berkeley food #23: sea salt

2512 San Pablo Ave.
Berkeley, CA 94702

We arrived at Sea Salt early (about quarter to 6) to take advantage of the $1 oysters they offer from 4-6. The restaurant was well put together and felt new, though Les assured me that it has been around in Berkeley since before we arrived. We ordered a dozen oysters (chef’s choice, we ended up with “calm cove”), which were very tasty and came along with the usual horseradish/red sauce and also with a citrus and onion concoction that was quite tasty. We paired them with pints of Scrimshaw pilsner, which was crisp and light with the bready finish I like to see in good pilsners, and which was a great match for sea food. Things only got better from there.

We started with slices of monkfish liver topped with sea urchin (a.k.a. uni) and sturgeon caviar, resting in a pool of cucumber puree with cilantro sprouts. We spent about 20 minutes savoring two slices; it was absurdly good. It pushed all of my “this is awesome sushi” buttons without being corralled into the usual settings you would see these ingredients in at a Japanese place. In our opinion, the combination was transcendent.

We followed this up with a pair of crabcakes coated in a layer of cioppino and another of a rich rouille. The cioppino probably wouldn’t have stood on its own, but that was alright because these crab cakes were definitely in my top-five-ever category. Heavy on the crab, light on filler, perfectly put together (not too dense) and lightly fried, we teased out every bite. The acid in the cioppino was right there to cut the richness when it threatened to be too much.

For the main course we had a vietnamese-style barbecue eel sandwich and grilled walu. We knew we would like the eel, and were pleasantly suprised to be assured when we asked that it was cooked on-site (often it’s just reheated from frozen). The sandwich was filled with onion cilantro, shredded carrots, and slices of jalepeno pepper. It made a great combination, except for the jalepeno. It was raw and quite spicy, and Leslie and I both thought there was too much of it. Leslie got a bite with a huge slice and spent the next five minutes just trying to cool things down enough to appreciate the walu.

We’ve had walu before, but only raw. Another name for it in the sushi world is “butterfish,” which I think gives you the right idea of its essential properties. I was skeptical about subjecting such a great raw fish to the flame, but we were astounded by the characteristics it took on when (absolutely perfectly) grilled. It had a nice metallic meatiness of a carnivorous fish, a perfect amount of char, and was flaky and moist throughout. I dream of someday having the timing and equipment to cook fish so appropriately. Surrounding the walu were some large slabs of “sunchokes,” which I would describe as a mix between an artichoke heart and a potato, and baby leeks, all resting on a puddle of “sauce americaine.” I wouldn’t have thought much of this sauce looking at it or reading it’s name, but it turns out that it’s basically a reduction of lobster, butter, and a bit of flour, and it just kept giving and giving. It helped out the veggies and the fish equally. It was the third example (after the liver and the crab cakes) of the right sauce in the right place to perfect the dish.

Overall, the dinner was outstanding. It definitely outshone the experience I had at its mother restaurant, Lalime’s. Not cheap, but so great that I’m sure we’ll come again on our own dime.

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