Sitting at the svelte, handmade curve of the bar at the Salt Exchange, I’m bummed that I got lost on the way here. It’s a small way from Munjoy Hill, shares a block with Three Dollar Dewey’s and is up to something quite special with its gallery/restaurant aesthetic.

It’s not hard to find either, right on the elbow of Commercial Street’s southwestern last hurrah.

Cory, my unusually aware and attentive bartender, has been here since the young establishment opened in April of last year. Whilst preparing me a delicious Winter Rum Punch (Myer’s rum, Bacardi, Captain Morgan’s, pineapple juice, cranberry juice, with an amaretto float, $8), he says that beyond the restaurant’s Old World culinary approach, the Salt Exchange wanted to be a conscientious community player from the get-go.

To prove the point, Laura Fuller’s distinctive stained glass graces the windows, local woodworker Jeremy Johnston crafted the serpentine shape of the bar and the venue is displaying the ornate, handmade quilts of Martha Marques in its gallery. To boot, the place has enlisted scrappy, Maine-based Tugboat Creative (of Buy Local campaign fame) to help get the word out and then subcontract artwork out to the community.

Pretty plugged in, considering the Salt Exchange’s nine-month birthday is coming up. Husband-and-wife owners Charles and Martha Bryon knew what they wanted well in advance, and their heart for Portland shows through both in the spaciousness of the dining room and the passion of the staff.

When we get to talking brews, Cory shows me two beers I’ve never tasted and haven’t seen on draft before in Portland: Red Hook’s new Copper Hook, and its partner brewery Widmer’s Drifter Pale Ale. The Salt Exchange stays fresh by evolving every day, and I realize Cory’s not suggesting I buy these beers, not forcing them on me — he’s actually gauging how I respond to them.

This is flattering as a consumer; it makes me feel important.

While Red Hook can be hit or miss, the Copper has no hop confusion, just good balance. The Drifter starts grapefruit and ends crisp, a welcome change from the bitter jungles of a lot of pale ales.

The Salt Exchange is seeing its little star rise as a restaurant, as young chef Jacob Jasinski makes his name by leaning on strict French training and using the freshest ingredients in town.

But for a tenured bar wanderer, the place offers a peaceful refuge from the folks pumping their fists somewhere to ”Sweet Home Alabama” (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

On this removed part of Commercial Street, the Salt Exchange is a drinker’s escape, lush with local culture, perfect for a date and refreshingly enlightened for the lone wanderer.

 

Mike Olcott is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.