KQED Food Blog: Bay Area Bites: Fish Friday at Sea Salt
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Saturday, August 06, 2005
Fish Friday at Sea Salt

Goose barnacles. What the hell are goose barnacles? That's what I was thinking when the chef of Sea Salt leaned across the counter and said, "You two look adventurous, try these!" They looked like little iguana feet. He explained how to eat them. I was intrigued. Always willing to try (almost) anything once (um, I am not Anthony Bordain and I won't be eating rotten shark from Iceland anytime soon as he described on Letterman recently), I peeled one back, and popped it into my mouth. Yum! The salty little sea creatures were perched atop a lovely salsa verde of cilantro, jalapeno, and cardamom (or at least that's what I surmised they were perched atop), and they were surprisingly delicious.

This was my first foray into the month-old Sea Salt, the latest addition to East Bay restaurateurs Haig and Cynthia Krikorian's treasure chest of successful eateries. With Lalime's, Fonda Solana, and Jimmy Bean's under their belt, and the anticipated T-Rex barbecue set to open this year, Sea Salt was a surprising little twist to the empire.

Can I just say, first of all, what a great idea. How many seafood restaurants can you name that aren't odes to tourism, temples of terribly overpriced seafood, typically frozen, fried, and not even close to fresh and local. Yet here is a neighborhood gem devoted to top quality, sustainable seafood, with plenty of local offerings like fresh plump grilled sardines, house-cured salmon roe, and California squid.

Settled in to our plushy countertop stools, overlooking the cooks hard at work (as well as listening in on their discussions of the tweaky problems with the deep fryer that night), we were immediately enamored with the environment surrounding us. In hues of blues, with an exposed brick wall and soaring beamed ceilings, the space has an airy, comfortable urban feel. It actually once housed the legendary Brick Hut Cafe (a women-owned and operated restaurant and art space that had a run of 20+ years), and more recently Cafe Talulah. Comfortable banquettes, picnic tables, and counter seating make up most of the restaurant's 86 seats, and if you wander to the back, you'll discover a lovely little garden, perfect for a lazy weekday lunch or an elusive warm Berkeley evening.

From raw oysters and clams on the half shell, smoky clam chowder, and oyster po' boys with house-made potato chips to Dungeness crab cakes perched on gazpacho veggies, buttery lobster rolls, and grilled yellowfin tuna with salt roasted potatoes, the menu is a melange of fish and seafood made for sharing.

After whetting our appetites with the goose barnacles (I could have eaten a hundred of those little things), the chef offered up another gift: house-made potato chips with a dollop of creme fraiche and a spoonful of glistening house-cured salmon roe. Neither of these gems was listed on the menu, and I was starting to feel special, like I was in on a secret. Or at least part of the inner circle (of course, we were not alone in receiving these little offerings, when we looked around nearly everyone was exclaiming in delight over receiving such unexpected surprises).

Happily, we moved on to the grilled local sardines, served with a sweet roasted pepper salad and drizzled with an heirloom tomato and mint vinaigrette. Smokey and lightly charred, the fresh sardines were plump and meaty, and paired well with the sweet tang of the peppers and vinaigrette.

The steamed clams were served in a large wok-like bowl, strewn with sweet bright-red cherry tomatoes, in a broth pungent with cilantro, jalapeno, and cardamom. The clams were sweet, succulent, and perfectly cooked. The pairing of flavors was excellent, although I found the broth to be a tad too salty.

We then moved on to the fish and chips, a mound of thick-cut fries and cornmeal-crusted rock cod, served with a light and tangy coleslaw and two sauces: malt vinegar aioli and Thai ketchup. The cod was extremely fresh and flavorful, although it, like the fries, seemed to have been compromised by a fryer on the fritz (as I mentioned earlier, because we had kitchen seating we overheard that they were having some issues getting the temperature high enough on the fryer). The crust, while tasty, was just not very crisp, and the fries, which looked gorgeous, tasted, well, a little old. The malt vinegar aioli was wonderful, although a bit bland, I didn't even really detect the vinegar, and the Thai ketchup had a bit of a strange flavor on its own, but was nice when used along with the aioli. All in all, it was good, but will probably be stellar once they work out the kinks with the fryer.

Even though we were stuffed to the gills by this point, we had to try dessert. The special that night was a coconut panna cotta with caramelized pineapple and a coconut tuile. This was everything a panna cotta should be--barely held-together cream with a smooth, light texture. The coconut was the perfect tropical touch, not at all overpowering, but still announcing its presence. Paired with the sweet pineapple, it was almost like a decadent pina colada, but even better. A perfect ending to the meal.

While the restaurant does not yet have it's beer and wine license, we were able to order a fantastic bottle of Alsatian Pinot Blanc from the nearby Caffe Trieste, although our waiter let us know that they could have their license as early as this weekend. They are also working on getting a full liquor license in the near future.

For only being open a month, this restaurant is already packing in the crowds, which is frankly, no surprise. I'll definitely be back.

Sea Salt
2512 San Pablo Ave
Berkeley, CA 94702

Open Monday-Sunday 11:30am-10pm


Blogger Amy Sherman said...

Sea Salt has a web site and it includes the full menu:

8/06/2005 9:58 AM

Blogger shuna fish lydon said...

One of the best ways chefs can get guests to try something they would never order, or see if it's something they could indeed put on the menu, is to offer it as an amuse, or a gift. It is as lovely being in the kitchen seding out these surprises as being the one whose mouth it goes into.

I've heard nice things about this place, thanks for the beautiful review.

8/08/2005 10:40 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds like a wonderful new addition to the East Bay. Is it kid friendly?

8/09/2005 12:13 AM

Blogger Kim Goodfriend said...

Thanks for your comments Shuna!

Also, there is a link to the Sea Salt website in the review.

It seems like a real neighborhood restaurant: laid back and family friendly. I will definitely go back and would recommend it to my friends who have kids (and who love seafood).

8/09/2005 9:51 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This place has Anthony Paone written all over it...Loved it! Food was fantastic.

8/12/2005 2:32 PM

Anonymous alex said...

Lobster roll was one of the best. And the bathroom signs are great.

9/05/2005 12:43 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

SeaSalt is a fantastic addition to the local Berkeley restaurants.

A little piece of homecooking right in our backyard.

The clam chowder is absolutely the best I've ever had! And don't miss the Oyster Po'Boy!

9/16/2005 4:33 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The food is, indeed, wonderful and the service is friendly. (However, if you are not a TALL lady you cannot see yourself in restroom mirror! Such a small gripe will not keep me from coming back for my 3rd visit. . . even tho I come from "the other side of the tunnel.) e

2/24/2006 5:43 PM


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