Seeing Green

The focal point in Salum is a circa 1940s buffet captured at auction in New York. It is both an obstacle and a hem loosely defining a spacious portal spilling into the kitchen. This is not an open kitchen in the ordinary sense, where chefs can only be observed from the chest up, moving with vigor behind suspended pots above and glass partitions below. These typical blinders shield the muffed stirs and miscued sauté pan tosses that undoubtedly mar perfect kitchen choreography. Here, nothing's hidden.

This modest buffet is the only set piece on a stage framed by burners, ovens and grills. The square restaurant is designed to channel attention into this sanctum so kitchen performance is open to casual scrutiny as the crew stirs, rustles and shuffles between cooking surfaces and the buffet where plates are docked.

Originally cast in jet black, the buffet has been repainted green to match the sweeping "L" stroke in the Salum logo. It's topped with a slab of black marble. Shimmering gold caryatids--the ornamental female faces common in Greek architecture and 18th century furniture--form pilasters at the far edges.

Pretty in beige: Salum reeks of charisma despite its muted color scheme.
Tom Jenkins
Pretty in beige: Salum reeks of charisma despite its muted color scheme.

It's where tragedy struck. Maybe it was a pot slapped down too fervently. Or maybe it was the smack of a utensil. Whatever the cause, the surface chipped. A hairline crack infected the stone. It spread with virulence, reaching for the edges. The slab cleaved, severing it into third and two-thirds sections.

"I couldn't sleep," says Abraham Salum, the restaurant's namesake. "I couldn't stop thinking about it." Such unfortunate drama has significance for this fledgling restaurant, being that the buffet is the hub, the prop that regulates kitchen presence.

And the spawn of that presence can be inspiring. Venison loin slices nudge a beautiful heap of crisp but tender vegetables: bright green broccoli, vivid haricot verts and crisp zucchini. It's as though the vegetation has been harvested into a photo-editing program with the color knob set to hyper-verdant. Have these vegetables mutated? Have they been treated with color stimulants?

No, they seem normal, save for a slight petrol undertone stemming (perhaps) from burner jets. The venison is requested medium rare; it militantly hugs rare while giving short shrift to the medium part. The center of the thicker loin slices are deep purple while the edges grow rosy before retreating to deep mauve and gray.

Busywork infests the meat. The loin is crusted in pistachios and salt and pepper while a glaze of apricots and sherry attempts futilely to cling to the edges. Yet it all holds together. The apricot bits, much larger than you might expect for a glaze, are firm (no fruit mush) and chewy with a marked tang. Yet they don't impede the crust, which foils any fruity sweetness (there isn't much) with a crisp, whispering pungency. This all rests on a firm bed of butter-sautéed spelt, the coarse, ancient cereal grain native to Southern Europe. This crude, chewy heap adds a nuttiness almost as pronounced as the real nuts on the meat edges. These proceedings would be clumsy if they didn't somehow fall into line, arranging their flavors into unity even as they totter on the edge of disarray.

Pity the sea bass couldn't escape it. Oh, it's striking: the bed of mashed potatoes, the pan-seared and oven-roasted sea bass fillet, the blushing smear of honey-balsamic vinegar tomato glaze, the dab of tapenade snuggling up to the side. And this: a pair of fennel bulbs stationed on the edge of the plate, their long stems perched vertically like a pair of antennae fastened to the head of an asparagus beetle. Instead of flaky, the fish is mushy, blending into the potato mash. The range of flavors--tangy, sharp, briny, sweet--barely assume coherence in this kludgey assemblage.

The same words couldn't be used to describe the restaurant itself. Salum is a thick serving of contemporary crispness; a soaking of beige with brown splatters (napkins), amber luminance and sparkles (votives plus the mirror band that straps the panels on the wall). The ceiling is a beveled series of recessions easing into a rectangular hole in the center. Strings of mother-of-pearl wafers dangle inside silk organza chandeliers.

On the bar, a row of martini glasses filled with ice awaits deployment. Saturday night nips must be dispensed via assembly line, lest the service staff get swamped just as the foie gras attempts to gain traction--which it doesn't. This is a peculiar dish. It's assembled in layers with mascarpone, diced ham and a butter biscuit. The ham, crudely chunked as if it had been pilfered from a chef's salad, is assembled near the bottom. Ham?

The biscuit is substantial, but that can't hide one persistent irk: the arrangement is gawky. Foie gras should be minimally pestered--a few greens here, a brood of berries in their own drool (stiffened with red wine, port, Madeira or even brandy) or a fanned Fuji apple sucker-punched with Calvados off to the side, kosher salt scattered over the freckled mauve lobe and perhaps an insignificant piece of grilled brioche. In this rendition, the flavors stumbled over one another. Also, foie gras should be warm. This lobe, flaccidly hugging the oversized butter biscuit, was stone cold.

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