There are boatloads of reasons to book a date with the Salt Line, the jaunty new dining destination across from Nationals Park in the Navy Yard.
One of them is the response you get when you ask about the seafood charcuterie.
“A picture is worth a thousand words,” my server says. “Let me show you.” Whipping out her smartphone, she scrolls to a photograph that sells me on the arrangement. Cold-smoked arctic char, translucent slices of pistachio-veined swordfish “mortadella” and a dark sausage coaxed from shrimp, garlic and paprika— among other attractions on the plate — demonstrate there’s more than one way to say charcuterie.
My table is already in a giddy mood. It’s a sublime summer night and we’ve scored a table on the patio overlooking the Anacostia River. Filling out the Instagram-worthy view is the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge. Within minutes we’re sipping cocktails as good as any downtown and enjoying the server’s advice. The seafood sampler, said to be the pride of chef Kyle Bailey, finds us scraping zesty potted lobster from its ramekin and spearing a pickled radish to join the under-salted smoked whitefish on our forks.
You might know Bailey, 37. He was the chef at Birch & Barley in Logan Circle for seven years before parting ways with the Neighborhood Restaurant Group and joining forces with Long Shot Hospitality, the company behind the Dubliner, Sixth Engine and Town Hall. The chef’s new home, whose investors include Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman, seems to have re-energized him.
Like the also-new Millie’s in Spring Valley, the Salt Line is a fish house that doesn’t overdress for success. To the side of the entrance is a covered bar to accommodate the needs of sports fans in search of a quick bite. Inside are a custom-made oyster counter and two dining rooms that attract people who might want to linger over their meals. The bigger of the spaces is awash in subway tile and sea-green seating. The back dining area, set off with cedar shingles, veers more aquatic with old nautical flags and a small fishing boat suspended from the ceiling.
The decor puts one in the mood for a meal from the water. In a tip of the hat to Maryland, a roundup of “classics” features coddies. Starting with a mash of cod and potatoes, they’re rolled into bite-size balls, lightly breaded, bronzed in the fryer and affixed to crackers with a dot of hot mustard. Hon, they’re vintage Baltimore, and bodacious. Thick with potatoes and clams and smoky with bacon, the Salt Line’s buttery chowder is a rib-sticker best eaten in cooler months. Any day is a good time for a johnny cake, cornmeal flatbread topped with smoked whitefish and beads of salmon roe. Or oysters, some bearing names you don’t hear every day. A sheet on the table helpfully tags the origin as well as the size and salinity of the oysters. So if you like ’em large and briny, you might ask for Glidden Point from Maine.
If it’s 2017 and you’re serving fish, crudo is a given. Rockfish diced into a tartare with pickled mustard seeds and white balsamic vinegar is seasoned so as not to mask the flavor of the native fish, its softness foiled with fried capers and thumbnail-size potato chips. (Belly meat in the crudo accounts for its creaminess.)
Tuna and salmon have no home here. Bailey prefers what’s mostly local and sustainable, including crab and tilefish. Rockfish is served skin-on with smashed potatoes and signs of the season, pickled corn and sauteed ramps not long ago.
Plenty of places serve a nice piece of fish. “Nashville hot” soft-shell crabs are a lesser occurrence. The Salt Line spikes the seafood with the heat typically bestowed on chicken in the South — cayenne — and turns the crab into an open-face sandwich, per tradition using white bread and something pickled, in this case, green tomatoes. Almost every dish comes with something that sets it apart from what everyone else is doing. Roast chicken, for instance, is shored up with a refreshing salad of chopped grilled cucumbers and juicy watermelon. (It works.)
The Salt Line is also the uncommon seafood restaurant that throws bones to meat eaters. In a city stacked with good burgers, Bailey’s double-decker sandwich hits a home run thanks to griddle-seared patties made with chuck meat, a curtain of American cheese, bread-and-butter pickles and a thatch of skin-on french fries. The burger is a delicious mess; stop me before I demolish it — but not really. Half the fun of the rib-eye, thick and rosy, is the popover plopped on top, enriched with beef fat and grated cheese. While you’re being decadent, throw in some onion rings, a mound of golden bracelets with the staying power of Anthony Scaramucci once you try one.
Dessert inspiration comes from Bailey’s other priority, pastry ace Tiffany MacIsaac of Buttercream Bakeshop acclaim. Leave it to his fun-loving wife to plant a tiny pirate flag in a family-size banana split — the dessert equivalent of a loaded baked potato — and channel the boardwalk in a towering fluffernutter milkshake constructed with roasted peanuts, fresh marshmallow and a doughnut. Blueberry icebox pie seems staid in comparison. True to form, the restaurant pours coffee from a local roaster, the historic Swing’s, in a French press.
Dip into the little pail at the host stand on your way out. The container is filled with saltwater taffy, one more excuse to throw caution to the wind and revel in the arrival of a restaurant that tastes as great as it looks. More than a score for the Navy Yard, the Salt Line is a win for Washington.
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79 Potomac Ave. SE
Open: Dinner daily, lunch Saturday and Sunday.
Prices: Appetizers $5 to $27, main courses $17 to $42.
Sound check: 76 decibels / Must speak with raised voice.