Salum: Paring Down Portions But Not Flavor at a Dining Gem

Star bartender Leann Berry adds a splash of action to Salum’s placid room. Of course, the kitchen itself doesn’t need a boost.
Sara Kerens

Some months ago, Abraham Salum faced a couple of moderately serious problems. Business slipped, first of all, as the recession began to squeeze diners—an issue that he might deal with to some extent if he addressed the second concern. "Some people said they would love to come in on Mondays and Tuesdays, but they didn't want a big dinner," the chef-owner of Salum recalls.

Apparently folks in the Highland Park/Knox-Henderson/Uptown borderlands gorge themselves Wednesdays through Sundays and need two days to relax. Or just possibly these regulars were making excuses, covering for the bite torn from their wallets over recent months. But no matter: Salum brought in star bartender Leann Berry to kick-start weeknight happy hours and created a chef's tasting menu for those wanting a lighter (and less expensive) option—three courses pared down from the regular offering for $38, 10 bucks more if you order the lobster.

It's a cross between the usual tasting menu and the suddenly popular (meaning economically feasible) prix fixe listing. The portions are only smaller by the slightest amount—5 ounces of tenderloin instead of 8. But this shaves about $15 from the full-price menu. Not bad, considering the kitchen refuses to slack in other respects.

The price structure essentially means sacrificing three or four gallons of gas for lobster. And if you spring for it, you'll end up with a lot more—namely, a plate of many discursive elements that work together quite well. Heirloom tomatoes, for instance, strike the right note for these ingredient-aware times, and every item of pedigree counts with food snobs, although that's not really the point. They hardly seem different from ordinary varieties, but the acidity carves neatly into another side, hearts of palm breaded and fried, while the tart and meaty flavors tug on similar notes in the piquillo vinaigrette.

That's the long way of saying side items included with the lobster appear random—plain slices of American tomato, slivers of semi-exotic fresh palm hearts treated as fried zucchini, a Spanish pepper rendered into a French-style dressing yielding vaguely Southwestern flavors—until you put the pieces together. The centerpiece is, of course, lobster, which releases a gentle swell of salt behind the delicate, sweet taste of the prized meat. But there's a backyard character, scorched in by the grill, tying everything together: scars of caramelized meat rounded by the smoky heat from the vinaigrette, the grilled taste working in kind with sliced tomato to make lobster more approachable, and so on. Yet all of this commotion cannot topple the shellfish. It traverses neatly that treacherous ground flanked by powerful outside flavors threatening to knock it from its lofty perch.

Too many chefs cover up expensive shellfish meat in fried crust or heavy sauces, deliberately robbing guests of the richness and satisfaction associated with the dish. Here you can taste it. The lobster really is a centerpiece.

Salum's beef tenderloin leads you through a similar experience, with buttermilk mashed potatoes and a bacon-spiked mustard cream sauce battling for your attention, but with little effect. Yes, the potatoes are fine and the puddle of sauce unfolds in layers from sharp to smoky. But the intricate mustard cream breaks down when squared against red meat, slinking away in silence, leaving only the flavor of wet-aged (judging by the texture), choice-grade red meat.

A careful kitchen can easily get away with a grade below prime, as long as the beef is aged to break down fibers. Here, the texture and taste are pretty much what you'd expect from a solid chef. But the seasoning—little pricks of salt and pepper darting occasionally from the crusty surface—is just what you dream about.

So just who the hell does this Salum guy think he is, cooking up buzz-worthy dishes in an oft-forgotten mini strip center? Well, he's a Mexico City native with experience at kitchens in his home country, Belgium and France, as well as Parigi in Dallas. For several years, his current restaurant has occupied this kind of gray area, drawing rave reviews and a regular set of diners, but hardly making a dent in the destination dining market. The place sits a little off the beaten path, and Salum acts more like a low-key neighborhood chef than flamboyant superstar. He hired Berry to bring some color, and on my visits, a dedicated group of acolytes sat transfixed at the small bar as she blended signature cocktails. They seem an unlikely duo.

"The first time I met her, it was at Ciudad," the chef explains. "She got me drunk." Hence Berry's ability to draw a following, although it's likely more people pack into Primo's cramped patio in one weekend than visit Salum over a given month.

Still, she is one hell of a bartender. And Salum—along with his kitchen staff—is an accomplished cook. He knows when to keep things simple, dressing a beautiful craft goat cheese from Cleveland, Texas, only in olive oil (plus a few bulbs of elephant garlic, roasted and mild). Then he turns and creates a carnival from simple things, as in Tabasco vinaigrette, accompanying crawfish hushpuppies. No need for additional vinegar here: The sauce starts with a more than modest measure of Louisiana's iconic brand, to which he adds some mustard and a small amount of honey. That's all, but from each, the tangy-hot Tabasco draws ballast, its tartness drooping to the earth and famous spicy kick reined in by bitter sweetness.

Of course, Tabasco and crawfish are compatible. The balanced sensations of hot, sour, bitter, sugary and almost savory—just about everything palpable—seeps into accompanying sliced tomatoes, as well, turning them into bright and fiery treats. If only the chef's hushpuppies could match those found throughout the American South.

Oh, the muddy yet delicate flavor of crawfish make the fritters feel substantial. But the dough turns out undercooked and gummy, even a little wet inside. And there's a further slip-up, for which the chef probably should be forgiven, considering his limited grasp of North American geography. (When I asked just where he found goat cheese in Texas, he said the town shared the same name as a city on the East Coast: Cleveland). Simply put, Southern-style cornmeal is rougher and saltier than that prepared elsewhere.

The urban South lost touch with its culinary roots long ago, however. And Salum only trades on the classics, serving up fusion in the best New American tradition. Besides, there's so much to applaud them for: the option of a pared-down menu ("We'll do it for as long as we feel we need to," the chef promises), creative cooking without sacrificing the everyday vibe, the potential for extraordinary cocktails and even the fact that they make their own desserts.

Away from the plate, it's not an exciting place. But it's not meant to be.

4152 Cole Ave., 214-252-9604. Open 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 6-10:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, 6-10:30 p.m. Saturday. $$$-$$$$

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