Editor’s Note: The Salt Cellar is now closed.
Salt is everywhere at the newly opened Salt Cellar steakhouse in St. Paul, except where it matters most: on the food. At every table, an attractive centerpiece of pink rock salt cradles a flickering votive candle, almost daring diners to pick it up and lick it after each mouthful of the overwhelmingly bland, at times poorly executed, and generally overpriced entrees.
The Salt Cellar arrived in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood heralded by a mighty fanfare. The owners of the Eagle Street Grille on West 7th were aiming for a fine dining experience with their new venture. They enlisted Alan Bergo, longtime sous chef to Heartland’s Lenny Russo, as head chef, with Russo consulting. In the run up to The Salt Cellar’s opening, both Russo and Bergo telegraphed some potentially exciting twists on a classic steakhouse theme. Bergo’s reputation as “The Forager Chef” seemed to promise deliciousness and creativity, perhaps injecting the staid steakhouse template with a bit of a mycological flair. Alongside a promised revival of some classic hotel-style tableside service theatrics, the Salt Cellar had ambition.
Sadly, most everything fell flat on our visits. In two meals, one in the dining room and one in the bar / lounge, we found few bright spots that would justify a visit to the Salt Cellar rather than other nearby restaurants such as W.A. Frost or Moscow on the Hill, or to destinations that compete in a similar sphere, such as Manny’s, Burch Steak, or The Strip Club.
The vibe upon entering The Salt Cellar is pleasant. A gaggle of white-shirted, black-tied servers bustle everywhere, seemingly two for every customer. The space itself is attractive, with dark hues and muted lighting accentuating the white tablecloths. The entrance opens onto the black and white marble bar, above which is perched a single sports-aglow flat screen. Behind the bar is the dining room, which features a gas fireplace and the room’s defining feature, a long stretch of tinted windows that put the expansive kitchen on full display. A separate private dining room has a similar feel, with a window opening into the restaurant’s butchery, where, admirably, cooks are breaking down whole animals for the menu. If you enjoy watching an animal get processed as you chew your filet, you’re in luck.
Clearly the owners spared little expense creating showroom-worthy food prep facilities. Unfortunately, the food largely failed to live up to the environs.
Things began promisingly enough, with dinner rolls and a small plate of thoughtful accompaniments — pickled veggies; a delicious, spreadable horseradish cheddar; nuts. This, however, was the culinary highlight of the evening. Nowhere else during our meal did we find the balance of flavor and playfulness that was exhibited in our bread course.
Next came the Steak Tartare ($14). At its best, steak tartare transforms the savagery of eating raw animal flesh into a sensual and refined experience. There are many great variations in Minneapolis and St. Paul, including Barbette’s classic rendition and the locally legendary softball of meat at 112 Eatery. Sadly, the version at The Salt Cellar missed all the marks. The raw beef was formed by a ring mold in the center of the plate and was topped with a layer of rehydrated porcini mushrooms, a few thick shavings of grana padano cheese, frisee, and a “six-minute egg.” On the side sat a small, wan pile of brioche batons. The appetizer was overwhelmed by unpleasantly intense mushroom flavors, leaving any flavor from the presumably high-quality Piedmontese beef languishing in their fungal wake. The entire thing was an umami-bomb, with no acid elements for balance. The egg was clearly more of an 8- or 9-minute job: almost hard-boiled, really, with a yolk that begged to run, but just couldn’t. The entire dish was ice cold, as though it had been prepped in its entirety hours ago and left on a speed rack in the cooler, waiting for service. The bread batons were a useless shape for scooping or spreading.
As the five of us pushed the disappointing tartare around the plate, strains of Old Blue Eyes singing “Luck Be a Lady” began Buca-di-Beppo-ing through the sound system, reminding us that in the runup to The Salt Cellar’s opening, Lenny Russo had mentioned that “retro doesn’t only mean Sinatra on the sound system.” So what does retro mean, exactly?
