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Take This With a Dash of Salt

January 27, 2012

It’s hard to complain about a $20 three-course meal at a nice restaurant. Not to say it can’t be done. I’ve been to a handful of restaurant week dinners in the region and haven’t been terribly impressed with any of them.

My intentions for the FLB have been to keep it separate from restaurant reviews. Those are mostly reserved for Yelp. In a few days I hope to post a review there on the food I ate at MezzaNotte last night. Instead today, I’m going to focus on one larger issue about restaurants that was inspired by my meal.

Overall, I was pleased with the experience. It was a decent value at half the restaurant’s normal prices. But in many ways the food was lacking. Still, I was impressed with the entrée. The chef had the guts to go without a vegetable on the plate, and the confidence to be simple with clean bright flavors. In this town, that’s really notable.

However, the fish along with most everything else I was served, was under seasoned. Fortunately, there was a shaker of salt on the table. But this turns out to be a double-edged sword. Does a shaker of salt belong on the table at a restaurant of this stature? You know, one with white linens where the plurality of entrées cost $24.

The argument against the shaker is that food should come out of the kitchen perfectly seasoned. There should be no need for adjustments made at the table. From a cooking perspective, salt works better in the kitchen than at the table. As food is cooking, this critical seasoning helps to bring the flavors together and create a savory undercurrent to a dish. Sprinkling the stuff on top of food that’s already cooked is a Hail Mary to try and perk up something bland.

Thus, saltshakers are not routinely found on the table at many of the world’s top restaurants.

It should be noted that I don’t particularly have a salt-tooth, or a sweet-tooth for that matter. Mine is more of a fat-tooth. And I almost never reach for the salt at a restaurant. If anything, most restaurants tend to use generous amounts of the stuff in their cooking. Some like Capital City Gastropub occasionally go too far and cross the line from savory into salty.

At MezzaNotte the gnocchi absolutely required salt. It was billed as, “Chestnut and winter squash gnocchi in a buttery sage sauce”. I did not ask for more details on the dish, and simply assumed it was the gnocchi that were made from chestnuts and squash (in addition to potato). But in reality, it was potato-ricotta gnocchi in a sweet squash and sage butter sauce with chestnut pieces and shallots.

It was sweet. Not sweet as in awesome or cool, but sweet as in sugary. And despite having additional grating of Parmesan, the dish needed salt to bring it into balance. The upside is that once the gnocchi were salted, they were pretty light, and tasty.

Now, had the saltshaker not been on the table, I would have needed to ask for it. If this had been a restaurant that prides itself on producing perfectly seasoned food, then this action of requesting salt might have raised a red flag. It may have also initiated one of those awkward but sometimes-helpful conversations between the restaurant and a displeased customer.

In this case I was glad that the salt was on the table, because I really didn’t feel like having that conversation. Especially since for the price, the food was fine. Had I been paying retail for the gnocchi, it may have played out differently.

Still, I have a problem with a shaker of salt that lives on every table in a nice restaurant. It seems to me an implied commitment to under seasoning the food. Either that or it’s an indictment of a restaurant’s patrons, assuming they will only be happy if they can over season their food with salt.

Diners and casual places are different. I don’t expect them to operate at the same level. But part of expert preparation that justifies high-end restaurant prices is producing food that is well seasoned. When it comes to the table it should require nothing. Not fresh cracked pepper, not grated cheese, and certainly not salt.

Thanks for hearing me out. I feel a bit better now.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. January 27, 2012 12:55 pm

    (You knew I’d be all over this post.)

    The availability of the salt shaker and underseasoned food is sometimes justified by the chefs with the excuse that “some people have to limit their salt.” I watch a lot of TV shows about food, and one that I regularly watch is Restaurant: Impossible with Robert Irvine. In one episode, I recall he was served a plate of pasta that was beautifully executed, but that it was flat because they didn’t add salt. He questioned the chef, and the chef asked, “what if they can’t have salt?” His response: “Then they’ll tell you…”

    I haven’t been there in a while, but, based on past meals, I certainly believe that the food at Mezzanotte should come out requiring no additional seasoning. With a dish as described above, there are multiple layers of flavor in which a lack of seasoning would completely throw the balance off. You have your gnocchi them self (and I would hope they were homemade), you have the water to boil your gnocchi, you have your “sauce.” Underseasoning at each of those stages is certainly a missed opportunity to make the food pop.

    Adding table salt at the table is certainly not equivalent to adding it in layers, and that’s not even touching the chemistry of the difference between iodized table salt and other salts utilized in kitchens.

  2. January 27, 2012 1:04 pm

    I find that as much as I try not to use the salt shaker, certain foods almost always require it, no matter where I’m eating, and I get annoyed when there isn’t a shaker (and usually don’t want to ask for one). Either every place always under-salts their vegetable sides, or I must like them a little saltier than most.

  3. January 27, 2012 1:06 pm

    I noticed salt and pepper on the tables at New World Bistro – a place known for it’s terrific seasonings.

