September 2, 2009

Bradford Heap’s Salt: a Boulder Restaurant review. {Updated}

Update: Salt, a few months after opening, has come into its own.

The first few months, I didn’t go to Salt hardly at all. Why would I go elsewhere than the Kitchen for fine dining, for great style, for local food and quality beer, for friends?

But then, I stopped by one night to see a friend, they were getting drinks in the old stone basement turned lounge, bar, dining room (great for private parties, huge dinner parties). Bradford, the owner and chef, stopped by, and his continual charm and more importantly his evident hard work and caring for his business of food struck me, once again. And I got hooked.

Though I personally am on a budget, I find the prices reasonable. I go once or twice a week, now, for business lunches (I’m particularly impressed by the hand-cut fries, the homemade ketchup, the coffee made by the cup, the warm service—everyone stops by and remembers you, says hello, introduces themselves to your guests, and really seems to care that you’re enjoying the food).

The menu continues to evolve, as do and should most quality menus based in part of local fare. Bradford’s always trying out new recipes, and assures me he’ll be offering more and more vegetarian-friendly fare (the meat and fish offerings are, by all reports, impressive).

The service, which earned widespread complaints by my friends and colleagues the first few months (though I’ve never had anything but warm and thoughtful, timely service, personally), has by all accounts improved. It seems the growing pains are gone, and Salt has emerged a first-tier, mindfully eco-responsible, elegant yet relaxed dining option in Boulder.

The other night I went by for a private media dinner, got to meet some of the local farmers (most of whom I already knew, since I shop at Boulder’s wonderful Farmers’ Market. I invited slow food chef Peggy Markel to join me, or rather Bradford himself invited her along. I was also joined by my friend Kaitlyn, from Jax, who knows her food, and they both helped (ignorant) me judge the drinks and dishes. While they had suggestions and constructive quibbles, we all came away loving the place.

I’m a fan.

elephant’s Original (P)review, which has ranked front page, #8, in Google searches for “Boulder + Salt” since we posted it:

I went to Salt, the newest restaurant on the Boulder scene, last night—opening night.

It’s in the former location of Tom’s Tavern, a longtime favorite restaurant that used to be party central for the wild Buddhist scene back in the 70s (I can’t tell you the number of hours I sat at a booth coloring a placemat and watching the Budweiser horses roaming their way around their lit-up ceiling beer display).

Tom’s, over the years, while still revered as a part of unpretentious, affordable Boulder (two qualities we now lack), went downhill over the years. Toward the end, the burgers tasted like meat-scented cardboard paddies, and the place was in need of some new blood, some love.

Well, it got it.

Word on the street is that Salt’s Bradford Heap, a well-established Boulder-area chef, and his team of investors put in a million dollars in their renovation of Tom’s Tavern.

In any case, it looks it.

It’s one of the most high-profile locations in Boulder, on the corner of 11th and Pearl. Two of the four walls are all windows, now. On the 11th street side, you can see the kitchen, and word is they’ll be serving grass-fed burgers to-go out of a window back there. Cool idea, if true.

The basement is nearly the size of Upstairs at The Kitchen—which anyone and everyone is, at least initially, measuring Salt against. The basement is like the one in my house—about 100 years old, all brick and rock and cement floors. Only, at Salt, there’s a full long bar, tables, a wine cellar, bathrooms…a great place for loud music and hiding away with a loved one or a group of rowdy/cultured drinking buddies (the really rowdy ones, like Ryan Van Duzer, who stopped by with me last night, will still trend toward Catacombs or Scumdowner, where you don’t have to pay $5 bucks a beer).

But the first floor is where much of the action is. You walk off the street and note that they’ve saved the old metal step from Tom’s Tavern (see photos). You walk in, there’s a feng-shui perfect metal half-wall that contains, cut sideways, a bunch of the old Tom’s windows, and serves to guard the excellent cushiony lounge area that overlooks Pearl—now, instantly, one of the best be-cool and be-seen spots in all of Boulder.

There’s a big bar. Inexplicably, they’ve painted the old, historic, gorgeous simple exposed brick—though the sperm/eyeball* abstract paintings are lovely, in their way.

*that’s what Laine from NYC and Katelyn of Boulder Ballet, who I was also with last night, decided the paintings represented.

Bradford Heap is doing it right. Where The Kitchen pioneered, many restaurants have followed—farm to table is where it’s at. Slow Food is what it’s all about.

We’ll see if Salt does all the little things the Kitch does so well—supporting small lobster-catchers, local farmers, producing veggie diesel out back, offering eco-responsible to-go ware, cloth napkins instead of paper, CFL lightbulbs (or LED), composting 85% of their trash, powering their electricity via wind…but my hunch is that Salt will walk the sustainability talk, given Bradford’s excellent background and the gorgeous (and even, gosh, occasionally affordable) offerings on the menu

(which, thoughtfully, includes a Tom’s Burger entree).

The staff is pleasant, outgoing, personable and fun. What else… The decor and fixtures and furniture, while luxurious, aren’t as simple and modern as those at the Kitchen, or even Frasca or Mateo or Radda. Salt is more bourgeois, rich, opulent, but not in a bad way.

My Dale’s Pale Ale, a local brew, was great. Laine got a strange, fancy cocktail, and loved it. Her friends got some nice wines. We all had a great time, Bradford himself, all 6 feet 5 inches of him, stopped by and chatted twice, and my pals all declared they’d come back often (except perhaps for Mr. Duzer, who you’ll likely find at Catacombs drinking $3 buck Fat Tire (that said, he’s not a Kitchen/Frasca/Radda/Mateo type guy, either).

Today, I intended to check ’em out with my pal Michael Ramsey for lunch, but got snagged by my dear friends Peggy Markel and Lisa Mills and, ironically, wound up at The (good old) Kitchen for a yummy, veggie, affordable luxury of a lunch.

(Bradford actually stopped by for a meeting I guess, at one point, and asked if I ever worked).

So, I’ll save up a bit*…and hit Salt for dinner. I’ll then report back on the food, service, why it’s called Salt…all that good stuff. For now, I’ll just say that I’m glad this key corner has been gutted, cleaned, opened up (the vast tall windows and new doorway are brilliant), honored (they re-exposed the historic tin ceiling, and thoughtfully left the Tom’s Tavern name on the east outside wall; see photos), and filled with life and laughter and eco-responsibility.

And if you have comments of your own, please do leave them below.

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Waylon Lewis is the founder of elephantjournal.com

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**(I never go out but to Mountain Sun or Sherpa’s or Chipotle, these days, or to get a few groceries at Farmers’ Market or Whole Foods, as I wait for elephantjournal.com online to make 1/10th as much as elephant magazine did. We’ll get there!).

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