Growing up in New England, the fish market was a regular stop on our way home from school. Pungent aromas from cod or haddock often wafted through our kitchen, and italian seasoned bread crumbs were a staple in the cabinet. It was not until I moved to New York for college that I realized how spoiled my childhood had been. I now know that it costs a pretty penny to prepare the freshest seafood, and unfortunately my well trained, discriminating taste gravitates toward the freshest.
BlackSalt Restaurant in the Palisades neighborhood of DC conjures fond memories of my younger years. I knew it was the perfect location to celebrate Ma Glutie Foodie’s birthday during Ma and Pa’s recent visit to DC. Owners Jeff and Barbara Black are dedicated to providing sustainable fish and seafood from around the world in all of the Black Restaurant Group locations. BlackSalt patrons enter through the fish market, passing by ice beds of shimmering fins and protruding heads. Sister Seitan averted her eyes and held her breath, and Mr. Green Bean scrunched his nose and gave me the “look”. But this night was about Ma and she was going to love it.
It was love at first sight as we were seated in the causal yet elegant dining room and opened our menus to reveal “Happy Birthday” typed across the night’s specials. We popped the prosecco and cozied into our kitchen-view table. Perfect for the mermaid in me, the menu is entirely seafood based, with the exception of one ribeye steak and a vegetarian option upon request. Market features change daily, and additional “just in” catches are announced as if the boat’s just out back. I knew we were in luck when our server mentioned crab cakes and Mr. Green Bean softened his “look”.
As we reviewed the menu’s many extraordinary items with our server, he assured me that any dish that is not already gluten-free can be adapted. He also encouraged me to allow chef Thomas Leonard to prepare something special with my gluten allergy in mind. We started simple with a few table pleasers such as the BlackSalt Ceasar and the chef’s vegetarian appetizer for my gluten-eating family. (Note to all gluten-eating readers: the bread alone is apparently worth the visit. Even my sympathetic family couldn’t silence their exclamations). I lusted over the Atlantic Day Boat Scallops, the Panamonian Cobia Sashimi and the Wild Atlantic Black Sea Bass starters. However, I settled on good ol’ shrimp cocktail, one of the only seafood dishes Mr. Green Bean and I can share. Though expectedly uninspired, the shrimps were cooked just right and the housemade cocktail sauce—with sweet and spicy chunks of fresh tomato—was good enough to eat with a spoon.
For my main entree I gambled on a chef’s choice preparation of sea scallops. As the dish was placed before me and described by the restaurant manager, I grinned at my winnings. Four golden-top, pan seared scallops sat on a bed of julienned carrots and cabbage, sliced confit potato, white bean puree and a sprinkling of pesto. The carrot and cabbage saute was packed with garlic—a favorable ingredient that overstayed it’s welcome the next morning…and the morning after that. I would have appreciated more than the mere smear of white bean puree, and less of the potato that overwhelmed the dish. But the scallops themselves were sublime.
I reached my fork across the table to taste Pa Glutie Foodie’s gluten-free Virginia Rockfish with wild mushrooms, spinach, pearl onion jus and the same confit potato used in my dish. The skin-on filet was meaty and mild. The caramelized mushrooms and pearl onion jus made the dish with slightly sweet hints of maple flavor.
Mr. Green Bean described his two large pan fried crab cakes as “very good, not the best” (after years in Baltimore, this boy is a tough crab when it comes to his cakes). He seemed more excited about the accompanying sauteed green beans. We had a close call when the server initially assured me the crab cakes were 100% gluten-free. Knowing how unusual that would be, Mr. GB and I encouraged the waiter to double check with the chef. Lo and behold, “they just changed the recipe and they are actually not gluten-free”. Nice save. I treaded carefully after that and didn’t dare try Sister Seitan’s mystery veggie bowl. The abundance of greens and absence of any starch got to her mid-way through. She ordered a side of gnocchi and smiled as they arrived fried and crispy.
Any misgivings about dinner were quickly forgotten with the first taste of dessert. The gluten-free Chocolate Chambord Truffle Cake was delivered with a candle and a chocolate drizzle reading “Happy Birthday”. Two triangles of heavenly, fudgey chocolate were balanced with tart raspberry compote and whipped cream. As if that wasn’t enough of a treat, the Trio of Creme Brulee included milk chocolate-hazelnut, white chocolate-raspberry, and butterscotch. The chocolate-hazelnut’s mild sweetness and nutty profile stood out, but all three dishes were licked clean.
Overall BlackSalt Restaurant is a superior establishment in regards to it’s A+ service and availability of the widest variety of fresh catches in the District. I am reminded by our experience to always double check for gluten, even when the server’s confidence encourages my trust. I am also left to wonder how the menu’s pricey figures are determined. While I understand paying top dollar for seafood flown in from halfway around the world, $38 for crab cakes and green beans, and $30 for Sister Seitan’s heap of veggies seems excessive.