Don't Dis the Depths 

Berkeley's Sea Salt gives its maritime ingredients the proper respect.

Last week I spent a day at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where the boundary between the human world and the ocean world seems to dissipate. I kept thinking I could reach out to stroke the tiger sharks and sea turtles a foot away.

But even as I swayed with the kelp forest and tickled the starfish, a less dreamy part of my brain was guiltily making lists. Anchovies, tuna, sand dabs: tried 'em all. Skate: with brown butter and capers, yum. Limpet: Heard it was good, but how would I prepare it? I wasn't the only one, either. After an hour of staring at living seafood, my boyfriend leaned over to whisper, "I'm hungry."

There's a new breed of seafood-focused restaurants -- Fish in Sausalito, Pearl in Oakland, and now Sea Salt in Berkley -- that share this dualistic love for the water's bounty. Their approach: Catch it right, cook it righteously.

At Sea Salt, chef Anthony Paone, veteran of Fonda and Cafe Rouge, and chef of the upcoming T-Rex, treats Columbia River sturgeon with reverence, grilling the meaty fish to stripe the fillet with smoke and char, yet leaving the center the palest, moistest shade of pink. Across the top he spoons a bit of aioli -- just enough for unctuousness -- and then mounds a toasty salsa of almonds, green olives, and orange zest on top. Roasted baby artichokes and cherry tomatoes surround the fish. His take on the crab cake keeps the Dungeness front and center, binding thick flakes of just-picked meat with the minimum of breadcrumbs and other filler. The demure flavor of the cakes is sustained by summery "gazpacho vegetables," a salsa of finely diced gold tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, and onions, their flavors pure and muted, not pumped up with citrus and herbs.

Six weeks into its existence, Sea Salt, on the increasingly chichi-fied corner of San Pablo and Dwight, already manages to fill up on a Monday night. Its instant success is testament to the pull of owners Haig Krikorian and Cindy Lalime Krikorian, founders of the Lalime's family of restaurants (Lalime's, Jimmy Bean's, Fonda Solana), and another stop in what is turning out to be a good month in the life of a restaurant critic.

I've been awaiting the opening of the Krikorians' new barbecue joint, T-Rex, for months, so I was a little baffled to hear they were responsible for Sea Salt. So was Cindy, actually. According to the missus, their new landlord offered the San Pablo Avenue space to Haig Krikorian; Haig got excited and talked to the staff, who got excited, too. On the advice of the Krikorians' daughter, though, no one told Cindy until the deal was done. "We don't need another restaurant!" she still says, laughing, but when her husband showed her their new place, she fell in love with it, too. A quick bout of redecorating and Sea Salt opened in early July. Timeline from handshake to grand opening: a jaw-dropping two months.

Cafe Tululah, Sea Salt's predecessor, was always a stylish place to brunch, all exposed brick and sunlight. The room has the equivalent of good bone structure, and so the Krikorians seem to have merely given it a new gown. There's no mistaking the marine theme, with wavelike prints set on pale blue walls and a giant fish twisted out of orange wire hanging from the ceiling, but it's far from kitschy. The walls are lined with tables, low and high, and bigger parties or late arrivals can sit at thick wooden "communal" tables in the center of the room. And if you want to exchange a few words with the chef during his down time, park yourself at the counter separating the open kitchen from the diners.

Sea Salt's menu contains unlabeled groups of dishes -- a few salads here, three sandwiches there, steamed mollusks clustering together -- and the restaurant deliberately blurs the border between small and large plates. Literally: Our $11 mussels steamed with sweet peppers and marjoram came in a wok-like serving dish that made all of the other plates look like saucers. (The mussels themselves were as wee as steamer clams. We left some in the bowl, instead dredging thick chunks of toasted bread, smoky from the grill, through the broth until none remained.) By contrast, the $18 sturgeon arrived on a salad-size plate, tricking the eye into thinking it wasn't as substantial as it turned out to be.

The Lalime's commitment to service is all there -- waiters are backed by a swirl of busers and food runners -- but the servers haven't yet found their finesse. My first-visit waiter did a lovely job of shepherding a steady flow of small plates. On my second visit, though, the waitress wasn't paying proper attention; she failed to notice that the oysters hadn't come out until the entrées were about to arrive, and she let heavy and light dishes arrive together in clumps. I love the small-plates format, but it requires more diligence on the part of the waitstaff than remembering to fire a table's entrées once they've delivered appetizers. More understandably, since the wine and beer license was granted between my first and second visits, she wasn't yet familiar with Sea Salt's smart and wide-ranging wine list, the whites divided into cutesy but practical categories like "easy and breezy" (shellfish-friendly) and "bluewater flavors" (richer and better suited to meatier, oilier fish).

At his best, Paone haunts you, creating dishes as subtle and ever-changing as the sea. A tuna tartare, diced yellowtail tuna, pink and pearly, was mixed with orange zest, basil, black olives, and olive oil, but just enough of each to flutter on the palate. Thin slices of heirloom tomatoes were splashed with olive oil and sherry vinegar, the soft clouds of fromage blanc on top a luxurious touch. Even simpler, chunks of perfectly steamed lobster were mixed with butter and gently pressed between soft white halves of a "torpedo roll" for a straightforward interpretation of Maine's state dish, the lobster roll. A few chips, a little cabbage slaw, and that was all it needed.

Actually, the kitchen stumbled most when it tried for big blasts of flavor. The "peel and eat" unshelled prawns were slathered in a thick chile puree and set atop pools of guacamole and salsa, all of which did more to my napkin, hands, and shirt than to my palate. On another instance, a dozen marvelous baby squid, grilled so their blackening became a sort of spice, were laid on top a nutty Mexican pumpkinseed sauce. It was a brilliant idea, but oddly the sauce didn't have enough depth or brightness to match the squid. Same thing with one dessert -- a mousse-cake hybrid of chocolate, almond, and caramel was oomph on a spoon, as was the herbaceous mint ice cream, but the two great tastes did not go together. A coconut-milk panna cotta, however, combined with the surrounding caramelized pineapple in pure, sweet harmony.

It's the big picture that counts most, though, and looking back on the two meals, I realize the kitchen didn't serve us a single piece of overcooked or undercooked seafood, which demonstrates a real mark of respect for the ingredients.

See? You can love something and eat it, too.

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