Ever since The Salt Exchange opened in 2009, it has held its own in the greater world of Portland dining. Ideally situated along the hubbub of Commercial Street’s ceaseless parade of shoppers and tourists, it has a steady following of local patrons who covet such a stylish and uncommonly good dining establishment.
The cooking displays a fine sense of refinement under the direction of chef Adam White, who has presided there since 2011.
In fact, after our meal on a recent Tuesday night, one of my guests commented, “This is the most underrated restaurant in Portland.” Indeed, our group enjoyed a fine dinner of multiple courses that easily supported such an observation.
We started off with White’s black pepper and truffle potato chips ($6), which are a must-have snack with drinks. There are many versions of this dish around town, but these were a standout. The potatoes are cut very thin, deep-fried and seasoned generously with a special truffle salt. It’s served with a bracing Bourbon-onion dip, an auspicious match for the crispy potato wafers.
The dinner menu offers a sophisticated selection of contemporary American bistro fare with such first courses as oysters on the half shell with sweet and sour fennel (three pieces for $8 or six pieces for $15) and a roasted pear salad with goat cheese ($11), to name a few. The entrees are just as compelling and include a grilled New York strip steak with bone marrow tart filled with squash and brie ($24) and Maine lobster risotto with preserved lemon, mascarpone, celery root and truffled pork belly ($25) among some of the many options.
The restaurant also excels with its menu of creative, very well made cocktails. My vodka Negroni ($12.50), for example, was one of the best versions of this classic drink that I’ve had recently. It was very well chilled and handsomely presented in an old-style Champagne coupe. The proportion of vodka, Campari and sweet vermouth was perfect.
The selection of wines by the glass offers many options. One of my guests enjoyed a citrusy California fume blanc from Murphy Goode ($9). As for the wine list of full bottles, there is a varied collection of moderately priced labels, many in the $30 range, as well as a few choices in the high double-digit category, such as an excellent 2011 Adelsheim pinot noir ($70) from Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
The bar is also highly regarded for its bourbons and American whiskeys and claims to have one of the largest collections in Maine. My other guest was very pleased with his pick of “Pop’s Old Fashion” ($10) cocktail made with Maker’s Mark bourbon, Luxardo maraschino liqueur, black walnut bitters, muddled orange peel and dried cherries.
The Salt Exchange bar area and dining room attract a staunchly loyal following at lunch and a convivial crowd at the restaurant’s after-work happy hour. The bar also has a few tables for dining, including a special chef’s table that fronts the open kitchen in the rear of the room.
Off the bar, the dining room is very loft-like with its exposed brick walls hung with a changing art exhibition; the eye-popping accents of bright green walls and ceiling further enhance this attractive space. Most notably, it’s a comfortable room, with large tables for two or four that are spaced well apart to afford gracious dining.
There were a few first- and main-course specials that evening, which all sounded quite appealing. We started off with a stupendous rendering of salmon tartare ($12) served with toast points. The glistening cubes of raw fish were cloaked in a charred ginger and green onion aioli and black sesame sauce and regally crowned with a quail egg.
Another winning starter was a spirited puree of celery root thickened with jasmine rice ($8) – an exceedingly velvety soup enhanced with a captivating garnish of red-pepper chutney.
Not to be outdone by the preceding, our third starter was a magnificent wedge of crispy pork belly ($10). Flash-fried and glazed with chili-infused honey, it was garnished with pickled vegetables, which included cauliflower, carrots and onions.
With four dishes already under our respective belts, we were well primed for the main event – and none of our entrees disappointed in the least.
My guest’s eyes lit up after her first taste of the oven-roasted local hake ($23) afloat in a delicately perfumed broth of lemon-grass and saffron with bits of chorizo and poached potatoes.
No less harmonious was my entrée of oven-roasted salmon with braised bok choy set over mashed potatoes fortified with lobster and bacon. The whole was bathed in a tarragon-scented lobster broth, creating an exquisite fusion of flavors.
The third entrée was a stellar rendition of pan-seared duck breast ($23), buttery soft and tender, cut on the bias and arranged in a fan of slices enlivened with a plum glaze. Served with a robustly fine puree of chestnuts and parsnips and complemented with a contrasting note of snow peas, it was not only a beautiful dish to look at but one that was utterly delicious.
The kitchen prepares its own desserts, and that evening there was a chocolate sampler, which I’ve had on prior visits and deemed fine enough to make a chocoholic swoon. It included chocolate cake, dark chocolate mousse, white chocolate bark and candied walnuts. Another dessert offered, which I have enjoyed in the past as well, was a lusciously creamy pumpkin cheese cake with spiced walnuts.
We chose to share, however, the apple tart in a marzipan crust with a dollop of honey whipped cream. It wasn’t our favorite dessert; the apples lacked adequate spicing, and the crust was thin and brittle. But overall we concluded our marvelous dinner happily satisfied.
John Golden, who lives in Portland, writes about food, dining and lifestyle subjects for local and national publications. He can be reached at: