Salt Ayre Bistro in Ventnor manages to be both upscale and casual. (Read, bejeweled flip-flops for her and Tommy Bahama shirts for him.)
The cash-only restaurant offers fresh ingredients such as oysters, organic chicken and sustainable seafood, served in an intimate room with a nice vibe. Reservations are recommended, as Salt Ayre has just 10 tables inside and four on the sidewalk.
The scene includes dove gray walls accented with one white brick wall, track lighting, framed black and white photos and light wood floors. White tablecloths are covered with waxed brown paper, emblematic of the mix between elegant and funky here.
The music is hip but unobtrusive. The place can become a bit noisy when full, but because relatively few people fit inside, it’s not overpowering.
Our meal began with warm, rosemary-herbed bread and soft butter, served on a small blackboard trimmed in wood. The bread was an immediate hit, with excellent flavor, texture and crust. We pointed out that the wood was separating from the blackboard and our hostess took it all away, presumably to give us a more stable tray. After waiting a while for the it to return, we asked, and she said the bread was “in the oven.” Fresh bread on an intact tray showed up fairly quickly after that.
In the meantime, we attacked our appetizers.
The Salt Ayre salad ($8) was an impressive amount of iceberg lettuce, chopped into bite-size pieces, with a ton of fresh-crumbled applewood bacon, bleu cheese and grilled red onions in a delicious buttermilk-poppy seed dressing. We might have supersized it and made it an entree — it’s that good and satisfying.
Crab and avocado aioli tartine ($12) was very tasty but had only one piece of jumbo lump crab on each round of toasted artisan bread. This seemed a bit shy for the price. The flavors of the avocado, garlicky aioli and a small slice of red onion harmonized well atop the excellent toast
Salt Ayre features fresh oysters on the half shell at market prices. On the night we were there, oysters from Prince Edward Island were among the selections. Shrimp cocktail is $12.
The daily special was bouillabaisse with shrimp, fish and mussels in a tomato saffron broth for $24.
Entrees range in price from a Bistro Burger ($13), fresh ground chuck on a brioche with Vermont cheddar, caramelized onions, lettuce, tomato and hand-cut fries; to Shredded Bbq Chicken with sherry-scented, roasted creamed corn ($19); to Veal Milanese ($24), a veal cutlet topped with arugula and tomatoes and dressed with balsamic vinegar, fresh lemon and grated reggiano cheese. If you don’t want meat, there’s Gigi’s Whole Wheat Spaghetti ($16), with cherry tomatoes, basil, garlic, mushrooms, spinach, olives, roasted red peppers and goat cheese.
We ordered Steak Frites ($23) and were rewarded with a New York strip steak that was perfectly cooked to order and looked every inch the 12 ounces promised. The “special sauce” tasted remarkably like Worcestershire with barbecue sauce added, which was OK. But it didn’t seem like something you couldn’t easily throw together at home. The frites were excellent: hand cut, well-seasoned and plenty of them. They arrived in just the right amount of doneness — crisp on the outside, soft inside.
Lemon Sole (or soul, as the check had it) was $20. And this fish had soul — flaky, lightly dredged in flour and broiled perfectly. The large filet was lightly juiced with lemon, which didn’t overpower the delicate white fish. The entree came with nicely grilled asparagus and rice, tomatoes and artichokes.
“One of the best in a long time,” announced my dining companion, who is a fish aficionado.
There was no salt or pepper on our table, and really, none was needed. We noticed small shakers on other tables, though, and cracked black pepper was offered for the salad.
Sides are $6 each, and include grilled asparagus with bleu cheese, sautéed mushrooms and onions, creamed spinach, hand-cut fries and broccoli rabe.
Both our entrees were accompanied with enough vegetables and starch that no extra sides were needed, a value we appreciated.
Desserts are $7 and all are homemade except the ice cream, our waiter said.
A great, sugar-flecked pie crust encased rather small blueberries in a filling that was a little gooey for our taste. But the fresh flavors still popped. Chocolate torte was cake and slightly grainy mousse, but the chocolate ganache icing was superb. Large blueberries (bigger than those in the pie) garnished the torte. Powdered sugar finished both plates.
Service was well-intentioned and mostly well-executed. There were a few missteps, perhaps owing to the fact there were just two waiters and a hostess jumping in to bus tables and deliver food. Water refills were offered only at the end of meal and our coffee was entirely forgotten. We suffered a long lag at the end of the meal, waiting for a bill and then change. But that merely put a small dent in a very enjoyable evening.
Being able to bring one’s own choice of beer or wine is a plus in our book, and the staff was attentive to set-ups and opening the wine. If you’re not interested in bringing your own, available beverages include soda, iced tea, La Colombe coffee, San Pellegrino sparkling mineral water and Panna Spring Water.
Parking on the street could be an issue on busy summer weekends, but we found a place nearby after negotiating several one-way streets heading the wrong way for us. Leave an extra few minutes to find parking before your reservation time.
Dinner begins 5:30, with no closing time specified. Small places are often flexible on when they stop serving, depending on demand. Salt Ayre is open Tuesdays to Sundays in season. We recommend you call to check on hours/days, especially in the fall — the experience is worth it.
Morgan Tyler is the pseudonym of a southern New Jersey food writer. Write to Tyler c/o Taste Editor Felicia Compian at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ratings guide: 4 stars, extraordinary; 3 stars, excellent; 2 stars, good; 1 star, fair; 0 stars, poor.