Successful restaurateur duo strike again
Reviewed by Melanie Haupt, Fri., Sept. 28, 2012
Fri.-Sat., 4:30-11pm; Sun., 4:30-10pm
Salty Sow1917 Manor Rd., 391-2337
Mon.-Thu., 4:30-10:30pm; Fri.-Sat., 4:30-11pm; Sun., 4:30-10pm
When a new restaurant opens up in town, the response on social media is invariably "ZOMG everything is amazeballs!!!" Amid all of these glowing tweeted and Instagrammed accolades, I can't help but wonder whether the emperor has any clothes.
I was particularly interested in Salty Sow because the restaurateurs behind the concept, Larry Foles and Guy Villavaso, are enormously successful culinary entrepreneurs, having launched Z'Tejas, Eddie V's, Roaring Fork, and Hopdoddy over the course of three decades in Austin. They have a knack for dropping anchor on a trend right at its zenith, with Austin as the proving ground-cum-launch pad for concepts slated to go national. With so many local chefs and food artisans embracing the "rooter to tooter" ethos within the context of semi-upscale dining, I was keen to check out the glitziest new addition to Manor Road's restaurant row.
Perhaps "glitzy" isn't the best descriptor. The space is sleek, barn chic with long tables and high stools, and two separate dining areas connected by a breezy patio. Low lighting marks the front dining space, which is perfect for more intimate occasions, while the back house is more brightly lit and suitable for more raucous gatherings (or for smaller groups who don't mind having to shout at one another to be heard over the racket).
Upon entering Salty Sow, diners are met by pleasantly colorless hosts who unload a ream of paper onto the table once guests are seated. The three daily menus are printed on light-brown paper and add an unnecessary layer of confusion when one grabs the daily specials menu instead of the drinks menu. And where the hell are you supposed to put the full-sized dinner menu while noshing on appetizers but not yet ready to order entrées?
Then again, the decadent triple-fried duck fat fries ($6), topped with a sous-vide egg and accompanied by a sassy aioli, could serve as a meal in itself. The duck fat adds richness to the crisp pub fries that you don't get with pedestrian vegetable oil. Another winner among the starters is the Loch Duart salmon rillette ($8). Nestled in a cute little jar, napped with a blanket of crème fraiche, and topped with orange globs of roe, the spread is smoky, creamy, and utterly delicious. Less successful was the roasted bone marrow ($12), which was gelatinous, bland, and not nearly as intensely meaty as I was expecting. Ironic, given that the roasted bone marrow dish at Chicago's Purple Pig was an inspiration for the menu at Salty Sow.
In fact, it seems that Chef Harold Marmulstein does his best work when dealing with preparations of the restaurant's namesake critter. While the Niman Ranch pork blade steak ($16) was tough and chewy (unsurprising, given the nature of that difficult cut), the milk-braised pork shoulder ($16) was moist and tender, reminiscent of Grandma's best Sunday roasts. The candied pork belly ($12) was equally delightful, with wholesome collard greens acting as a nutritious counterpoint to the sweet and crunchy rind.
Conversely, Marmulstein and his team need improvement in their treatment of fish. The chili-rubbed tuna ($18) was all wrong, from the flavor of the fish itself to the awful green chili grits underneath it. A Kona kampachi crudo special ($14) was similarly mishandled, utterly devoid of flavor or any sense of the word "special."
The real gems hiding on this menu dwell in the vegetables category. While brussels sprouts have probably jumped the shark at this point, the ones here are salty-sweet and tasty, thanks to a kooky marriage of golden raisins and pecorino cheese ($6). That said, the leaves are a pain to eat; you can't really spear them like you would a whole sprout, so you're reduced to shoveling and scooping like a rube. The fried smashed potatoes ($5) are salve for the meat-and-potato soul, swimming in a pool of velvety neck bone gravy. But the glazed turnips ($6) turned out to be the sleeper hit, the perfect balance of sweet and starchy, and perfect for fall weather.
In fact, one could finish the meal with the turnips and skip dessert altogether. Apart from the light and addictive butterscotch boudino ($6), the desserts here are truly the weakest link. Particularly appalling was the Mexican vanilla bean pot du crème ($5), an utterly flavorless waste of calories. But what the sweets lack in innovation, the signature cocktail menu ($8 each) more than makes up for, despite the painfully cutesy names. My particular favorites are the Miss Piggy, a heady, citrusy blend of grapefruit liqueur and bubbles, and the blueberry-lemon thyme smash. The vodka-based sip is tasty, but as my husband pointed out, that super-cool single ice cube with the fresh thyme and blueberries frozen into it takes up fully 70% of the real estate in the glass.
On the whole, I'd recommend Salty Sow for a special evening out with friends, with the understanding that while the emperor does indeed have clothes, he may want to make sure his socks match, his shirt is tucked in, and his fly is zipped.