Small Plates, Big Ideas
The Salt Exchange enters Portland’s crowded fine dining scene with an ambitious agenda.
- By: Michaela Cavallaro
Photography by Heather Perry
Any new entrant in Portland’s fine-dining market has some formidable competition. Local chefs have been lauded on the cover of national magazines and singled out for recognition by prestigious foundations. The reservation book at Fore Street is full for weeks in advance, while Hugo’s, 555, Back Bay Grill, Bresca, and Evangeline — to name just a few — have legions of devoted fans filling their tables.
That milieu — not to mention a challenging economic situation — didn’t daunt Charlie and Martha Bryon, the young couple who opened the Salt Exchange on tourist-mobbed Commercial Street in June 2009. They had long backgrounds in the hospitality trade — Charlie spent years in the wine business, and Martha worked in hotels. While Charlie managed the Metro, a fine-dining restaurant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the couple decided to go into business on their own. “We talked to a lot of people both in the industry and outside of it,” says Martha, who is currently expecting the couple’s third child. “We found that, given the economy, people weren’t necessarily interested in buying a house or a new car, but they would treat themselves to dinner out. And the more special that meal felt, the more satisfied they were.”
So the couple forged ahead with their plan to add one more fine-dining restaurant to town. They derived at least part of their confidence from Jacob Jasinski, the Massachusetts native they hired as their chef de cuisine. J
Jasinki’s resume includes stints at Manhattan’s Le Bernardin and the White Barn Inn in Kennebunk. At the Salt Exchange, he focuses on what the restaurant describes as “New American small plates.” Translation: Courses are smaller than you might expect elsewhere, and — like the fare at most of Portland’s white-tablecloth establishments — typically involve local, seasonal ingredients.
“This is the way we like to eat,” says Martha. “On the rare occasions that we got out to eat after having kids, it was difficult to find a place where we could try a little bit of everything and not break the bank.”
The meal begins in the Salt Exchange’s gallery-like dining room — the restaurant exhibits work by a different local artist every three months — with bread, butter, and (befitting the restaurant’s name) a tasting of three salts: Himalayan rock salt, truffle salt, and sel gris, a gray ocean salt. Beyond that, the meal is of your own making, from a menu divided among cold plates, soups, and hot plates. The Bryons say three to five courses (including dessert) make a full meal, though it’s worth noting that portion sizes vary considerably even within one section of the menu.
As for the food itself: In a word, it’s stunning — well conceived, delicately balanced, and impeccably presented. Maine lobster salad with crème fraiche, cucumber, and greens is so delicately seasoned as to be a bit bland on first bite. But with successive nibbles the flavors reveal themselves, the slight tang of the crème fraiche creating a perfect complement to the lobster’s richness. Jasinski excels at making unusual combinations seem preordained. To wit, the octopus with red wine gelée, summer beans, preserved Meyer lemons, and falafel, a gorgeous plate with a complex suite of flavors that play off one another beautifully.
Poured tableside, sweet corn cream soup with chanterelle mushrooms is rich and sophisticated with an earthy undertone. Meanwhile, heirloom black rice with mixed spring beans and baby root vegetables manages to make the humble grain the star of the show, with an intense winey flavor that elicits audible groans of pleasure. The fish was swimming earlier this morning, the desserts are carefully considered and very well executed, and the wine list is strong, drawing on Charlie Bryon’s experience in Sonoma County vineyards and restaurants.
Still, the dining experience at the Salt Exchange is not without its flaws. Waits between courses can be inexplicably long, and on the whole, the service feels a bit strained — overly formal for the setting, the staff, and the Portland restaurant scene in general.
Quibbles aside, the Salt Exchange is a worthy addition to Portland’s stellar restaurant scene. “We want diners to have a complete sensory experience, from the art on the walls to the music we select to the smells, tastes, and appearance of the food,” says Martha Bryon. It’s a lofty goal, but one the Salt Exchange has already achieved.
The Salt Exchange is located at 245 Commercial Street in Portland. It is open Tuesday through Saturday, serving lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and dinner from 5:30 to 9 p.m. (10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays). Cold plates $5 to $21. Hot plates $8 to $21. Desserts $7 to $9. Handicap accessible. 207-347-5687.
- By: Michaela Cavallaro