"SaltAir is essentially a seafood restaurant that takes a culinary journey through the energy and lifestyle of California, a West Coast style of living." Later, he adds, "The whole idea of SaltAir is that you’ve been out in the sun. You’ve been enjoying the California lifestyle. If you’ve been to Cabo, you’ve got that sun-kissed feeling on your skin, you’ve got that salt in the air that’s on your body. You go home, you clean up, you go out to a nice dinner."
"SaltAir is essentially a seafood restaurant that takes a culinary journey through the energy and lifestyle of California, a West Coast style of living."
Formerly the home of Pesce and Brio, the 9,000 square foot space at the corner of West Alabama and Kirby has been completely transformed with a theme of that Cooper calls "relaxed elegance." Just past the entrance, a large U-shaped bar dominates the room.
To the left, a small, lounge-style dining room offers some of the bar's energy but with table seating. The main dining room sits behind the bar and offers a view of the open kitchen. A nearby sunroom offers lots of natural light and a view of Kirby's bustling scene. Cooper says they deliberately chose to avoid any of the hallmarks of typical seafood restaurant design for SaltAir's interior.
"To me, corporate, cheesy restaurants — and I don’t mean that in a bad way — are overly thematic," Cooper says. "If I walk into a seafood restaurant, I don’t need an aquarium to hit me at the front door to let me know I’m in a seafood restaurant or a big display of seafood. I’m not saying that doesn’t work (at other places) — but not for what we’re trying to do."
By design, the bar gives SaltAir a high energy central point and sets the stage for the overall experience. Even at 6 pm on a Wednesday, a crowd of well-dressed future regulars had already arrived to sip cocktails and snack on plates of cold seafood. Eventually, groups of friends make their way to tables in the various dining rooms where they start ordering main entrees and taking advantage of Clark/Cooper's signature wine prices that are sometimes below retail. This movement within the restaurant is exactly what Cooper says he intended for SaltAir.
"It’s kind of an old school thing, but we’re doing it our way. It’s what I think the dining experience should be. Enjoy the whole palate as far as not only the food but also the whole dining experience throughout the restaurant."
California vibe, global seafood
SaltAir doesn't look like a typical seafood restaurant, and that commitment to being different extends to the menu. Chef Brandi Key worked with Cooper and co-owner/chef Charles Clark on a deliberately international approach to sourcing and flavors. "The majority of seafood restaurants in Houston are kind of the same," she says. "They have that theme behind them. Maybe not in decor but in using Gulf Coast seafood. And we use it. I’m not not using Gulf Coast seafood, but it’s packaged in a way that’s a little surprising, you know? It’s a different style than we’ve seen so far."
Entrees are served a la carte, but diners are encouraged to pair them with one or more of the 13 vegetable dishes that Key has created.
That approach begins at the raw bar, which features a selection of raw oysters, crudos and other cold preparations. Exact varieties are listed on a chalkboard menu that hangs over the kitchen and in a supplemental menu that's printed every day. While sister concept Brasserie 19 also features raw dishes, Key notes that SaltAir's approach is very different from that restaurant's French-style approach.
"This is a little more aggressive, because we have so many other options that we can use for crudos, ceviches and other types of raw items. It’s new to our company. We haven’t done anything like this before, but at the same respect, it’s my favorite part of the entire restaurant," Key says. "I want people to see the size of tuna that we’re cutting into cubes and making tartare with, because it really kind of sets the tone for who we are with this concept. Raw seafood and cold seafood done right is one of the most refreshing things I think you can eat."
The portions on dishes like hamachi crudo with sweet onion, Asian pear and shaved foie gras are generous enough to be split between two people, or one person could order a couple for a light meal. Similarly, dishes such as clam fries and calamari, both of which feature a light, crispy batter, are heartier appetizers for the table that serve as a preface to center of plate entrees such as redfish 1/2 shell with Moroccan spices and salsa verde. Land lovers may choose from lamb chops, Cornish hen or beef filet.
Entrees are served a la carte, but diners are encouraged to pair them with one or more of the 13 vegetable dishes that Key has created. Rather than simple sides, Key describes the mix of hot and cold vegetables, grains and starches as standalone dishes with flavors that complement or contrast with the entrees. "I’ve got farmers I’m working with here and other places, hydroponics, things that are the best you can get and letting that be a dish on its own," she says.
For example, rather than serve simple mashed potatoes, SaltAir's smashed potatoes are boiled in salty water and aromatics, then crisped and smashed by hand. "You get the best of both worlds: crunchy skin, cooked all the way through with a little bit of lemon, olive oil and herbs, rosemary, salt and call it a day," Key says.
"This has been the most fun menu to write," she adds later. "We’ve had almost two years of going back and forth, trading pictures and what about this, what about that. It’s just — seafood’s fun."
Judging by the packed house and happy faces on Wednesday night, SaltAir's diners are having fun, too. Even with competition from other high-quality seafood restaurants like Holley's and Peska, SaltAir is already winning fans.
Really liked SaltAir. I think Clark/Cooper have a big hit on their hands.— Alison Cook (@alisoncook) July 16, 2015
I do, too.