sel gris, Durango, Peruvian pink — come in a rainbow of colors and flavors and have captivated chefs and consumers alike.

It's a doubly apt name, then, for the hot new restaurant on Third Street South, which is also close enough to the Gulf of Mexico to enjoy a breeze laden with a touch of sea salt from time to time.

Sea Salt is the creation of chef/owner Fabrizio Aielli and his wife, Ingrid. The Venetian-born chef comes to us by way of Washington, D.C., where he catered to well-known politicians, journalists and other celebrities. Ted Koppel and CNN’s Wolf Blitzer were regulars at his acclaimed Teatro Goldoni.

According to Forbes Traveler, so popular was it with lawmakers that the dining room was equipped with a bell to summon lunch-ing senators back to the Capitol for important votes. Now that’s cus-tomer service.Chef Aielli has trans-ported his formidable culinary skills along with exceptional service and fashioned a Neapoli-tan style hotspot that’s at once casual yet sophisticated, a place where you can show up in beachwear and dine like a king. Oh, and you can drink like royalty, too, choosing from an encyclopedic wine list fea-turing fine options from around the world in virtually all price ranges.

dy previewed Sea Salt, it shouldn't be surprising that the word is out and business is booming. Nary a sign of tough economic times was visible during my recent visit. The house was full, complete with busy bar and well-populated terrace, despite the slightly chilly weather.

We sat in an alcove off the main dining room and enjoyed an excellent view of the main room and the bar. The dining room faces a wide open kitchen, providing a lively spectacle as the staff performs its culinary ballet. The area in which we sat had about eight tables, with opaque glass framing two sides, making it look and feel as if it was a separate room without detracting from the restaurant's free-flowing layout.

No expense has been spared in the design and furnishings, so it's not surprising that Chef Aielli takes the same approach to cooking. At Sea Salt, seemingly ordinary ingredients possess larger-than-life flavors, in much the same way that paint springs to life on a canvas when applied by a gifted artist.
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While we paged through the wine list, server attendants delivered water, bread, olive oil and a trio of sea salts, which one of our servers explained held black lava salt and red rock salt, both from Hawaii, and a lovely pastel Bolivian rose. We dropped a bit of each into the olive oil to sample them. Owing to the minerals they contain from various locales, each had a unique taste.

Instead of the typical garlic and wine broth, black mussels come with a fragrant red curry sauce balanced by tomatoes, lime and green peppers, accompanied by Thai basil aioli bruschetta. A salad of sweet red and gold beets, mache and pecan-crusted goat cheese achieves a perfect piquant balance when dressed with pomegranate vinaigrette.

Sea Salt offers Loch Duarte salmon, a Scottish product that's farm-raised in a sustainable and environmentally responsible way. While I normally avoid farmed salmon because of its insipid flavor, aware that wild salm-on populations are being deci-mated by con-sumer demand. Loch Duarte manages to raise salmon that possess the vivid color and rich flavor of their wild brethren. This particular fillet had been marinated in limoncello then served atop a green lentil mustard sauce with cipollini onions and turnips. It was finished off with a garnish of shaved poached pear that added a subtle sweetness to this well-prepared fish.

A nightly special featured a bit of land and sea: Nova Scotia wild halibut and veal osso buco ravioli. The fish was tender and moist, accompanied by cherry tomatoes, arugula, red onions and black olives. While the fish itself possessed excellent flavor, the vegetable medley's bright flavors and textures made the dish so much more than the sum of its parts. The ravioli were outstanding, too, with tender pasta pillows stuffed with savory veal, napped with a silky porcini black truffle sauce so good I (briefly) considered licking the plate.

Desserts are all mini-sized and priced. A three-bite almond linzer torte and a scoop of smooth, rich pistachio gelato topped with a dollop of tomato marmalade were perfect endings to the meal, priced at $3.50 and $2.95 respectively. From a sushi-style menu of Norman Love chocolates, we felt compelled to try the Sea Salt signature truffle: dark chocolate with vanilla caramel lightly dusted with sea salt. All were perfect and just big enough to satisfy.

Sea Salt's service measured up to the food. Servers work in pairs so there's always someone nearby to assist. There are numerous attendants ably assisting the servers. We'd no sooner ordered our wine — an excellent Patz & Hall Dutton Ranch '06 chardonnay — than a server delivered the appropriate glasses. The wine itself, perfectly chilled, arrived in short order. When customers request freshly ground pepper, servers deliver it via a 3-foot-tall pepper mill.

Courses were perfectly timed, allowing for a little relaxation in between. It's clear the staff works hard to ensure customers feel pampered pampered.

There's no predicting how long the current demand for gourmet sea salts will last, but I feel certain Sea Salt will not be a passing fancy.

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