Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Sea Salt Needs More Seasoning

By John Birdsall
Tue, Sep 20, 2011 at 7:06 PM

In July, What the Fork reported on new chefs for Sea Salt, the Berkeley seafood place. Longtime chef Anthony Paone had already stepped down, and it became clear that his replacement, Scott Gehring, was sort of an interim guy. You got the feeling the ongoing demands of seven-day service was a recipe for burnout for a single chef. Sure enough, Sea Salt’s parent company — K2 Restaurant Group —- installed two chefs. Chris Keeley took on lunch and brunch, while Thomas Weibull, who’d cheffed across the bay at Plouf, would anchor he dinner shift.

I stopped by for dinner last week, eager to see if Weibull had made changes to the menu. Turns out he hadn’t (significant, direction-shifting ones, anyway). And while the three dishes I tried were pretty good, I walked away wondering if anyone was in charge of the dining room that night.

Sea Salt was a quarter full, max. I sat at the counter, just a few feet from Weibull and a couple of cooks on the open line.

Even me, a single diner seated where I couldn’t help but be in the peripheral vision of servers and cooks, I felt neglected. My fork wasn’t replaced till a few minutes after my entree arrived, and only after I asked for one. None of the cooks acknowledged me, no nod, no smile — hell, not even a smirk. Not that anyone had to, strictly, but still: I felt like they were on the line because they had to be — needed the paycheck — not because anyone appreciated that a customer had taken a seat at an otherwise deserted counter. A few times I felt helpless, not sure where my server was, and sort of invisible.

Not only that, but the cooks joked around, talking random stuff and teasing each other, right under the chef’s nose — he even joked with them. Again, it didn’t necessarily taint the quality of their work, but it seemed sloppy, disrespectful to diners, even. Right about the time the chef pulled out his phone and began texting form the line, I started to fear I was keeping him from hanging out with his buds.

Not that the food wasn’t good: Dungeness crab cakes came with a nicely funky daikon-kimchi salad ($13), and a beautifully seared and absolutely fresh square of Pacific cod, washed by a soy- and mirin-laced broth, with young edamame and pieces of king oyster mushroom ($22). And a plate of squid ($13)was nicely grilled — firm, creamy-centered — thought he gigante beans underneath were a bit mushy, and an almond pesto tasted sweet as Jif.

I’ll be back to see how things shape up as Weibull asserts himself, if he does. And I’m eager to see how things look at brunch, from the customer side of the counter.

Get in touch at John.Birdsall@EastBayExpress.com, and follow me on Twitter @John_Birdsall.

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