  4. Awesomedude permalink
    January 27, 2012 1:31 pm

    Nope- food being salted while cooked and prepared is vastly different than salting after food has been served. Y’all wrong- a good restaurant does not have a salt shaker. Also, salt is good for you, limiting salt is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of. If you season with the right amount of salt you never have to worry about eating too much salt. blah blah blah diabetes and stuff…work out…don’t eat crap…you can eat as much salt as you want.

    Not to mention table salt doesn’t even taste good. Grey salt, kosher salt, sea salt, Salzburg salt…that’s all I use…table salt…well…maybe for some baking recipes…but…bleh…if you have to season with table salt after food has been served then the chef did something wrong.

  5. January 27, 2012 1:33 pm

    I vehemently disagree with this. Salt is a matter of taste. We all have different tastes and different palates. What is salty to you may barely register to me. The chef is no different. What is correctly seasoned to his or her taste may be lacking to mine. Salt is a flavor enhancer and if it didn’t add anything to already cooked food, why would people use finishing salts?

    You must have noted that most recipes end with, salt to taste…the taste part is subjective.

    The whole absence of salt at the table is a relatively new trend and I wish it would stop.

  6. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    January 27, 2012 1:43 pm

    I prefer having the salt on the table; if the food is well-seasoned, I won’t use it, but I hate to ask for it. Speaking of hate, I can’t stand Italian squash dishes–they always seem too much like dessert to me.

  7. Amy permalink
    January 27, 2012 2:24 pm

    I do watch what I eat, exercise regularly, am of normal weight, and yet I have high blood pressure due to bad genes. I don’t use a lot of salt in my food at home, to the point that you would probably find it bland. But I also am not so restricted in my sodium intake that I would ever consider asking a restaurant to limit the amount of salt they put in my food. But because I have gotten used to food with lower salt, I find most restaurant foods to taste very salty. I know it must be just me because my dining companions usually don’t notice it being overly salty. So I would appreciate a restaurant that holds back on the salt. But I know that other people, particularly smokers who have killed all their tastebuds, need to have a lot of salt in their food to make it taste good to them. So what’s a chef to do? Well, it’s easier to add less salt and put a salt shaker on the table than it is to deal with a lot of dishes coming back to the kitchen for being too salty. It’s not as if they can pull the salt out of the finished dish.

  8. January 27, 2012 2:33 pm

    I agree completely with jenh718. Salt is definitely a matter of taste. I’ve got the biggest sweet tooth of anyone I know, and can do without salt in nearly everything. My parents, on the other hand, add salt to everything, even already-salted french fries! (Egads). Last night I didn’t think salt was missing at all in anything (also did not even notice the salt shaker). I enjoyed the gnocchi I tasted (again probably because it was sweet) and LOVED the bite of lemon risotto, which I saw AJ add salt to as well. I didn’t think it was missing at all. Given this, I discount those in the restaurant biz who say its done to keep things low-sodium for the sake of health-conscious people.

    That being said, I do agree the food was underseasoned on the whole. While I enjoyed my Fazzoletti con Coniglio, it was quite bland. But I suppose that’s a comment for another day.

  9. Crystal permalink
    January 27, 2012 2:39 pm

    There’s no saltshaker on my dining room table. I don’t get many complaints about my cooking, but I always offer complainers the option of preparing the next dinner if they don’t like what is being served. Oddly, I’ve never been taken up on my offer. I agree, seasoning food is done in the kitchen.

  10. Tonia permalink
    January 27, 2012 2:49 pm

    I cook a lot and agree that salt (and seasonings) should be added progressively as you cook. But, I also like salty. I agree with Jen and Mr. Sunshine that salt is subjective.

    To comment on NWBB…although there are shakers on the table, (not that I noticed, only because of the above comment), I never have added any seasoning to my food there.

    Furthermore, at the end of the day, what does it hurt if there is a shaker on the table or not? Really. Who cares. If this is all we have to worry about, then life is good, I would say. :-)

  11. January 27, 2012 3:59 pm

    Put the salt shaker on the table. Making people have to ask for it, because you assume they know exactly how their food should be seasoned, is pure arrogance.

  12. January 27, 2012 4:47 pm

    I almost never add salt to my food at restaurants (I’m trying to think of the last time I did, and I can’t). While it’s true we need a certain amount of salt to balance things out, I wouldn’t say salt is “good” for us. I know some people like things more salty, so I suppose having the shaker there for them is convenient. But why stop there? Maybe I like more herbs too, so add oregano and garlic to the–and btw, your restaurant just turned into a pizzeria.

    One pet peeve of mine is when I observe restaurant patrons salting their food before tasting it.

    Again, not being a salt person myself, I don’t have that disappointment (at the taste) when I bite into food or the desire to add my own salt. So it’s hard for me to judge.

  13. Awesomedude permalink
    January 27, 2012 7:54 pm

    no- food is not subject to subjective judgments- food is good or it is not. If you think Ferran Adria needs to put just a smidgen more salt on whatever magic he conjures, your taste buds are incorrect, faulty, wrong, not the chef.

    the above comments are exactly why Subway wins best submarine shop in the TU poll…

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