The original Salt’s Cure in West Hollywood was an odd kind of restaurant, one that tended to slip your mind when recalling favorite places to eat but one that — if you did happen to find yourself there — made you wonder why you didn’t think of it more often. Brunch was a bit of an exception; Salt’s Cure and its glorious oatmeal griddle cakes always turned up on “best brunch” lists, and the competition on a Sunday morning to snag a seat in the small dining room on Santa Monica Boulevard was fierce.
But dinner was not as much of an event, which may have been in part because the place was a little difficult to categorize. The term “open kitchen” is perhaps too formal to describe the setup that chefs Chris Phelps and Zak Walters had in the old location. It was more that the room itself was a kitchen, and customers sat either at the kitchen counter or at tables along the wall. It had the feel of an old-fashioned lunch counter, the kind without any kitsch, where guys cooked food in front of you and handed it across the pass to the customers themselves. Except here the food — ordered from a sparse chalkboard menu mounted on the wall — was mainly high-quality meat butchered in-house and served simply but with a touch of cleverness in its accompaniments and execution. A list of mainly natural wines (years before that trend truly took root) rounded out the experience. Even after the place became an all-day affair, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner, it never lost the feel that it could just up and vanish one day.
Rather than vanish, Salt’s Cure moved a few miles east into a more conventional space. While about double the size of its original 34 seats, the new Salt’s Cure still feels modest in this age of dining rooms so big they can hardly be called “rooms” at all (there’s a reason “space” has become ubiquitous in food writing and PR, and it’s not only because we’re all desperate for synonyms for “restaurant”).
At the new Salt’s Cure, honey-colored wood dominates, the walls are whitewashed brick, and big windows open out onto Highland Avenue. It has the feel of a bistro, albeit an American one with a sort of sleek rusticism.
The kitchen now functions from behind swinging doors rather than out in the open, and there’s a real bar where you can eat or drink and where an expanded drinks program operates, one that retains its focus on interesting wines (with a much longer list) but now includes cocktails. Really, really good cocktails. If you’ve never fully understood the allure of a Singapore sling, having only had horribly sweet versions, the bar at Salt’s Cure is a fine place to reverse that particular prejudice. The original cocktails, too, tend to be balanced and elegant.
The menu, which comes on paper instead of a blackboard, is longer and far more verbose, with actual descriptions of the dishes. The blackboard still exists, though, residing beside the front door, and on it you’ll find the day’s steaks and chops, offerings from the whole-animal butchering that is the heart of this restaurant.
Along with prime cuts of beef, which are big and tangy and fantastic, you might find something called “pork secret,” a small, seared cut of pork so tender you’ll be happy to eat it medium rare. Or a lamb loin chop, a cross-section of muscles that’s bouncy and bloody and musky and returns you to your base carnivorous state, tearing at the meat like a wolf.
The regular menu tends to focus on the byproducts of the butchery, as well as seafood and salads. A fat, white sausage with a lovely, smooth consistency comes with poached apples and sauerkraut, an example of the way Phelps and Walters are able to translate classic cooking, in this case German sausage-making. They channel the country cooking of France with pork pâté over a slice of crisp apple on hearty wheat toast, and there are hints of Spain in the wide dish of clams with hunks of nubbly lamb sausage. A generous slice of grilled bread at the bottom of the bowl soaks up the meaty/oceanic juices.
Beyond the subtle international influences, there are dishes that are purely New American and produce-driven. Pork ham confit — shredded, pleasingly oily slivers of piggy ham — is paired with a jumble of greens over some kind of puree. One night it was a bitter-edged rapini puree; another night, grassy green pea took the limelight.
The brunch here retains its crown as one of the best in town, though service tends to be slower and more disorganized during the daytime weekend hours. It can take 20 minutes to get a cocktail, and certain items run out within an hour of the 10 a.m. opening time. But those oatmeal griddle cakes are as good as ever, hearty yet light and crisped at the edges.
I had a few things at Salt’s Cure, during one dinner in particular, where the seasoning was way off: where the pickled escarole atop rosy chicken liver toast was so salty it obliterated the creamy liver; where a salad of baby beets, baby kale and cultured cream was too salty to eat; where a special of fried smelts lacked salt and became floppy and wet too quickly (usually, I can eat the crispy little fish like popcorn). Even the grapefruit pie, one of the restaurant’s longtime signature dishes, lacked the pithy grapefruit flavor that gave it its sweet/sour/bitter magic.
This experience was singular, and on return visits some of the dishes that had been awash in salt were balanced and lovely. I’m going with the benefit of the doubt here; all kitchens have an off night. This kitchen, in my experience, has far more nights where it’s doing just about everything right.
In this sense, not much has changed about the soul of this restaurant, despite the more orthodox room and menu and service. For the restaurant’s ongoing legacy and its business model, these changes are probably good, and for the most part they’re surface differences.
But I’d like to take a brief moment to be a little sad at the passing of the old model. That terse blackboard menu, the semipermanent feel of the room, the intimacy of sitting right at the edge of the kitchen — it had an audacity and purity of personality that I found refreshing.
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But if I’m being honest, this new, reinvented Salt’s Cure is more likely to come to mind when I get that oft-repeated question: “Where should I eat in Hollywood?” If that question ever plagues you, try to remember Salt’s Cure. It won’t be that hard.
SALT’S CURE | Three stars | 1155 N. Highland Ave., Hollywood | (323) 465-7258 | saltscure.com | Dinner: Nightly, 6-11 p.m. (bar open until midnight). Brunch, Sat. & Sun., 10 a.m.-3 p.m. | Entrees, $18-$34, much more for market-price steaks | Full bar | Valet and street parking