The wildly popular Salt Air was purchased several years ago by talented restaurateurs Eric and Norman Sugrue. Together these guys operate what is quite possibly the largest square footage of restaurant space in downtown Rehoboth Beach, as Salt Air joins Big Fish Grill, Summer House and the brand-new as of spring 2014 Crab House in the lineup at Big Fish Restaurant Group. I'll tell you this right up front: Salt Air regularly changes many items on their menu, so use this article only as a guide. Our experience has shown that no matter what they replace with what, that it's all quite good. So govern yourself accordingly!
Salt Air is back to its old self again. It's busy, upbeat, noisy and fun. Collisions with servers, guests transporting martini glasses (with mixed success!) in the narrow entrance area are de rigueur and are definitely part of the Salt Air experience. A busy, fully open kitchen leaves nothing to the imagination, and a cute table reservation system texts you when your table is ready. The close-by Confucius, Henlopen City Oyster House, Stoney Lonen and Papa Grande's were certainly holding their own, but now there's even more life at that end of Wilmington Avenue where all 5 eateries are quite literally next-door neighbors. For some reason that makes me very happy. There. I shared.
Eric and Norm kept the Salt Air “picnic” concept originally envisioned by original owner Jonathan Spivak and the late Matt Haley (in a consulting role only). And well they should have. Again, note: The menu changes regularly, so some of the following items may not be on this season's lineup.
The festivities begin with a basket of toasted flatbread accompanied by a spread consisting mainly of chevre. A hint of blue cheese suggests other ingredients too. The flatbread was quite good, but the all-important bread/spread ratio is a bit off. We needed more cheese spread, and I suspect they would have brought more if we had asked.
You can't start without the Crab Deviled Eggs (it's late May 2016 and I've had them 5 times since this was originally written!). Served 4 to a plate, they are creamy and not too crabby. A dash of Old Bay kicks them up perfectly. I also like to get the marinated olives and sort of pace them over the meal, using them as little exclamation marks as the dinner progresses.
The Angus Burger Sliders are simple and good. The generous portion could serve as a meal for the dainty. All of these are in the clever “Snack Bar” area of the menu, which includes Roasted Almonds (a Haley favorite), Chilled Prawns and a delicious little plate of Sardines and Crackers.
There are clever little touches everywhere, like the Boardwalk Fries (in peanut oil, of course) served with little ramekins of ketchup and malt vinegar. They march out of the kitchen sticking boldly out of a miniature version of a Thrasher's-style tub. It's even got the Salt Air logo on it. Another surprise is the Old Bay & Chipotle Roasted Wings, punctuated by slices of pickled pepper. Wing lovers will appreciate the crunchy, charred finish.
Salt Air joins a(Muse.) with their own version of “Bacon and Egg.” The Sugrues use pork belly and a duck egg. It is quite good, with not too much fat on the bacon. Our egg was perfectly done both times.
Every one of our early visits to Salt Air included the Yankee Gumbo, sporting massive chunks of chorizo and crab. At the risk of sounding like I'm on Sugrue's payroll, it was simply delicious. They are not shy with the spice, and I even took a second photo just to show you all the sausage. Put it in a bowl with a hunk of bread and it's a meal.
Another photogenic (and equally delicious) starter is the Roasted Beet Salad. Bright yellow beets (who wooda thought?) are topped with a whipped goat-cheese topping, not unlike what was paired with the preprandial flatbread amuse.
Another wonderful menu feature carried over into this reincarnation is the ability to choose between a dinner or side portion of the salads. Salads are a science at Big Fish Grill, and that apparently applies also to Salt Air. As far as I am concerned, the Kitchen Sink Salad, evenly chopped and bathed in avocado dressing, is the star of that leafy show.
Salt Air Salmon1/26 Summer screwdrivers2/26 flatbread & cheese app3/26 Salt Air4/26 look at all the stuff in that gumbo!5/26 The bar6/26 Crab Cakes7/26 Shrimp & Grits kicked up a few notches8/26 The Sliders Three9/26 It just looked so good…10/26 The wings. Delicious.11/26 The Salt Air Boardwalk fries12/26 Beet Salad13/26 The busy open kitchen14/26 A discerning diner lovin' the kids' menu15/26 More Yankee Gumbo16/26 Duck Flatbread17/26 The Shrimp Fry18/26 Bacon jalapeno cheddar frittata19/26 WOW! Nice buns.20/26 Milton scrapple. You're in Delaware. Try it.21/26 scrambled with gravy and brown butter sausage22/26 Tater Tot casserole with Italian sausage!23/26 The eggs. Deviled.24/26 View from the kitchen window seats25/26 The bolognese over pappardelle. Possibly the star of the show.26/26
One of my favorites at the original Salt Air was the Shrimp and Grits. When I wrote reviews of that dish served elsewhere, it wasn't easy finding the right words to politely say that Salt Air's were the best. Grilled asparagus spears top this incarnation of the dish, and history repeats itself. It is full of flavor, not too “soupy” or buttery (a problem elsewhere) and the shrimp were perfectly cooked.
