Jeff Smith 4 p.m., Dec. 20
Mussels Wednesday at Saltbox
The mussels stand up to the rest of the menu at this downtown restaurant.
Much has been written about Saltbox (1047 Fifth Avenue, Downtown San Diego, 619-515-3003) since it opened up late-2011 on the second story of the Klimpton-run Hotel Palomar, including a recent review by San Diego Reader’s Ian Pike. However, not much has been said in detail about their mussels. Specifically, I’m referring to the restaurant's $19 Wednesday night all-you-can-eat mussels special, which also includes a beer or glass of wine.
After marveling at the industrial, yet warm décor - a mix of wood, metal and glass - we eagerly ordered the mussels special, specifying our grog of choice. Shortly thereafter, an "amuse" (with no further description) was delivered to our table by a busser. We deciphered the three doughy balls to be beignets, perhaps a homage by Executive Chef Simon Dolinky to his days in New Orleans, but upon further inspection they seemed too dense and flour-y. No matter, we finished the gratis granulated sugar and basil-topped treats with gusto. Upon inquiring with our server about the amuse-bouche, we were happy to discover they were "just doughnuts".
One of my dining companions has a thing for shishito peppers, so they were quickly ordered after she saw them listed on the menu as a side. Even happier she was upon finding out the peppers come from locally-based Suzie’s Farm. The Saltbox restaurant, as a whole, has a locavore attitude - sourcing as many ingredients as possible from San Diego County’s surrounding farms and meat/seafood suppliers. In fact, all of the seafood served at Saltbox is organic and sustainable, the meats and poultry free of hormones and antibiotics.
The shishito peppers ($8) were lightly sautéed, but at a heat high enough to get a good char going on the outside. They were served in a pickled lemon and ginger aioli with lovely crescents of pickled lemon rinds dotting the pepper mound. The peppers were still early in the season so they were milder and less spicy than I am used to, which was much welcomed. They were well-seasoned with the perfect amount of salt ,while the light-tasting aioli balanced the very mild spice of the pepper. My friend called them “delightful” and she was very happy.
A portion of about 20 mussels were delivered in a covered French-crafted Staub cast iron egg-shaped cauldron. The top was lifted for us, a waft of the sea and fennel gladly invading my nostrils. The mussels were steamed in Belgian ale - the broth composed of ginger, orange, and many pieces of the aforementioned fennel. Although the broth was a touch salty in my rarely-ever-use-salt opinion, it was still exceptionally delicious and I found myself more attracted to it as the dinner went on. That diced fennel was cooked into the perfect texture by the liquid and I eagerly spooned the fennel-filled broth onto each meaty mussel to accompany every bite. The glass of white wine that came with the $19 Wednesday mussels special was also the perfect accompaniment.
The mussels were from local Carlsbad Farms but when Carlsbad Farms have their off-months the mussels are procured from a different source. A slate plate with two sourdough rolls from local Sadie Rose bakery accompanied each pot of our locally-sourced mussels. The bread was chewy on the inside, crunchy on the outside – just like a good sourdough should be - and I couldn’t get enough of it. Inside the cauldron, there was a curved stainless steel grating separating about one-fifth of the pot from the mussels. I personally used this area as a bread-marinating chamber, letting that delicious sourdough soak up as much broth as possible. Later we were told by our server that this area was, indeed, used to strain the sauce from the rest of the dish.
My friend and I both had seconds of the mussels, of course, and with it came more of that glorious bread to dip in that addictive broth. Until this second batch of mussels was served to me piping hot, I had failed to notice that my first batch had been served lukewarm. The broth was even better this time around, the mussels tastier – a little heat goes a long way, it would seem.
We were teased by the server when neither of us was able to order a third round. Next time, I told her, next time.