284 Duckworth St.
St. John’s, NL
Ph. (709) 754-5670
I was reminded of the British TV series, “Upstairs Downstairs,” on our visit to Saltwater. The updated version ran from 2010 to 2012 with its original star, Jean Marsh. “Downton Abbey,” with similar themes, is better known and a more effective example. Consider the contrast between the humble dining situation below stairs at Downton Abbey, where Mr. Carson, Daisy, Bates and Mrs. Patmore consume frugal food with humble libations, and the opulent upstairs environment in which the Earl of Grantham and his crew sup claret and munch on Fillet du Boeuf à L’espagnole, where no solecism goes unnoticed.
Of course, I wouldn’t have been thinking about any of this if I were ignorant about what the upstairs at Saltwater looks like, compared with the downstairs. Let’s put it this way, they aren’t mirror images. That’s not to say that either level at Saltwater resembles the kitchen and dining rooms of Downton. But, the contrast between downstairs and upstairs at Saltwater makes me choose upstairs every time – when I’m given a choice. Unfortunately, we picked a night when the entire upstairs was sold out for a private event. A Sunday no less.
I prefer to be upstairs at Saltwater because it’s bright and dressed to put on a show. It looks like a dining room that can justify charging $34 for a salmon dinner and $48 for a full rack of lamb. Sophisticated but without the snootiness of some rooms. Downstairs is appropriate for drinks and conversation. It’s dimly lit, has a combination of high and regular height tables and a bar with stools. The bar looks like it knows it’s the most significant thing in the room, exclaiming “Sit down, take a load off, have a pick-me-up!” It’s hard to refuse.
Bread and spread
Saltwater is the kind of restaurant where it’s reasonable to assume guests might receive a complimentary appetite starter, an amuse-bouche. Ours, and this might be a stretch, was bread and spread. A small orb of hummus, flavoured with tomato and herbs like rosemary, arrived on a Chinese soup spoon, accompanied by four slices of fresh, white baguette. The hummus had a granular quality and very forward herb flavours.
With a menu that reads like a grocery list it’s obvious that Saltwater isn’t trying to charm customers with descriptive prose, i.e. “Salmon $34 – bourbon, maple and rosemary glaze, ice shrimp & vegetables fried southern rice.” What’s also clear is a focus on sticking to a relatively small number of dishes and ingredients that appeal to the majority who’ll darken Saltwater’s narrow entrance.
Shrimp scampi, for example, is a crowd pleaser and Saltwater does it perfectly. Jumbo shrimp marinated in olive oil and herbs were sautéed with garlic, spritzed with fresh lemon juice and taken off the heat at just the right moment. The result was a beautifully juicy, fragrant, citrusy shellfish appetizer.
The eye-catcher dish of the evening was the scallop starter. Dueling colours, such as orange and dark blue, demand your attention. A carrot and orange purée, along with colour, gave a fatty mouthfeel without the fat. Again, cooking in olive oil and herbs provided accent, with acidity accomplished by a more than generous drizzle of balsamic and blueberry chutney. Texture most tender came from four moderate size scallops. Altogether, it was a very satisfying and effective appetizer.
Ordinarily I don’t like to have salmon in restaurants because so much of it is cooked at home these days and local chefs prepare it much the same way I would at home; but when I read that Saltwater’s was done with a bourbon, maple and rosemary glaze I yielded. It’s a combination I enjoy. What could be more quintessentially Canadian than salmon and maple syrup? Saltwater’s salmon was tender and, although a tad sweet, it tasted good. Underneath the salmon was superb fried basmati rice containing tiny but toothsome ice shrimp and vegetables.
Crispy seared duck breast arrived on a bed of vegetables that included roasted sweet potato, asparagus and the non-vegetable, bacon – in this case, a welcome interloper. Almost nothing gives me as much pleasure as tasting a nicely cooked piece of quality duck. Saltwater’s duck, sliced and fanned out, was covered with mint and partridgeberry chutney. Gamey canard and wild berries make a delicious match.
I was delighted to learn that all of Saltwater’s desserts are made in-house. They do three: apple bread pudding with ice cream, partridgeberry cake, and chocolate torte with stewed cherries and port. For those who cannot decide you can order a small piece of all three for $14. I had the partridgeberry cake. The light, moist confection was decorated with crème anglaise, raspberry coulis and whipped cream. It, like the rest of our meal, was excellent; but next time I want to be one of the upstairs crowd. Why miss a chance to rub shoulders with an Earl or a Countess?
* Good * * Very good * * * Excellent * * * * Exceptional
Price Dinner for two with wine, tax and tip costs approximately $175.
Atmosphere The lighting is dimmed and the décor is somewhat dark downstairs, making Saltwater’s ground floor an ideal spot for intimate suppers. The second level is light, bright, white and in total contrast to the main floor, a dandy venue for groups of four or more.
Sound level Moderate.
Open Daily: 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Reservations Accepted and walk-ins are welcome.
Credit cards All major.
Beverages Saltwater’s compact wine list contains Moet & Chandon Imperial Champagne at $135 while other selections – popular NLC sellers – range from $45 to $95. Best house wines cost $9 and $10 per glass. A small collection of brews includes domestic and imported beers, as well as No Boats on Sunday cider at $9.50. Standard martinis and cocktails are available for $10.
Best bets Shrimp scampi, crispy seared duck and partridgeberry cake.
Gluten free options Please ask your server for details.
Wheelchair access No.