Salt Air opened to much fanfare in downtown Rehoboth Beach several years ago. If you were lucky, you got a seat -- and the bar was the place to see and be seen. The owner, Jonathan Spivak, is an experienced restaurateur (and accomplished artist in his own right). He and his long-time chef, Nino Mancari, embarked on a massive remodeling project, including the acquisition of a farm on Rt. 9 to supply the restaurant with fresh product. But it was not to be. Jonathan was taken ill, and the management of the large facility and the property on Rt. 9 proved too much for the talented Nino.
There is good news. As of this writing, Jonathan is in remission and has decided to live his life away from the day-to-day craziness of "the business," and Mancari has moved on after a relatively short stint at another Rehoboth eatery. There's even more good news: Salt Air was purchased by talented restaurateurs Eric and Norman Sugrue. Together these guys operate what is quite possibly the largest square footage of restaurant space in Rehoboth Beach, as Salt Air joins Big Fish Grill and Summer House in the lineup at Big Fish Restaurant Group. There will be a quiz, so I hope you paid attention.
Salt Air is back to its old self again. It's busy, upbeat, noisy and fun. Collisions with servers, guests transporting martini glasses (with mixed success!) in the narrow entrance area are de rigueur and are part of the Salt Air experience. A busy, fully open kitchen leaves nothing to the imagination, and a cute table reservation system texts you when your table is ready. The close-by Confucius, Henlopen City Oyster House, Stoney Lonen and Cabo were certainly holding their own, but now there's even more life at that end of Wilmington Avenue where all 5 eateries are quite literally next-door neighbors. For some reason that makes me very happy. There. I shared.
Eric and Norm kept the Salt Air "picnic" concept originally envisioned by Spivak and Matt Haley (in a consulting role only). And well they should have.
The festivities begin with a basket of toasted flatbread [pictured, right], accompanied by a spead consisting mainly of chevre. A hint of blue cheese suggests other ingredients too. The flatbread was quite good, but the all-important bread/spread ratio is a bit off. We needed more cheese spread, and I suspect they would have brought more if we had asked.
You can't start without the Crab Deviled Eggs [pictured, left]. Served 4 to a plate, they are creamy and not too crabby. A dash of Old Bay kicks them up perfectly. I also like to get the marinated olives and sort of pace them over the meal, using them as little exclamation marks as the dinner progresses.
The Angus Burger Sliders are simple and good [pictured, right]. The generous portion (especially at only $9) could serve as a meal for the dainty. All of these are in the clever "Snack Bar" area of the menu, which includes Roasted Almonds (a Haley favorite), Chilled Prawns and a delicious little plate of Sardines and Crackers.
There are clever little touches everywhere, like the Boardwalk Fries (in peanut oil, of course) served with little ramekins of ketchup and malt vinegar [pictured, left]. They march out of the kitchen sticking boldly out of a miniature version of a Thrasher's-style tub. It's even got the Salt Air logo on it. Another surprise is the Old Bay & Chipotle Roasted Wings, punctuated by slices of pickled peppers [pictured, right]. Wing lovers will appreciate the crunchy, charred finish.
Salt Air joins a(Muse.) with their own version of "Bacon and Egg." The Sugrues use pork belly and a duck egg. It is quite good, with not too much fat on the bacon. Our egg was perfectly done both times. I have been summarily reminded that the bacon and egg concept originated at Espuma in 2004, and has taken on many forms, most memorably as the "Opus" appetizer.
Every one of our visits to Salt Air included the Yankee Gumbo [pictured, below left], sporting massive chunks of chorizo and crab. At the risk of sounding like I'm on Sugrue's payroll, it was simply delicious. They are not shy with the spice, and I even took a second photo [below, right] just to show you all the sausage. Put it in a bowl with a hunk of bread and it's a meal.
Another photogenic (and equally delicious) starter is the Roasted Beet Salad [pictured, left]. Bright yellow beets (who wooda thought?) are topped with a whipped goat cheese topping, not unlike what was paired with the pre-prandial flatbread amuse.
Another wonderful menu feature carried over into this reincarnation is the ability to choose between a dinner or side portion of the salads. Salads are a science at Big Fish Grill, and that apparently applies also to Salt Air. As far as I am concerned, the Kitchen Sink Salad, evenly chopped and bathed in avocado dressing, is the star of that leafy show.
UPDATE! In January 2013, Salt Air embarked on Sunday Brunch. It's been about a month or so, and all the emails so far are positive. So it's time we checked it out. What an unusual menu! Two sections dominate the page, "Lunch" and "Breakfast." Among 6 lunch offerings, Salt Air's signature Shrimp & Grits make a cameo appearance. They're as good as the dinner version. Also included in the lunch list is a Jumbo Lump Crab Cake Sandwich and PEI Mussels with Tasso, Mustard Creme and Boardwalk Fries.
Breakfast has 7 suggestions, including Sausage Gravy with Brown Butter over Truffled Scrambled Eggs and Sage Biscuits [pictured, left]. We asked them to omit the truffle oil and they happily complied. Don't start me....
