February 18

Dine Out Maine: The Salt Exchange in Portland

The stylish Old Port restaurant will rock your gastronomic world

By John Golden

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.

click image to enlarge

After his meal, Tom Scanlin, a visitor from Boseman, Mont., admires the art of Elizabeth Newman that adorns the walls of the dining room at the Salt Exchange.

Photos by Gordon Chibroski/Staff Photographer

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The Salt Exchange restaurant on Commercial Street.

THE SALT EXCHANGE

•••• 

WHERE: 245 Commercial St., Portland. 347-5687; thesaltexchangerestaurant.com

HOURS: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Saturday; dinner 4 to 9 p.m. Monday to Saturday; happy hour 4 to 6 p.m. Monday to Saturday

CREDIT CARDS: Yes

PRICE RANGE: $3 to $25

VEGETARIAN: Yes (a few choices)

GLUTEN-FREE: Yes (a few choices)

KIDS: Yes, welcome

RESERVATIONS: Yes

BAR: Full bar

WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes

BOTTOM LINE: This stylish downtown bistro offers very compelling fare done in the haute American style of contemporary classics. At lunch the varied menu offers such dishes as a fish taco, chicken club, and excellent char-grilled burger among the standouts. The dinner menu offers a very good dining experience with such fine preparations as pan-roasted salmon with bacon-lobster mashed potatoes; a butternut squash risotto with cranberries, braised chard and pickled shallots and plum-glazed duck breast. A must have with cocktails is the chef’s black pepper and truffle potato chips. The drinks menu includes inventive cocktails and a special collection of American bourbons and whiskeys. Note that the restaurant offers free parking at dinner in the adjacent parking lot, a great convenience in this heavily trafficked area.

Ratings follow this scale and take into consideration food, atmosphere, service and value: Poor ** Fair *** Good **** Excellent ***** Extraordinary. The Maine Sunday Telegram visits an establishment twice if the first dining experience was unsatisfactory. The reviewer dines anonymously.

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.

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