We awaited our tableside Caesar salad with mounting skepticism.
Tableside service can be a magical and memorable experience. There are incredibly engaging, entertaining servers in the world who have patter and flair, and these are the qualities it takes to make the theatrics of tossing a salad something worth paying for and worth remembering. Unfortunately, the experience at The Salt Cellar was an overlong, cringe-worthy interruption of about 10 minutes of stirring and overexplaining, punctuated by long silences during which you could see the beads of sweat forming on our poor server’s forehead. He made a go of it, but clearly didn’t relish being in the spotlight as our party watched his every move along with nearby diners who craned their necks for a peek. The Caesar itself ($20 for two, which can be scaled up with party size) was dominated by whole-grain mustard and anchovy — it was overdressed and unremarkable. In all, the tableside schtick felt gimmicky and unnecessary, and it dissuaded us from our original plan to order the (also tableside-prepared) Bananas Foster for dessert. None of us wanted to endure the show a second time.
The soups, both of which were comically underseasoned and flat, came next. Lobster Bisque ($11) was served with a small flourish at the table, the soup poured from a silver pitcher over a small mound of lobster salad at the bottom of the bowl. The bisque lacked the deep-ocean, three-dimensional flavors you get from a good shellfish stock, was watery in consistency, and had none of the luxurious spoon-coating quality we were hoping for. The Cream of Bolete Mushroom (above) was similarly undistinguished: the dark puree had no balancing elements to highlight the single, loud note of overly earthy, unsalted mushroom flavor. Between this dish and the treatment of mushrooms in the tartare, we began to wonder about Bergo’s bonafides as a fungus whisperer.
The entrees fared no better, and there are none we can recommend. On paper, they sounded unimaginative but potentially tasty; on our plates, they were all disappointing, and one was inedible. This last was the Crispy Duck Leg a l’Orange ($28), which we sent back after discovering that chewing it was akin to gnawing on a rawhide dog treat coated in a LeeAnn-Chin-style orange sauce, cloying and sticky. The duck was overcooked, dry, and simply ruined. Our server graciously took the plate away and brought a single-cheese plate to tide our friend over until her replacement entree — the Marinated Spatchcocked Poussin ($24) – was delivered, long after the rest of our party had finished our meals. The poussin was an improvement on the duck, but still unimpressive. The flattened bird was laid unceremoniously on a plate of very bitter broccoli raab and largish, baby onions, all of which swam in too much fat from the small hen. It was picked at reluctantly.
The Beef Bourgignon en Croute ($25) was equally ponderous: out of a largish puff pastry well, a sloppy pile of beef and vegetables erupted artlessly around the plate. Again, the problem of underseasoning reared its bland head. The beef was dry, with absolutely no hint of red wine. The vegetables looked and tasted as though they were sourced from a Green Giant freezer bag — indistinct and flavorless. There was no bacon to be found, despite its being listed on the menu. The dish was bland, forgettable, disappointing, and perplexing, bearing zero resemblance to the classic French comfort food.
Perhaps most indicative of a general lack of basic cooking technique were the Seared Scallops ($27). Correctly searing a scallop can be taught to even the most inexperienced home cook. Far easier than making a proper omelet, all it takes is heating up a pan, adding some oil, and leaving the scallops in the pan until they brown nicely. Two of our dining companions ordered the scallops, and both plates were identical in their failure of execution: three large sea scallops, glossy and opaque and devoid of any evidence of contact with a hot pan, were nestled on a watery mess of burdock polenta, duxelles, cauliflower, and capers. All of it, once again, underseasoned, all of it missing any kind of acidic touch to create a chord instead of a single note. Even if the scallops themselves had been properly seared the dish would have been a failure: the swampy accompaniments of loose polenta and vegetables coalesced into a flavorless mush beneath the pearlescent scallops, offering no hint at what Bergo might have envisioned beyond the hollowing sadness of paying $9 for each bivalve.
