In its 10th year, Salt Tavern still offers exquisite food and welcome surprises

When Salt Tavern (2127 E. Pratt St., [410] 276-5480, salttavern.com) opened its doors in 2006, favorable reviews soon followed. Salt was awarded best new restaurant kudos that year by both the editorial staff and the readers of this paper, and since then has appeared on best restaurant lists compiled by other local publications. A decade has passed, and in the contemporary restaurant scene, celebrating a 10th anniversary is no small feat. Aside from the myriad financial challenges, patrons can be fickle, switching loyalties when establishments make changes or getting bored if they don't. And yet, Salt is the rare place that makes it all look easy and taste fabulous.

Ten years in, many things look familiar at Salt, including the restaurant's iconic green globe lighting, the exposed brick in the dining room, and the sleek bar. Signature dishes like the foie gras sliders, duck fat fries, and coriander and pepper crusted tuna with potstickers remain on the menu. But inevitably there have been changes as well, the most significant being co-owner Jason Ambrose's move to 1157 Bar & Kitchen, the tiny Locust Point restaurant he opened in 2014 (Ambrose still collaborates with Salt's current executive chef, Kevin Patrick Christian). Jane Ambrose, Salt's co-owner and Jason's mother, is still involved with the day-to-day running of the restaurant, though she was not working the front of the house the night I dined. Her absence that evening, and the permanent absence of longtime server Gille Mascarell, who decamped for Hampden's Arômes over a year ago, made dining room service feel slightly less formal and polished than it once was. The food, however, remains exquisite.

One of Salt's strengths is to take simple ingredients and coax them into something complex. A grilled artichoke appetizer ($9) is case in point, becoming a completely different animal after its leaves are dipped into a schmear of homemade mayonnaise made richer and spicier with the addition of 'nduja, a spreadable Italian pork sausage. As you work closer to the heart of the 'choke, you discover small grains of what might be smoked salt. They're not. Instead, that umami flavor comes from bottarga, a dried fish roe. Chilled fennel bisque ($9) works the same kind of magic, yielding a clear, rich depth of flavor from the anise-flavored bulb and balancing that with an array of tangy flavors from other ingredients including goat cheese and pickled green strawberries, an unusual combination that somehow works.

A mid-June menu nods to early summer by using seasonal ingredients to tweak and lighten up classic dishes. Many dining rooms probably wouldn't have cassoulet ($24) on the menu in summer, but Salt's version—thick with duck confit, green garlic, and pickled green tomato—doesn't feel heavy or inappropriate. Similarly, the pickled rhubarb and fresh spring greens that accompany the rabbit pâté ($10) appetizer plate keep it from feeling that this should solely be a cold weather dish. My favorite dish on the current menu, however, clearly celebrates early summer: a copious helping of morels, plush ravioli bursting with asparagus ($20) and a splash of citrus, all bound together with browned butter that's not quite sauce consistency, but nonetheless is compelling and complex. It's a beauty of a plate, one that I would go back and order again before the morel season is over.

Other entrees have more homey qualities. There is not a thing to object to about the chicken roulade ($24), breast and thigh meat pounded thin together, rolled, fried, and served with kohlrabi puree, except that it seems a little dull in comparison to other dishes on the table. Better is the rabbit sugo ($22), a generous portion of fettucini with tender pieces of rabbit, which, as described on the menu, also includes wild mustard, lemon thyme, and pistachio honey as ingredients. I trust this to be true, but instead of any sweetness, the dish tastes more like the best homemade chicken soup you've ever had, broken down into its core components of meat and noodles. It's lovely, but not exactly what might be expected. In this case, surprises are a good thing.

Salt continues to offer creative cocktails, several tap selections on draft to complement a short beer list heavy on microbrews, and an affordable wine list. Desserts, too, remain mostly familiar, although the ice cream cone sampler ($8) has taken on a decidedly experimental bent with scoops featuring ricotta, sesame, and a rather too-healthy blueberry kale (yep, salad and dessert in one scoop).

Over the years, I've loved Salt's creativity, its hospitality, and the fact that Ambrose and his kitchen staff seem to follow their own culinary hearts—not necessarily jumping on each passing food trend or removing favorite dishes because they aren't as fashionable as they once were. Despite being casual, a meal at Salt always feels like an occasion. After ten years, I have gotten used to that, though never tired of it. Salt remains a gem.

Salt is open for dinner Tuesday-Saturday.

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