The Hotel Palomar
1047 Fifth Ave.
Starters $3 to $14
Entrees $12 to $25
Desserts $4 to $10
The Asian and Mexican-inspired menu at Saltbox is energetic and entertaining
Downtown Dining | David Nelson
In the 1970s, white wine pretty much shoved cocktails out of the pre-dinner picture. It has taken spirits a while to battle back, and they have, valiantly, in the shakers of artisan bartenders who concoct cocktails worthy of the best menus in town. At the new Saltbox in the Hotel Palomar at 1047 Fifth Ave., the drinks flow with style as taste-enhancing preludes to Chef Simon Dolinky’s energetic and entertaining menu.
Such appetizers as brisket sliders laced with horseradish and pickled onions as well as beef cheek tacos seasoned with Korean spices, are crafted to appease serious hunger. They make perfect foils to Saltbox specialty cocktails like the Mental Ward, a powerhouse pour of Wild Turkey rye and pomegranate molasses muddled with lime juice and sugar, and the Mindanao Punch, which devilishly shoots a syrup compounded of lime and habañero chilies into a hefty shot of pineapple-infused Flor de Cana Silver rum.
Many of the drinks appear to have been designed with as much attention to detail as Dolinky’s contemporary, Asian and Mexican-accented menu. Those eager to tread the path not taken will rush to down an Off the Beet’en Path, a complicated cocktail based on saffron-scented gin that blushes with beet brine and counters the sweetness of elderflower syrup with Angostura bitters. Yuzu, ginger and “dainzu hibiscus salt” also mix it up in this manic melee of flavors.
Named for the saltbox style dwellings built around downtown over a century ago, the restaurant has an urban look bolstered by an urbane mood and heightened by a sound system that rivals those of good discos, although the music—thankfully—plays at a much lower volume. A friendly, professional staff takes pleasure in advising which of Dolinky’s creations might suit your mood.
The menu overall takes a rather bold, swashbuckling tone. Choices abound, commencing with hand-cut fries with Tabasco-honey aioli (this chef never strolls the easy side of the street); piquantly marinated Castelvetrano olives; and crisp tacos filled with spicy shrimp ceviche and pink moons shaved from watermelon radishes. A selection of starters would make a savory buffet supper for a group of four or more, especially if it included grilled mini-sandwiches of braised short ribs with Manchego cheese; the warm ham and cheese bites (they’re utterly irresistible); and, kitschy but flavorful, lobster corn dogs served with a dip of gingered remoulade sauce.
The menu lightens up with a fine selection of salads that includes an artichoke-bolstered Caesar; a roasted Brussels sprout salad that takes tasty advantage of this suddenly trendy vegetable; and a grilled kale salad sharp with flavors of white anchovies and black olive crostini. Also listed under the menu’s Farm and Garden heading are vegetarian options like butternut squash ravioli with curried walnuts and braised kale, and a gratin of potato dumplings served with a ragout of mushrooms and apples. Seafood offerings similarly take a somewhat lighter touch, and Dolinky decisively nails the sharp flavors required to season a ceviche of buttery bay scallops. Bold spicing similarly makes a wonder of cioppino served with a mini loaf of sourdough and creamy, piquant rouille.
Dolinky plays to meat-eaters with an excellent version of steak-frites, served as it often is in France with a well-reduced sauce of shallots and red wine; a slow-cooked beef short rib uniquely flavored with mango barbecue sauce and coconut Porter; an impressive “hamburguesa” served on a torta bun; and the seductively tender, mustard-and-crumb coated “devil’s chicken.” This one begs to be followed by a dessert able to moderate the mustard, an accomplishment admirably performed by either the butterscotch pudding; the cutesy little box of chocolate churros served with a dip of crème anglaise; or the upside-down polenta cake with candied oranges and whipped cream. Their “campfire s’mores” are messy and fun, and, of course, Dolinky insists on making the marshmallows in-house.