So it was that the Kansas City Strip Steak (16 oz., $45) became the best entree we tried, mostly by default. The steak arrived handsomely marked by the grill, alone on the plate save for a small side of pickled mushrooms and steak sauce. It was cooked properly to medium rare, and it tasted like a decent steak should taste, with evidence of salt and pepper having been deployed. It was hard to know whether it would have stood out among more competently cooked dishes, but it certainly didn’t feel worthy of its $45 price tag. Compared to other excellently prepared and flavorful steaks at similar prices from Manny’s, The Strip Club, or Burch Steak, there is no reason to seek it out.
Dessert offered a final chance to redeem what had become a tedious and perplexing meal, but yet again we found ourselves scratching our heads. A Chestnut Creme Brulee ($7) was properly torched, but the custard itself was an unappealing pallid gray color, had a grainy texture, and tasted bitterly of chestnut. It was garnished with a pair of tooth-shatteringly hard candied chestnuts (one of which someone at our table spit into their napkin), and a sad, drooping snapdragon flower. But it got worse: the Gateau Marjolaine ($10, above) was described by our server as The Salt Cellar’s “signature dessert.” But why anyone in the kitchen would sign off on it was a mystery to us: attractively plated, the traditional French layered cake was handsomely strafed by twin jets of chocolate ganache and a red wine curd, and sprinkled with flower petals. But instead of giving way elegantly to our forks in airy layers of buttercream and meringue, this sugary brick withstood our fierce attempts to deconstruct it, fighting with the strength of a Charleston Chew. We had to pick pieces of it up to gnaw on it — forks were of no use. Ironically, it was the saltiest thing on the menu, and overly so. Tasting mostly of salt and fake almond flavoring, it got markedly worse when we tried the attendant red wine curd. A dining companion put it best, saying that it “tasted like an old, empty wine bottle smells.” Bitter, vinegary and slimy, the curd was simply gross. This dessert was utterly confusing.
So what were those few bright spots we mentioned earlier? They existed only at the bar, where we ate on a second visit, and where you can get two items that aren’t available in the dining room: the well-seasoned, tasty Salt Cellar Burger ($13), and a solid Prime Rib Sandwich ($14). Both of these sandwiches were miles better than anything we had in the dining room. Each was served on a sturdy pretzel roll with a tangle of delicious fries and a side of truly unfortunate, cinnamon and nutmeg inflected “house-made” ketchup (a practice which we feel every restaurant should simply abandon — there is no beating Heinz). It’s worth mentioning that, bizarrely, we were actively dissuaded from ordering the Creamed Spinach side ($7) by the bartender, who said it was an item “a lot of customers don’t seem to like very much.”
There’s a very particular kind of hollowed-out, helpless acceptance that washes over you after being an active participant in being taken — it’s the feeling of being up at the blackjack table, only to stay for a few more hands to lose it all instead of walking away. Similarly, we left The Salt Cellar after paying our $300 bill (for five people) feeling confused and sad — how could a new restaurant with such gleaming facilities and a reportedly talented head chef pump out such boring, poorly made food at such high prices? Who is standing at the expo window, allowing a server to deliver un-seared scallops to a table?
Something more problematic is at work than the simple opening jitters of a new restaurant. By all rights, The Salt Cellar should be killing it. They’re setting up high expectations for simple food on a tee, and instead of smashing easy major league home runs, they’re whiffing with amateur swings. While the service is friendly and the atmosphere is suited to its classy neighborhood, the value simply isn’t there – except perhaps as a halfway decent place to grab a sandwich and a drink at the bar.
The Salt Cellar
Retro steakhouse in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood, St. Paul
173 Western Ave N, St. Paul, MN 55102
CHEF: Alan Bergo
RESERVATIONS / RECOMMENDED?: Yes / Yes
ENTREE RANGE: $17-$52
VEGETARIAN / VEGAN: Yes / No