Salmon is one of the stars at Big Fish Grill, and it is again sharing center stage at Salt Air. The Scottish Salmon (you can tell by the tiny plaid beret) basks in a sea of corn, peach and arugula salad. The sweet jalapeño glaze imparts the tiniest amount of heat and forms a mouthwatering char on the massive portion of fish.
On each visit, at least one diner ordered the Pan Fried Soft Shell Crabs, none the least of which, myself. I had heard negative things about the accompanying hushpuppies, but for us they were perfectly crunchy every time. As of this writing, the place has only been open about a month, so perhaps that was part of the inescapable growing pains. Like Soft Shells? Get these. The bed of succotash pairs perfectly with the crunchy crustacean.
I can't finish without mentioning the crab cakes. Served with those dark and peanutty boardwalk fries and a crunchy cabbage slaw, they are firmly packed with crabmeat. The binder is nicely spiced, but not so much as to drown out the delicate taste of the crab. I know everybody has their own preference when it comes to crab cakes, but do try these. A quick, golden sear on both sides gives them a buttery crispness.
Two other offerings on the “Ocean” menu include the Almond Crusted Mahi perched atop a pile of mashers and the Seared Scallops with that nutty succotash. Both are quite delicious and equally good over several visits.
Salt Air used to serve a dish called the “Chicken Feast,” which I loved, in spite of the fact that it was occasionally ever-so-slightly underdone. The new Salt Air has renamed it the Organic 1/2 Chicken. The skin is just as tight and crispy as its predecessor, and it was cooked all the way to the bone. Thanks, guys. Sometimes you just need a plain ol' chicken, and this one fills the bill.
This will be the first review where I mention a kids' menu. But something has to be said about the kids' menu at Salt Air. It's refreshingly clever, without all the chicken-finger and hot dog nonsense. Get this: A Grilled Fish Filet, Roasted Chicken Breast, and … (wait for it) … a Grilled Petit Filet Mignon. These, along with a kid's burger/fries and a bowl of pasta with Parmesan, range from $7 to $13, and are served with fresh fruit. On one of our visits, we were lucky to be in the presence of a diner who is well-versed at being a kid, and he loved the rather classy choices. He ended up with the Angus Sliders from the adult menu, thank you.
UPDATE! It's after midnight, but I have to tell you about a couple of adds to the menu. One is the Pappardelle Bolognese. Simple but excitingly tasty. The other is the duck/onion flatbread. I posted a photo because I had to show it to you. And it tastes as good as it looks.
We now return you to our program already in progress:
I think long and hard before I rate a restaurant at a 4-stars or higher. But several factors influenced my decision. (1) The menu is cleverly laid out and offers a wide variety of items, large, small and in-between. And for lack of better words, it's just stuff you like to eat. (2) During each of our visits, the service was very good, especially our most recent when we were waited on by the very funny, clever and efficient Trisha. (3) Extra touches include the unusual kids menu, the Salt Air logo tubs for the fries, other cool-looking logo stuff, the well-appointed physical plant and the straight-ahead no-nonsense preparation and consistency of the food. These factors really left us no choice. I guard my stars very closely, and we will continue to return in hopes that this level of quality will continue. The ratings will always reflect the most recent visit. These people are professionals and we expect no less from them.
I am of the opinion that Salt Air is back, with a vengeance. I have driven by several items a week and it's been crowded every time. Local artwork graces the bar, the kitchen is fun to watch, the staff is upbeat and helpful. All this adds up to success.
All's well that ends well. Jonathan is free of the ties that bind, Nino is doing … whatever…, and Big Fish Restaurant Group is doing what they do best: running a big, noisy, beachy and reasonably priced eatery with consistently good food and service.
Salt Air is at 50 Wilmington Avenue, directly across from Confucius Gourmet Chinese. They do take reservations (302) 227-3744. As of this writing, they are open 5-9, but expect longer hours as they settle down. Click here to take a look at a sample menu. (D., Bar) Price Range: Moderate +.
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Special thanks to Arlene Carmel (our young diner's Bubbe) for the photos of the wings, the salmon, the sliders and the water jar.