Duly enhancing San Diego’s cool downtown scene is Saltbox, a gastro-lounge where dining, drinking, socializing and relaxing all convene for a multi-sensory respite. To kick things up a notch, the affable eatery—located lounge-level in the Hotel Palomar situated in the heart of the historic Gaslamp District—recently appointed “culinary cutthroat” Jeremiah Bryant as Chef de Cuisine.
Having honed his talent at notable local restaurants like El Bizcocho and Delicias, Chef Bryant is said to have a “fertile flare for fusing traditional cooking techniques with modern, innovative approaches.” In his new role at Saltbox, Chef Bryant has already put his own brand of swag on signature lounge favorites and offerings at large with the October 2013 launch of a new dinner menu. With this knowledge, I stopped in for a dinner service to see first-hand what all of the buzz was about.
I quickly learned there are many things that set Saltbox apart from other Gaslamp Quarter eateries. According to Chef Bryant, “We have the tools and support to excel at what we do as a group, yet have the opportunity to be individually creative. This applies to our cuisine, bar program, and unique culinary events.”
Chef Bryant is also quick to highlight the team environment he is painstakingly cultivating. “The kitchen operates as a whole,” he remarked. “I constantly seek the input of all my staff when creating menus and asking how we can do better and become more efficient. In the kitchen and as chefs, you often spend more time with your coworkers than you do your own family, so they become family. Our bond in this particular kitchen is one of the strongest I have ever had the opportunity to be a part of, and it is this bond that is evident in every plate of food that leaves the kitchen.”
Underscoring the mission-critical nature of this close-knit team atmosphere, Chef Bryant adds, “This bond allows us to take a combination of many ideas and transform them into familiar dishes of an unfamiliar quality. We take popular dishes or use ingredients other chefs are using but build them from scratch and plate them in new and exciting ways. The care put into the made-from-scratch food, the quality of the product, and the finished flavors are unique to the palate and surprisingly delicious.”
Chef Bryant’s penchant for diverse ingredients, cuisine styles, and recipe reinterpretations has proffered a highly appealing dinner menu. “Take our Chicken and Waffles [$21], for example,” he urges. “Instead of the Southern classic comfort dish we all know, we use a mole marinated chicken with poblano waffles. It’s our take on it but full of new flavors.” Having sampled this dish, for which the chicken is actually cooked sous- vide style rather than fried—locking in that coveted flavor and moisture—as just one interesting aspect, I can attest that it is a unique and impressive savory spin unlike any other.
During my visit, I was pleased to sample many of the other course-by-course menu items. From the “Munchies” section, I opted for the panko crusted Housemade Fried Pickles ($7) served with a remoulade side; the plump Shishito Peppers ($8) accompanied by a smoked paprika aioli; and a bold flavor-packed trio of Pork Belly Sliders ($11) comprised of brioche, arugula, tomato jam and avocado. From the “Flatbreads” selection, I tasted the Spicy Chicken ($13) with achiote, jalapeno, avocado and cilantro.
From the “Greens & Grains” salad course came the fresh and crisp Grilled Caesar ($13) with just the right amount of char; and the Goat Cheese ($14) with arugula, shaved beets, sweet onion, fried goat cheese and pomegranate with sherry vinaigrette.
Entrées I tasted included the 1855 Steak Frites ($32) featuring premium 1855 beef famous for its exquisite marbling, served with bordelaise, wild mushroom, hand cut fries and truffle aioli; Hot Pot ($23) with mussels, clams, sea bass, fingerling potato and leeks in a rich cioppino broth and a baguette side; Pot Roast ($22) with tender and meaty braised short rib bursting with flavor and plated with the hearty combination of confit carrots, pearl onion, red potato and pan jus; and a fresh and flaky Grilled Wild Salmon ($24) with lemon potato cake, grilled asparagus, and a sherry honey glaze.
Dessert also delivered. The Seasonal Fruit Cobbler ($9) was a mélange of fresh fall produce topped with streusel crumbles, and the Cake of the Day ($9) that evening was a house-made pumpkin cheesecake that had a lovely 50-50 crust to cake ratio.
Cuisine notwithstanding, Chef Byrant also boasts about how the food at Saltbox matches the bar program, noting, “Too often, they don’t match up at restaurants. One might excel, but the bar menu and food are on the same level and handled with the same care and attention to detail.” In fact, working in close partnership with Principal Bartender Jen Queen, Chef Bryant has changed the menu to blend with her craft-ingredient drinks. My favorite Craft Concoctions ($12) were the Chapman made with Grey Goose vodka, charred peach, simple, lime and peach bitters; Effervescence with Hendrick’s gin, cucumber, rose water, house grenadine, lemon and soda; and the Gold Rush with bourbon, honey, and lemon.
Beyond its gastro-gems, the historical significance of the restaurant’s moniker is also noteworthy. As Chef Bryant explained, “Saltbox was named after the pre-framed lumber ‘salt box’ houses that once occupied the Fifth Avenue space where the restaurant is now. In fact, the William Heath Davis house in downtown San Diego was built in 1850 and remains the oldest ‘salt box’ structure there.”
The restaurant has plans to continue to push the envelope, elevating the gastro-lounge concept along the way. This includes a commitment to environmental sustainability, appealing to locavores by using farm fresh ingredients from San Diego partners and offering seasonal menus that reflect nature’s most current bounty. In providing a glimpse into the restaurant’s near-term future, Chef Bryant noted, “Our short-term goals are to become a household name for a great dining experience, tear down the ‘hotel restaurant’ perception because nothing we do at Saltbox is standard hotel food, continue to grow our relationships with local farmers, and help promote the local economy. Our team will always keep an eye out for new ideas that we can bring to the table and evolve the cuisine.”
In all, Saltbox is superb for downtown dwellers who seek a sociable hot spot that offers inspired cocktails and passion-driven fare with flair.
***Some or all of the accommodations(s), experience(s), item(s) and/or service(s) detailed above were provided at no cost to accommodate this review, but all opinions expressed are entirely those of Merilee Kern and have not been influenced in any way.***