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And Baby Makes Four

A new seafood spot joins the Blacks' growing family

By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, February 20, 2005; Page W31

** BlackSalt
4883 MacArthur Blvd. NW (near U Street).
202-342-9101
Open: for lunch Tuesday through Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Sunday noon to 2:30 p.m.; for dinner Tuesday through Thursday 5:30 to 9:30 p.m., Friday 5:30 to 11 p.m., Saturday 5 to 11 p.m., Sunday 5 to 9 p.m. Closed Monday. All major credit cards. Smoking in bar area only. Prices: lunch appetizers $4 to $11, entrees $9 to $22; dinner appetizers $6 to $14, entrees $21 to $31. Full dinner with wine, tax and tip about $60 per person.

Visiting a new restaurant is like going on a first date. There's an air of anticipation; you really, really want to like what you meet. Hey, if we click, this could become a regular thing!

_____Tom Sietsema_____
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BlackSalt and I got off to a great start. The funny thing was, it took me a few minutes to get to the dining room proper. Let's just say the eye candy at the retail shop at the entrance caught my attention first. I'm a fool for fresh seafood, and there it was -- baby octopus, kite-shaped skate wing, craggy oysters, dewy white shrimp -- everything as fine as a guy could wish, and all ready to take home and cook. The fishmongers behind the display bade me welcome and asked if they could be of help, and I mentally grumbled about having so little time to spend in my own kitchen. Shopping would have to wait; my friends were already gathered in the restaurant's small bar beyond.

Jeff and Barbara Black have another hit -- albeit with some limitations -- on their hands. Already the owners of the popular Addie's in Rockville, Black's Bar and Kitchen in Bethesda and Black Market Bistro in Garrett Park, the restaurateurs recently added this, their fourth place to sip and sup. To the gratitude of Palisades residents, they chose this underserved slice of Washington for their latest venture, which emphasizes the bounty of the sea not only on the menu but also on the walls: What look like ancient drawings of fish dress up an otherwise bland lounge.

The kitchen, under the watch of Jeff Black, casts a wide net, with a dinner menu that includes just about every kind of dish a fish fan would want. It begins with small plates -- fried oysters, serrano-wrapped shrimp and grilled sardines, for an average of $4 apiece -- and continues with five preparations of steamed mussels. Appetizers are slightly larger and more elaborate, and the list of daily specials typically outnumbers the standing entrees. "Stews" occupy a section of their own, and a waiter will tell you that the $84 tasting menu adds up to a dozen courses. Reading about all the possibilities at BlackSalt is like perusing the menus of three restaurants at once. It's a little exhausting.

The nature of the menu, which seems to change as often as Madonna, makes it difficult to suggest specific dishes, but you'll want to focus on the fish house classics. Fried Ipswich clams show up tender and flavorsome, and they're enhanced with two bold dips: a garlicky mayonnaise and a robust sauce of red peppers, ground almonds and onions. Manila clams bathe in a simple but rich broth redolent of cream, leeks and bacon. Crab cakes -- generally available at lunch inside a toasted sesame-seed bun -- are role models: Herby and creamy, they are mostly fresh crab, deliciously paired with pickled red cabbage and small, wavy potato chips. And oyster aficionados have a good place to slurp at BlackSalt. On a typical day, there are four varieties to choose from, and they come to the table (or to the stainless steel bar) glistening and neatly shucked. If you want to look like a true connoisseur, skip the sauce that comes with them; good oysters don't need any embellishment.

Every visit yielded something to keep me interested. One night it was expertly grilled dorado, or mahi-mahi, with creamy polenta, garlicky tendrils of spinach and jazzy sun-dried tomatoes. At another meal, some lusciously sweet seared scallops won me over. Arranged around a very good mascarpone-infused risotto, the plump specimens made for a lovely, if hearty, repast. Skate in a coat of crushed walnuts was further enhanced by a warm sherry vinaigrette.

The cooks seem to be taking the "salt" in the restaurant's name too literally in several dishes, including an entree of prosciutto-covered monkfish whose accompanying rapini tasted of nothing but sodium, and an otherwise respectable hanger steak. The meat -- one of a handful of nonseafood dishes -- came topped with roquefort cheese, ringed with a pleasantly tart cranberry-wine sauce and flanked by potatoes Anna that could easily be renamed potatoes Salt. Overly aggressive seasoning is a sin that is easily corrected, fortunately.

The young staff is chummy as can be, but some of the servers lack finesse. At one lunch, I was surrounded by tables that went uncleared long after their occupants had left; on a subsequent evening, my waiter chatted so much that I wouldn't have been surprised if he had pulled up a chair to join my friend and me while we ate. There's a balance to be struck, and a few of the servers have yet to find that happy middle ground between helpful and "When is he going to go away?"

BlackSalt's wine program is as ambitious as the menu. There are nearly 20 wines by the glass, available in four- or seven-ounce pours; more than two dozen half-bottles; and an extensive regular list as well as a reserve list of full bottles. The catch? The labels include a lot of names -- Kendall-Jackson, Blackstone, Rosemount -- you can find in your average supermarket. Yet the restaurant has also sought out some real gems, such as the L'Ecole No. 41 Walla Voila chenin blanc. This is also the uncommon moderately priced restaurant to serve its red wines at the proper temperature; in my experience here, they have been slightly cool to the touch.

For those who like to people-watch but to also remain private, the best table is No. 61. It's tucked in a raised rear mezzanine that allows its occupants to see much of the main dining room without sitting in it. My second choice would be one of the several booths. To get any of them, though, you'd better have a reservation. The tables in the lounge, available on a first-come, first-served basis, have the disadvantage of sharing the intensely bright lights of BlackSalt's retail space. Date alert: Every flaw shows beneath the unforgiving glare.

It takes some patience to find a good reason to stay on after your entree. Cheesecake is sliced with a generous hand, but it can taste too much of the refrigerator. Apple-cranberry bread pudding manages to be both gummy and bland, and the cookie plate is laden with more misses (grainy nut brittle, achingly sweet coconut chews) than hits (soft oatmeal cookies). The single best ending of my four meals was a tangy round of Key lime pie decorated with tiny tufts of fresh whipped cream and served with a sesame seed tuile, though the chocolate-peanut butter crunch cake with caramelized bananas proved a close (and decadent) second.

Its blemishes aside, BlackSalt appears to be a pretty face on its way to becoming a long-term flame.

ASK TOM

Marta Zielyk says she eats more slowly than her boyfriend and is irked by waiters who remove his plate while she is still dining. "Once, a server even asked my boyfriend whether we would like dessert while I was still eating my entree," the Washington reader wrote in an e-mail. She added, "You should know that it's not like I take another half-hour," but rather about five more minutes, to finish eating. "Efficiency or rudeness?" she wanted to know. While not all diners like to keep used dishes in front of them, it's common courtesy for a waiter to remove dirty plates only after everyone at the table is finished.


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