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Restaurant or Butcher Shop? 

Salt's Cure keeps the focus on the meat

Thursday, Jan 6 2011
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View more photos in Anne Fishbein's slideshow, "Focus on Meat: Salt's Cure, Restaurant or Butcher Shop?"

In case you were wondering, I too am slightly confused by Salt's Cure, which is an odd thing considering how much time I have lately spent in the narrow, cramped storefront, spying on other people's meat. (The place, which might be considered airy if there were any air, is higher than it is wide.)

There is the question of whether Salt's Cure is a restaurant at all, for one thing, although you will wait 70 minutes for a table on a rainy Sunday, and the establishment does betray certain restaurantlike characteristics.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ANNE FISHBEIN - Tamworth 20-ounce rib chop

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A waiter will hand you a menu when you sit down, but the menu will list only the various cheeses, cured meats and pretzels that may be hanging around on any specific day, and the men and women around you are certainly eating what looks like plates of food. If you call for a reservation, somebody may or may not bother to pick up the phone, and there may or may not be a table, a stool at the counter or room to wait in the space by the wine rack in back.

Chris Phelps and Zak Walters, whose kitchen sticks so far out into the dining area that they might as well be sitting on the stool beside you, cook in a slow, rhythmic, methodical fashion, aware enough of their surroundings that they wheel around from the occasional conversation a split second before the blue marlin overcooks or a seething demiglace becomes no glace at all. It's just them; just two guys, a bar back and an astonishing quantity of meat.

If you didn't know better, or you weren't reading this in the restaurant column instead of in the corner of the paper where the consumer products go, you could almost swear that Salt's Cure was a butcher shop where dining was almost a sideline and the real business of the place was the cutting and preparation of meats.

The charcuterie really is at the center of the place: the thin, ruddy slivers of duck ham that shine like leather jerkins in Rembrandt paintings, the paper-thin slices of cured beef that resemble Italian bresaola, or the salted mutton shoulder.

If you were lucky enough to have dropped into the place in September, you may have tasted the BLT: super-ripe heirloom tomatoes, toast and a pig's worth of the restaurant's thick-cut, sweetly smoky bacon; crisp and sweet, sizzling and cool, salty and gamy and true.

There is a fad at the moment for potted things, soft, fatty, lightly preserved meats prepared and served in lidded jars, and Salt's Cure has them, too — lamb-liver paté and potted duck with blueberries; a strong paté of Tamworth pork liver; a mild, chunky paste of preserved Berkshire pork; and perhaps the best chicken-liver mousse in town, the funkiness tamed with a pit of cream, the texture as fine as expertly prepared foie gras.

With the potted meats, you get a little dish of sweet, house-made mustard and a ring of pickled onion or two. For an extra few bucks there is also the freshly baked pretzel, looking like a weirdly evolved creature from the deep: The fat half is a soft pretzel, the skinny half a thin pretzel — a Mr. and Mrs. Spratt approach to the chewy-crunchy conundrum. It is clear where the allegiances lie.

But there is cooking here beyond the charcuterie plate — simple food, butchers' food, strong food, but real food nonetheless, maybe half a dozen dishes listed on a smeary blackboard high above one end of the dining room. And as you might imagine, apart from a rustic, spicy preparation of steamed mussels with seared tomatoes, and the requisite plate of fish, what you get here is meat: a superior, grass-fed, profoundly aged New York strip steak, deeply charred yet wet, blood-sour inside, with a splash of reduced wine. Or a bit of braised pork shoulder plopped onto a bed of whatever bean seems to strike their fancy. (The Christmas beans a few weeks ago were grand.) Or a ruddy, thick hamburger, also smacked with age, with a glop of melted cheese and a rasher of bacon on a bun baked practically to order. Or a pork chop, a lamb chop or an enormous rib eye for two.

The most popular meal at Salt's Cure is probably the weekend brunch, where you can find cured whitefish on a custom-sourced everything bagel, sweetly dense oatmeal pancakes, insanely butter-drenched cinnamon rolls, silky house-smoked black cod or house-made corned beef hash.

The usual call here is the 2 x 2 x 2, the Salt's Cure answer to a Denny's Grand Slam Breakfast, with two sunny-up eggs, two sausages and two rashers of their magic bacon. Can you get a side of bacon with your oatmeal pancakes? I'm sorry to say, you cannot.

SALT'S CURE: 7494 Santa Monica Blvd., W. Hlywd. (323) 850-SALT, saltscure.com. Breakfast, lunch and dinner Wed.-Mon., Sunday brunch

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