By Virginia M. Wright
Photographed by Douglas Merriam
I’m at Salt on the island of Vinalhaven, sipping velvety lobster bisque and eavesdropping on the chatter at the bar, where there’s not a seat to be had. A burly islander (I assume from his accent) is regaling a summer resident (I assume from his familiar-stranger manner) with lobstermen’s superstitions. Gesturing at the antique carousel pig in one of the restaurant’s bay windows, the local says it’s bad luck to have a pig on a boat, because a pig can’t swim, and if he goes overboard, his flailing hooves will inflict gruesome, fatal injuries upon his poor, panicking self. “It could be an old wives’ tale — I don’t know,” he allows. “Now, as for women on a boat — the more the merrier!”
Their voices fade into the conversational buzz, or maybe I just stop listening because my entrée has arrived, and it’s lovely — a tender, flaky chunk of pan-seared, semolina-crusted halibut sitting on just enough potato puree to lend its delicate flavor a luxurious, earthy depth. My serving was cut from a 60-pound fish filleted just this morning by a fourth-generation island fisherman.
“The worst compliment we ever had was being told we could be in Brooklyn,” chef and owner John Feingold tells me later, reflecting on both the food and the vibe. “When you’re in Salt, you’re in Vinalhaven. Not Portland, Boston, Brooklyn, or anywhere else. Vinalhaven.”
Feingold first came to the island in the late ’80s when he was working for a conservation organization assisting the then-new Vinalhaven Land Trust. He met and married a summer kid, Nancy Seligson, and they forged their own seasonal relationship with the fishing community, located in Penobscot Bay about 15 miles from Rockland. “I became more and more infatuated with its beauty, people, and pace of life,” he says.
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Meantime, he attended the Institute of Culinary Education, where he trained at two acclaimed Manhattan restaurants, Daniel Humm’s contemporary American NoMad and French chef Daniel Boulud’s Daniel. Later, he worked alongside yet another Daniel — Daniel Rose, at his Parisian bistro, Spring. Four summers ago, Feingold opened Salt in an 1880s storefront, a former pharmacy with some original fixtures, like a wall of apothecary drawers, still intact. One of a handful of restaurants in the small village, it’s just steps from Carvers Harbor and the Vinalhaven Fisherman’s Co-op, the source of the sweet lobster knuckles in my bisque.
Lobster is always on the menu here, but never in its traditional boiled iteration. “That was one promise I made: we’re not going to do what people can do at home,” Feingold says. Instead, he aims to offer “good food done in unfamiliar ways — a higher level of cuisine than what’s currently being offered here, but approachable. We never had any airs of being a fine-dining restaurant.”
My bisque is a soul-warming blend of fragrant lobster stock, cream, and coconut milk, with a hint of heat from red curry. Lobster also appears on this evening’s menu as an entrée, and I was sorely tempted: Lobster Four Ways includes butter-poached tail, lobster oil, lobster mousse, and Feingold’s take on Chinese soup dumplings — succulent ravioli that seep bisque onto the plate, providing a mopping sauce for the tail.
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But I’m more than happy with my halibut. Penobscot Bay’s halibut season is fleeting, and Feingold’s simple preparation emphasizes the freshness of the fish. Served with the potato puree and roasted cauliflower, it’s an elegant all-white dish but for a few green sprigs of braised leeks and a sprinkling of minced lavender flowers and chives.
My pals at the bar (I readily cop to nosiness) are enjoying Salt’s only mainstay entrées — a juicy, fat burger and grilled hanger steak served with Roquefort butter, smoked-bacon aioli, and herbed Parmesan fries. Both the steak-frites and burger have been on the menu since day one; Feingold says any attempt to tweak them sparks protests.
Visual presentation is impressive here, and pastry chef Danielle Henry has an especially creative touch. My orange-matcha tart resembles an artful arrangement of treasures from the sea: smooth, thick orange curd is topped with pink and orange roe-like orbs that burst with citrusy flavor and bits of green-tea cake that resemble sponges. It comes with a small scoop of matcha ice cream resting on coarsely chopped pistachios. It’s a beautiful combination of color and texture. It’s delicious too.
Feingold is passionate about Vinalhaven, even the challenges it presents. He draws on island ingredients as much as possible, not only because they’re fresh and good, but because it makes financial sense — shipping from the mainland is expensive. For oysters and local beer, he drives to the other end of the island and waits for North Haven Oyster Company’s Adam Campbell and North Haven Brewing Co.’s Ben Lovell to come across the Fox Islands Thoroughfare.
Open late May to mid-October, Salt can’t count on tourists to fill its tables. A ferry schedule that sends most day-trippers back to the mainland by 4:30 p.m., combined with scant lodging options, pretty much guarantees that on any given night, most of the diners at Salt are locals and summer people. “It sometimes feels like the post office or grocery store,” Feingold says, “with everyone rubbing elbows and sharing good times.”