Every year, thanks to the arrival of ferries teeming with “summer people,” Vinalhaven’s population swells from about 1,200 to nearly twice that number. Year-round island residents are resigned to it, and although they see the economic benefit to hosting visitors, that doesn’t mean they have to like it.
Many avoid the sleepy commercial strip in town as much as possible, and, as one islander told me, “We just work and sort of hide out from July until the end of August. But it makes you crazy after a while, and you have to cheat sometimes. You end up going out to eat at least a few times in the summer.” And at Salt – a 40-seat, upscale and mostly French contemporary bistro housed in a centuries-old former pharmacy – the kitchen is ready for them.
To be fair, executive chef and owner John Feingold (formerly of Daniel in New York and Spring in Paris) is ready for all diners, including summer people. “In June, it’s probably 80 percent locals getting their licks in before the season, and then it flips in August and then drifts back,” he said. A tidal ebbing and flowing of customers seems just about right for a seasonal restaurant in one of the biggest lobstering communities in the nation, one that supplies Salt with exceptionally fresh seafood that frequently goes from ocean to plate in a matter of hours or minutes.
Salt’s strongest dishes are the ones that take full advantage of local ingredients, like the phenomenal lobster papardelle ($28), made with housemade egg pasta, bias-cut asparagus and English peas, and a simple saucing of red pepper flakes, garlic, pepper and olive oil. If I hadn’t read the menu, I might have thought this was an Asian dish, with wide, translucent noodles rolled out so thinly that they resembled knife-cut chow fun, plenty of peppery heat and tons of umami in the savory yet surprisingly light sauce. As a backdrop for juicy chunks of superb Vinalhaven-caught lobster, the lively, uncomplicated pasta was exactly the right choice.
Local Beets Done Five Ways ($12) were also an excellent showcase for local foods – this time from the ground, not the sea. Some of the beets were grown on the island’s own Sparkplug Farm, and some were hyperlocally sourced, “from a guy down the road with a garden in his yard. We call them East Main Street beets,” Feingold said. Although the dish dips a toe into the treacherous waters of molecular gastronomy with its beet “caviar” spheres and slightly too-gelatinized beet foam that reminded us of a 1970s Jell-O dessert, the real stars of the plate were the lavender poached beets, just floral enough to amplify the sweetness of the vegetable’s purple flesh. The earthy sauteed greens and a magenta impasto of beet paint, not to mention a generous grind of fresh pepper, brought the dish together in a way that made sense and, most importantly, tasted fantastic.
With the beets, we particularly enjoyed sipping the slightly astringent Harbor Fizz ($11), a gin-and-blueberry cocktail flavored with lemon juice and finished generously with Prosecco. It was our favorite beverage of the evening, followed by a grassy and occasionally too-tannic Tuscan Carmignano Capezzana ($37), and an homage to Maine: the Salt Elixir ($11) made with Moxie soda, Fernet Branca, lime and orange. It’s hard not to root for a cocktail made with the state’s official soft drink, but when you blend two complex concoctions (Fernet and Moxie), what you get is a tastebud overload, where bitter gentian and mentholated herbs dominate as the strongest flavors. Imagine dissolving a Ricola cough drop and lime juice into a Dr. Pepper, and you’ll get a sense of this ambitious cocktail’s peculiar character.
Unfortunately, drink service took a very long time, as did plate clearing. At one point, we sat at our small two-top table with cocktail and wine glasses, amuse bouche plates, a bread plate and appetizer plates, all crowded up, cheek by jowl, until our main dishes arrived with nowhere to set them. To her credit, once our server (who was still learning the ropes) figured out what was going on, she apologized and joked, pointing at the apothecary cabinet running the length of the wall behind us, “If those drawers still worked, we could just skip busing the tables and shove the extra dishes inside!” We had to laugh.
The food, too, hit a few bumps here and there. We found the Dream Dates ($9) appetizer, made with a tart, funky blue cheese mousse and a smear of balsamic reduction to be overpoweringly sweet to eat on its own, even with smoky bacon and a peppery nasturtium flower to cut through what Feingold himself called “the painful sweetness of dates.” The plate was also overgarnished with in-season pea flowers that obscured, rather than accented the dates beneath them.
Our seared Barbary Duck breast ($27) was cooked just beyond medium rare, and ended up a little tough. On the other hand, the simple, classic French Puy lentils, cooked in a mirepoix and stock and served alongside, were outstanding, as was the single tiny confited tomato that lent a much-needed sweetness to the dish. But not quite enough. It made us think that we should have taken our server’s earlier advice and used the apothecary drawers to stash one of those smoky dates to eat later on with the duck.
I was also struck throughout our visit that nearly every other table was ordering dessert. Perhaps, I thought, because it was early August, so many of our fellow diners must be summer people cutting loose on vacation. No matter – we couldn’t be outliers, so we chose, at our server’s “hands down” recommendation, the chocolate pot de crème ($9) with a caramel swirl and pleasingly bitter cocoa nibs. Intensely rich and topped with a quenelle of boozy, bourbon-infused whipped cream and a sprinkling of fine black Icelandic lava salt, the chocolate custard was faultless.
When I looked over, toward the bay window where a tin shark hangs menacingly, I saw a local business owner whom I had spoken with several times during my two-week visit, polishing off a serving of the very same pot de creme. So much for my theory about dessert. He saw me, waved a greeting (everyone waves to everyone on Vinalhaven), and gave a thumbs-up as he pointed down at his dish. Clearly, it wasn’t just summer people who appreciated what John Feingold and his sous chef Dudley Irwin were doing in the kitchen. “I always want to share what I love with lots of people, but no matter what month it is, my most important customers are the people of Vinalhaven,” Feingold said. “When I look around the room and see a sixth-generation fisherman coming back for another piece of Stilton, now that’s a home run for me.”
Andrew Ross has written about food in the United Kingdom and in New York, where he co-founded NYCnosh, a food website. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is an Internet researcher and higher education consultant. Contact him at: