Dining Out: Worth Its Salt

Fore Street is the Portland restaurant where chef Sam Hayward serves deceptively simple food that is always exactly right, because the ingredients are as fresh and local as he can find (Hayward finally got his due when the James Beard Foundation gave him its best-chef-in-the-Northeast award this year). I always say that Fore Street is New England's closest equivalent to Chez Panisse, Alice Waters's epic restaurant in Berkeley, meaning that it serves not fancy dishes, but food that tastes wonderful because the flavors are sharp and pure.

At Salts, the Cambridge bistro just off Central Square, Gabriel Bremer creates a very appealing calling card for the philosophy of Fore Street, where he used to work with Hayward. For 20 years, Salts has given us noteworthy talent, and Bremer is no exception. His food, on the other hand, is hard to describe: It isn't straightforwardly American, as the menu is at Fore Street. Instead, the technique is decidedly French, the presentation, soigné. It's food anyone who cares about good restaurants will want to try.

A classically trained percussionist, Bremer left his native Cleveland area to work for Hayward. While at Fore Street, he met his fiancée, Analia Verolo, who had found her way to Portland from her home country of Uruguay after working at several Boston restaurants. Bremer also hung out in Cambridge at Rialto, and one day Jody Adams called to ask if he wanted to run her kitchen. At Rialto, the young chef (he's just 27) learned Adams's vibrant, exciting way with flavors and doubtless her rigorous, rational management style. He decided to settle here and find his own space for a restaurant he would open with Verolo. While looking, he worked at Le Soir, in Newton, for Mark Allen, who serves polished food using immaculate technique.

I had a number of carefully thought out, cleanly executed, prettily presented dishes at Salts. But what I remember most are the superb ingredients they showcased. Bremer is a source hound, and he has found a few things worth a trip to Cambridge, including the best foie gras I've had outside Israel (in case you forgot, a world leader in foie gras production—people eat it on kebabs) and chicken worth eating.

I knew things here deserved sitting up and taking note of when a waiter came bearing a shallow, napkin-lined rectangular basket with little oval rolls hot out of the oven. The warm, slightly chewy white rolls tasted like good homemade bread from the '70s, and the butter in a silver-domed dish was soft and fresh, with a marine tang and saline crunch. Perhaps in homage to the name he inherited, Bremer whips expensive fleur de sel, the finest sea salt, into his butter; the rolls, he told me, use a potato sourdough starter made from dough given to him by the previous husband-and-wife owners of Salts, who drew on their eastern European heritage to flavor their menu—another kind of homage.

The foie gras confirmed that here was something else new we need to know about. Bremer serves it in triangular chunks, thicker and more generous than most restaurants, with a ruby-red-beet-and-Bing-cherry sorbet that makes a beautiful plate ($18). The foie gras, with its deceptive air of “Gee, this just seems like a beautifully smooth piece of unfamiliar meat I want to eat more and more of—it doesn't seem that rich at all,” will distinguish this dish in any guise. When Bremer told me that he found it in California, not the usual Hudson Valley, I had to rethink my usual buy-only-local dictate. He also uses FedEx for the micro sorrel he serves with the foie gras, a delicate flourish that's not entirely necessary.

Bremer is aiming for both fidelity to clear-flavored ingredients and the kind of high-wire originality Thomas Keller specializes in at the French Laundry, in the Napa Valley, which Bremer has decided is his personal Everest. Sometimes exotic ingredients show up seemingly just for the sake of showing he got something nobody else found—say, golden purslane in a salad of heirloom beets (some golden, some candy-striped) with braised veal tongue ($13). But any just-going-overboard gesture can be forgiven when the sliced braised meat, from a recipe Bremer learned while visiting Verolo's grandmother in Uruguay, is so nutty and packed with taste and goes so well with the not-too-sweet beets.

Main courses show a similar commitment to the primary ingredient. The biggest surprise was that chicken, with black summer truffles and “creamless-cream corn” ($26). Both the chicken and corn had a pure flavor that sang.

So did rack of lamb with an early summer bean cassoulet ($33). This was just a few small roasted chops—a small portion for the price—over a circle of mixed dried and fresh beans, in hues from tobacco to summer green. Bremer says he took his inspiration from a French Laundry dish of rack of lamb with summer beans and looked far and wide for the many kinds of beans, which included fresh garbanzos, favas, soybeans, and haricots verts. The lamb might account for the price: It's Australian and organic. I disapprove of long-distance imports. Hayward, who has inspired a whole group of farmers and animal raisers in Maine and beyond, also would probably disapprove. But that lamb was stunning, and the beans were, too.

The desserts seemed a bit too studied, though there was a winning apricot tarte Tatin with a delicately tinged lemon-thyme pot de crème ($10) (a cool herbal custard). The homemade sorbets with chewy little almond financiers ($8) had clear fruit flavors. The ice creams we tried were more creamy than flavored.

The main courses, though, will bring other chefs to see why in just six months (Bremer and Verolo reopened the restaurant in March), Salts has quietly become a hard reservation to get. It isn't the room: Salts is still the plain, semi-awkward square it has always been, with tables close together and hard to walk between. Verolo has added some Provence touches that give the restaurant a kind of summerhouse feel, and the earnest servers negotiate the tight space with patient grace. Most important, though, Bremer is bringing a new intensity of flavor to town—along with some imported tricks any serious diner or cook will want to learn.