Meat is what you should eat at Saltwood

Let’s start with the name: Saltwood. I’m a little obsessed with it. It’s not an actual thing, Saltwood, yet the word is instantly evocative. If it were a tree, I imagine it would be silver and craggy. It would smell like the ocean, or perhaps peat.

But, how is Saltwood as an eatery? At its best, the food has an earthy, rustic depth that makes you feel like you’re eating it in a drafty cottage by the sea, maybe in front of a fiery hearth. The flip side is you wish you weren’t eating it where you are, which is in an awkward corner of the Loews Atlanta Hotel lobby in Midtown.

To get in and out of Saltwood on a recent Saturday night, we had to pass through the lobby bar, where a wall of booze glowed and stylish quaffers crackled with energy — going-out energy. Very few, it seemed, were staying in with us.

Next, we passed the charcutier, looking lonely as she sawed away at sausages and a sour cherry batard in a subway-tiled bar. The bar was surrounded by a counter and eight cushy chairs, angled for appeal. There were no takers.

The very large dining room had banquet-hall carpeting and lighting that, in an effort to illuminate an impressively chalked-up blackboard wall, glared harshly. Between this vast box and the chilly charcuterie bar, there was a dark, sexy little nook. The hostess clearly knew this is the only appealing spot in the house, since it was where she seated us and almost every other diner. (Good thing there weren’t too many of us.) Its golden-lit coziness suited the food that was to come.

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Meat is what you should eat at Saltwood. A soup-cup of batter-fried oysters, a fried whole snapper with a trio of Asian-light dipping sauces, a bitter-chocolate-laced bread pudding — they were all fine. But the menu’s meaty elements were the only ones that sang. They were good enough to make us forgive our somewhat strange surroundings, a server who seemed lost, a limited menu of mostly small plates, and some unsubtle cocktails like the medicinal-tasting, raspberry-spiked Mongolian Mule.

Our server was so enthusiastic about the flatbread of the day that we ordered it, even though it featured peaches in late September. Once it arrived, I was enthusiastic about it, too. We’d been warned about Saltwood’s small portions (and, indeed, we saw a diminutive $21 rib-eye going to another table), yet this $7 dish was so massive it hung over the edge of the rustic carving board on which it was served.

The bread itself was shockingly cold and chewy. But everything on top of that cardboard was divine, except for the predictably tasteless peaches. (I’ve been told the fall menu will be in place by the time you read this.) There was a generous schmear of fine housemade ricotta, plump olives, a pile of arugula with some serious salt-and-lemon zing and sweet, salty, not-gamey-in-the-slightest prosciutto.

It was some of the best I’ve had, and it came from a leg with cred; the showily racked ham in the charcuterie bar still sported bristles around the ankle. I’m not surprised, given that Saltwood has an offal section on the menu called Blood, Guts & Glory.

We let the charcutier choose our plate and received Spotted Trotter salami shaved impossibly thin and smoked venison sausage. The latter was so spicily flavorful I wanted to stop at a nibble, but couldn’t.

Also on the board were two delightfully stinky local cheeses, cracked-pepper-sprinkled honey, a berry preserve and hot mustard. They were all harmonious, all delicious enough to demand finger-dipping. The only disappointment was the accompanying cold grilled bread.

(Come to think of it, Saltwood seems to have a bread problem across the board. Every table was supposed to receive complimentary parkerhouse rolls with Banner butter. I watched other tables get theirs. I even asked our server if we could have some. But, alas, they never arrived.)

Next, we had an incredibly earthy tagliatelle. It was rich and redolent of port and mushrooms, and with generous chunks of tender, tasty veal cheek. It is hard to make a dish with such lovely balance and without heaviness or gaminess. Saltwood pulled it off.

The same was true of the “signature” roasted duck sausage. While the meat’s texture was a bit mealy, its flavor was amazing. It was bathed in a bright pickled onion vinaigrette and veggies that included slightly undercooked eggplant but otherwise were silky and delicious.

It’s no surprise that this autumnal dish, one of many that celebrate elemental meats and pungent accoutrements, is this restaurant’s centerpiece. It tasted the way the word Saltwood sounds.

It’s only because of transcendent meat dishes like those that I hope this quirky little corner of the Loews hotel sticks around.

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