Salt Mining in Two Canadian Cities:So Diem be Carped

With the exponential increase in eateries across the country, it’s not surprising that many have similar names.  For example, whether you go to St. Thomas or Toronto you are sure to come across Harry’s Grill or something describing a view of a lake, a river of some other body of water. So it’s not surprising that Salt, one of the world’s most popular and coveting seasonings (and its misuse is the reason 80 percent of people are kicked off  Top Chef), has resulted in namesake restaurants in cities such as Vancouver, Toronto and Ottawa.  In the last couple of months, I have visited the latter two establishments. Despite the similar names, they are markedly different.  Toronto’s Salt features taps from the Iberian peninsula.  Salt Dining and Lounge in Ottawa, on the other hand, is a little more Canadiana, with a strong focus on music, wine and steak.  In particular, they boast a steady stream of Waygu A5 100 day steaks for up to a cool $150 for an 8 oz strip.

Over the past number of months, I managed to hit both locations during my travels. With a steady flow of Portuguese  Qunita Das Maias white wine in the  background  (which was a significant upgrade from the Mateus I used to sneak sips of from my mother’s single bottle wine cellar on the top shelf of the fridge), we feasted on an array of small plates.  The jamon serrano ($12) and 5 cheese tray ($28) was a safe start.  The cheese was an array of manchego among others. This was followed up with my absolute go to when it comes to anything tapas…patatas bravas.  Their rendition was reminiscent of my time in Barcelona..simple but delicious.  Not surprisingly, most of the remainder of the meal was seafood heavy including a delicious sea bream ceviche (freshened with cucumber, avocado and pineapple) ($14), crab cakes with avocado and piri piri aoili ($17), prawns with a corn salsa ($15)  and grilled octopus with fingerling potatoes and romesco sauce ($18).  The transition to land was facilitated by a unique surf and turf starring lobster and pork belly.  Although it was good, I was really excited and was a little let down. The transition to land was completed with meatballs and BBQ ribs both of which were decent.

Ottawa’s Salt, on the other hand, was quite a bit different. Instead of rustic and woody, this Salt was roomy and elegant and adorned with large marble tables.  In fact, the table we were seated at was quite large and almost made for difficult conversation.  For the appetizers, the favorites were the tomato tartare ($15) and root vegetable salad $14).  They were polar opposites; the tartare was fresh and elegant and the salad was sweet and earthy. Both were delicious.  I’m a scientist by nature and I was intrigued to compare (in a non-blinded way unfortunately) a $39 filet with a $125 waygu strip.I also had 4 other dinner guests to help me.  The waygu was beyond rich and the one or so ounce I had was more than enough.  Most of the table agreed and in the end, although the waygu was quite satisfying, most agreed they would be happy with a filet at a third of the price. I was also intrigued by the chicken and pork belly served with rice. I normally steer clear of rice heavy dishes but I was promised that this rice was of incredible quality and actually worth more than the proteins.  In the end, it was still rice and there was a lot of it.

For dessert, we stuck with savory and ordered a busy cheese tray served with compotes, fruit and pickled veg. It was a little odd for a dessert course…I would have thought that an omission of pickled onions would have prudent post meal but it was easy enough, although wasteful to leave them there.

Cheese Tray $23

My Take  

As mentioned, Salt Toronto vs Salt Ottawa are two different experiences. Salt Toronto has managed to stay alive in the turnstile that is Ossington Avenue for well over half a decade.  Salt Ottawa, on the other hand, is still in it’s infancy with a birth along Preston Street in 2014.  Toronto will offer you a pseudo-Iberian experience complete with traditional tapas dished modernized from both a taste and visual perspective.  Ottawa, on the other hand, is more a regal destination complete with large, spacious tables and hunks of steak including the pricey and legendary waygu from Japan. Both destinations might run you a pretty penny (remember salt was as valuable as gold at one point in history) depending on your affinity for alcohol and whether past encounters with Mateus haven’t permanently scarred you into indulging on Portuguese wine.  The need to do behavioral science experiments based on a $125 steak may play a role as well.

I suppose having numerous restaurants named salt across the company is in line with the ubiquitous use of sodium in the same establishments. Although far from a franchise, I am compelled to seek other eateries with  NaCl nomenclature for at minimum a covalent comparison.

Salt Wine Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Salt Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Signs: Where Ordering a Beer Looks like a Ralph Macchio Impression

When I heard the name Signs I wondered if long-haired freaky people could apply or whether I needed a membership care to get inside.  As I looked more into the restaurant, I found myself humming the five man electrical band lyrics out loud.  Signs is another of a number of emerging restaurants which attempt to bring different humanitarian efforts into the kitchen.  With restaurants like Paintbox and Hawthorne, which work on skills training (the former focuses on training and career path opportunities for  people in the Regent Park area) and O.Noir, (whose theme is an awareness and  employment of the blind by serving food in the dark), Signs provides career opportunities and growth for the Deaf in the hospitality industry.

Upon arrival you are greeted by a hostess who explains the process:  You are served by somebody who is deaf and you sign your order using the prompts outlined on the menu.  Sounds easy…it’s not. I’m the kind of guy who has struggled with every map and instruction manual ever made.  This effort was no different. Take the beer list for example.  I attempted to order a $9 cracked canoe using gestures that looked like Ralph Macchio cleaning Pat Morita’s car.  The waiter sort of laughed and showed me the correct way; you simply make a zigzag with your finger to symbolize “cracked” and simulate paddling a canoe.

The decor is clean and fresh and the walls are lined with posters demonstrating how to sign letters of the alphabet along with a few important words including important potent potables such as Whisky and Vodka.

For dinner, I started with the $5 soup of the day (chicken and spinach I believe) which I once again failed sign properly and in my panic forgot to take a picture of.  It was well-balanced and not overly salty.

For an entree I decided on the chicken piri-piri for $28. To order it, you had to sign a chicken (which is like giving yourself a beak) and signal the heat sign which is like making a fanning motion in front of your mouth.  It was a bit slow to arrive and when it did, it was pretty average.  It had moderate spice and was served with blandish roasted vegetables and a sweet potato side.  The plate was very orange and looked a bit like a Halloween hangover.

Chicken Piri-Piri $28
Chicken Piri-Piri $28

For dessert, I decided against the 30 minute apple crisp (they offer a 30 minute dessert they bake from scratch nightly) that the rest of the table ordered and opted  for the $9 Nutella Tiramisu instead.  Once again, it was average at best although I enjoyed that despite using sickly sweet nutella, the use of cocoa powder among other things managed to keep it from turning it into a cloying confection.

Nutella Tiramisu $9
Shaky pic of Nutella Tiramisu $9

My Take

Located on Yonge near Wellesley, Signs is definitely more of a tourist destination than one for a foodie.  It gets good reviews on yelp and urbanspoon and is ranked 15th among over 6000 restaurants in Toronto on Tripadvisor.  The space is large, roomy and clean and the staff are kind and courteous.  There is humility when you order, especially if you have no spatial reasoning capabilities. The food is average at best but in the end didn’t necessarily diminish the experience. You also pay for the experience.  A pint of cracked canoe is a whopping $9 and the chicken piri piri was $28.  At least you can get a bowl of good soup for $5.

Signs is a mix of tourism and novelty sprinkled with hints of decent food  In the end, is a humbling reminder that not everybody can hear bacon sizzle, hum Five Man Electrical Band or listen to Peter Cetera sign about the Glory of Love while the Karate Kid courts his girl with moves that look like me trying to order a pint of beer.

Signs Restaurant on Urbanspoon