With new chef, Salt Tavern stays sharp

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 I've always loved the way that Salt Tavern occupies its corner location, like it has every business being there. And from the get-go, I dug those big alien-green lighting domes that hang over the bar front bar area.

Before Salt opened in 2006, the prevailing strategy in Baltimore for small neighborhood spots was to play it safe, maybe sneak in some flash and drama in the daily specials. Just be careful not to offend the locals with good food or a little style. Salt changed that.

If you haven't been to Salt for a while, you'll be glad to know how fresh and fulfilling a dinner there is these days, even with the recent departure from the kitchen of Jason Ambrose, the restaurant's original chef and, with his mother, Jane, its co-owner.

Ambrose left the kitchen, he said, without knowing what his next move was. He had been thinking about stepping aside, always looking out for the right person to take over. In May, Ambrose placed the kitchen's daily operations and the menu development in the hands of Brian Lavin. The 25-year-old had been working as Salt's sous chef before being tapped to take over.

It's a smooth transition, partly because menu development at Salt has always been a collaborative effort among Ambrose and his team. If there are profound differences between Ambrose's style and sensibility and Lavin's, I can't find them. But they might emerge later, after Lavin gets some traction in the kitchen.

Salt's menu, from the start, changed every few months at first, and then more frequently. But the changing menu had less to do with the seasons than with Ambrose's desire to keep things interesting.

A few dishes have become permanent menu items, by popular demand, Ambrose has said. These include a coriander-and-pepper-crusted tuna entree that served, in 2006, as a calling card for Ambrose's bold-flavor style, as well as two appetizers that got Salt, and Ambrose, a lot of attention in those early days — the Wagyu beef slider, topped with foie gras and truffle aioli, and the ever-loving duck-fat fries, served with a trio of aioli.

On our visit, there were a few dishes that showed Salt at the top of its game. A roasted duck entree was stellar, starting with the duck itself, which was served in rosy, tender slices. And credit Lavin with both the bold accompaniments of harissa-marinated chickpeas and the cooling additions of date puree and homemade tzatziki.

And just when you thought you never wanted to see aged balsamic again, here comes just the right touch, on a savory peach tart appetizer, basically roasted peaches on a sliver of pastry, topped, like pie a la mode, with a bright, white dollop of creamy, homemade burrata, all of this richness offset with peppery cress.

Fried squash blossoms seem to be a thing this year. I loved Salt's version, stuffed with salt cod, dressed with basil aioli and garnished with watermelon radishes. And for a display of sheer skill in the service of beauty, there was the carpaccio of Spanish rock octopus, which Lavin layered with mizuna, a mustard-y green, and tiny bulbs of baby fennel.

With the sweet fillet of pan-roasted cod, I liked the smoked-bacon vinaigrette and the toasted hazelnuts but the caponata left me cold: An appetizer of ravioli stuffed with fresh ricotta and cherry, and served with crispy blood sausage, was pushing things too far. It might work better in the fall. These are quibbles.

Mostly at Salt, there's that great of being treated with respect. The kitchen trusts diners to try new things. The wait staff is sharp and informed but content to play secondary role in Salt's dining room, offering good advice about the wine list, itself a model of coherence and simplicity.

Ambrose hasn't left Salt entirely. He was there on the Saturday night when we dined, working the front door, greeting customers and otherwise overseeing the front of the house.

He looked happy, and he should be. His restaurant, which helped to usher in an era of smart, chef-driven restaurants, is in good hands.


Salt Tavern

Rating: 4 stars

Where: 2127 E. Pratt St., Upper Fells Point

Contact: 410-276-5480, www.salttavern.com

Prices: Appetizers $7-$15; entrees $18-$26

Food: Contemporary American fare

Service: Informed and smooth

Best dishes: Oven-roasted duck breast; pan-roasted cod fillet; savory peach tart

Parking/Accessibility: On-street parking, which can be challenging. Hang in there. Wheelchair users enter Salt by a ramp at the bar entrance.

Children: There are no special accommodations for children.

Noise level: The noise level was comfortable when we visited in the early evening; a flat-screen TV in the bar is sometimes turned on but always with its sound off.

[Key: Superlative: 5 stars; Excellent: 4 stars; Very Good: 3 stars; Good: 2 stars; Promising: 1 star]