Another sure thing is the Bacon, Jalapeno and Cheddar Frittata with roasted potatoes and a little Salad. [pictured, left]. Don't be scared off by the jalapenos. I couldn't taste them at all (the dairy in the cheese tends to mute any burn), but the dish was mouthwateringly cheesy nonetheless. We also got the Tater Tot Casserole with Italian Sausage, topped with Over-Easy Eggs [pictured, right]. This is certainly a must-get. A side of Milton Sausage and Milton Scrapple (well done) [pictured, below right] topped things off. I strongly urge you to order the Basket-O-Buns -- three gigantic cinnamon buns [pictured, below left], but with one caveat: Plan on enjoying at least one later in the day. They are huge and well worth the $10 price tag. Brunch is a nice value-added for Salt Air. I'm not sure if it will continue into the season. We'll keep you posted, of course.
We now return you to our regularly scheduled programming:
One of my favorites at the original Salt Air was the Shrimp and Grits [pictured, below right]. When I wrote reviews of that dish served elsewhere, it wasn't easy finding the right words to politely say that Salt Air's were the best. Grilled asparagus spears top this incarnation of the dish, and history repeats itself. It is full of flavor, not too "soupy" or buttery (a problem elsewhere) and the shrimp were perfectly cooked.
Salmon is one of the stars at Big Fish Grill, and it is again sharing center stage at Salt Air. The Scottish Salmon (you can tell by the tiny plaid beret) basks in a sea of corn, peach and arugula salad [pictured, below left]. The sweet jalapeño glaze imparts the tiniest amount of heat and forms a mouthwatering char on the massive portion of fish.
On each visit, at least one diner ordered the Pan Fried Soft Shell Crabs, none the least of which, myself. I had heard negative things about the accompanying hushpuppies, but for us they were perfectly crunchy every time. As of this writing, the place has only been open about a month, so perhaps that was part of the inescapable growing pains. Like Soft Shells? Get these. The bed of succotash pairs perfectly with the crunchy crustacean.
I can't finish without mentioning the crab cakes. Served with those dark and peanutty boardwalk fries and a crunchy cabbage slaw, they are firmly packed with crabmeat [pictured, nelow right]. The binder is nicely spiced, but not so much as to drown out the delicate taste of the crab. I know everybody has their own preference when it comes to crab cakes, but do try these. A quick, golden sear on both sides gives them a buttery crispness.
Two other offerings on the "Ocean" menu include the Almond Crusted Mahi perched atop a pile of mashers and the Seared Scallops with that nutty succotash. Both are quite delicious and equally good over several visits.
Salt Air used to serve a dish called the "Chicken Feast," which I loved, in spite of the fact that it was occasionally ever-so-slightly underdone. The new Salt Air has renamed it the Organic 1/2 Chicken. The skin is just as tight and crispy as its predecessor, and it was cooked all the way to the bone. Thanks, guys. Sometimes you just need a plain ol' chicken, and this one fills the bill.
This will be the first review where I mention a kids' menu. The VERY first. But something has to be said about the kids' menu at Salt Air. It's refreshingly clever, without all the chicken-finger and hot dog nonsense. Get this: A Grilled Fish Filet, Roasted Chicken Breast, and ... (wait for it) ... a Grilled Petit Filet Mignon. These, along with a kid's burger/fries and a bowl of pasta with parmesan, range from $7 to $13, and are served with fresh fruit. On one of our visits, we were lucky to be in the presence of a diner who is well-versed at being a kid [pictured, below left], and he loved the rather classy choices. He ended up with the Angus Sliders from the adult menu, thank you.
UPDATE! It's after midnight, but I have to tell you about a couple of adds to the menu. One is the Pappardelle Bolognese. Simple but excitingly tasty. The other is the duck/onion flatbread. I posted a photo at the very bottom right, because there wasn't room anywhere else. But I had to show it to you. And it tastes as good as it looks.
We now return you to our program already in progress:
I think long and hard before I rate a restaurant at a "9" or higher. But several factors influenced my decision. (1) The menu is cleverly laid out and offers a wide variety of items, large, small and in-between. And for lack of better words, it's just stuff you like to eat. (2) During each of our visits, the service was very good, especially our most recent when we were waited on by the very funny, clever and efficient Trisha. (3) Extra touches include the unusual kids menu, the Salt Air logo tubs for the fries, other cool-looking logo stuff, the well-appointed physical plant and the straight-ahead no-nonsense preparation and consistency of the food. These factors really left us no choice. I guard my 9s very closely, and we will continue to return in hopes that this level of quality will continue. The ratings will always reflect the most recent visit. These people are professionals and we expect no less from them.
I am of the opinion that Salt Air is back, with a vengeance. I have driven by several items a week since they opened in early 2012 season, and it's been crowded every time. Local artwork graces the bar, the kitchen is fun to watch, the staff is upbeat and helpful. All this adds up to success.
All's well that ends well. Jonathan is free of the ties that bind, Nino is doing ... whatever..., and Big Fish Restaurant Group is doing what they do best: running a big, noisy, beachy and reasonably priced eatery with consistently good food and service.
Salt Air is at 50 Wilmington Avenue, directly across from Confucius Gourmet Chinese. They do take reservations (302) 227-3744. As of this writing, they are open 5-9, but expect longer hours as they settle down. Click here to take a look at a sample menu. (D., Bar) Price Range: Moderate +.
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Special thanks to Arlene Carmel (our young diner's Bubbe) for the photos of the wings, the salmon, the sliders and the water jar.