Yes, the salt-baked prawns are salty. Though not overly so. And yes, they’re baked. Sort of. And yes, youcould call them prawns, but on our visit their size was closer to a well-endowed shrimp. But as it turns out, this dish transcends its traditional name and classic, labor-intensive preparation. Here (and, we suspect, in most Chinese restaurants), the seafood is tossed with salt and seasonings, then flash fried and baked so everything stays crispy. It’s a dead ringer for the taste of a true salt-baked prawn (coated with salt and baked, the shrimp is then broken out of its salty casing), but this jazzed up version also adds onions and red and green peppers. The mellow salt flavor seeps into the firm flesh of the prawns, even through the second bite, shell included (in this dish, the shell, down to the tail, can be eaten). Chinese food can be overly salty, but this is a dish in which the name belies a light and surprising meal. 6050 Enterprise Parkway, Solon, (440) 248-8836
Mr. Potato Head
Spuds and salt. Two of the most humble, elemental ingredients found in a kitchen pantry. But put them together, in just the right fashion, and you get something else entirely. You get, in my case anyway, an obsession.
Elevated from obliging sidekick to main event, the perfect fry is a prize that needs no company. I dig all kinds of fries, from svelte and brittle matchsticks to fat and cottony wedges. I like them dressed in skins; I adore them completely naked. That is not to say that I haven’t become infatuated with a few favorites lately.
Fried in duck fat, dusted with sea salt, anointed with rosemary and served up in a shiny cocktail shaker, Lola’s skinny fries pretty much set the golden-brown standard. Rosemary also makes an appearance in Bar Cento’s Belgian-style pommes frites, but that’s where the similarities end. Thick as a Cuban and gilded with garlic, these spuds give mayonnaise a reason for being. Leave it to SASAMatsu, the Shaker Square sake bar, to marry fried potatoes with toasted seaweed and dried Japanese peppers. Brilliant!
I’ve also got to direct some props to Lava Lounge, both for its salt-and-pepper-dusted fries and the house-made ketchup (spiked with garlic and pineapple) that rides shotgun. But you can keep your silly sweet potato fries, thank you very much. The texture is all wrong; the snap is absent. And what’s the point of an oven-baked wedge? You might as well order a side of steamed broccoli. But I will make room in my repertoire for the occasional Johnny Mango Caribbean fry, made with the potato’s brother from another mother, the plantain.
It’s one of the more classic moves in cooking: Season meat with salt, throw it on the grill. It’s the kind of act that makes the rest of us pity the vegetarians. But for chef Eric Williams, it’s just the beginning, the strong foundation, the framework from which the rest of the flavors can flow. On his adobo lamb chops, it means balancing hot with cool. Spinach is sautéed with shallots, garlic, raisins and pumpkin seeds, paired with a creamy chèvre guac, then flanked with chops rubbed in vinegar and red chili and drizzled with a jalapeño mustard sauce. But underneath those flavors, tying it all together, is that primeval, finger-licking-good base: salted, grilled meat. 1835 Fulton Road, Cleveland, (216) 694-2122
Squid and Seaweed Salad
With just a dash of imagination, the squid and seaweed salad at SASAMatsu can transport you to a place where the ocean air is bracing and waves crash on sandy shores. Korean-born chef Scott Kim takes his cue from Mother Nature, capitalizing on the natural affinity between sea creature and salty kelp. He adds excitement and complexity with a splash of sesame soy vinaigrette and spicy pickled ginger. To offset the softness of the steamed squid and the chewy consistency of thewakame andhijiki (brown seaweeds), Kim tosses crisp daikon that’s been soaked in ice-cold water. Unlike the seaweed, the radish is moist and juicy, a balance to the salty notes. The real appeal of this preparation lies in its contrasts.13120 Shaker Square, Cleveland, (216) 767-1111
The Salt Cure
Sausage making and meat curing are ancient culinary crafts, age-old ways to preserve food with salt and transform uncooked ingredients into hearty, irresistible edibles. Happily, we have a few modern-day practitioners among us, and their stuffed and aged preparations are stars of restaurant plates. LT
Raw Facts: A pork product also known as blood sausage. Chef Jonathon Sawyer spikes his with cookie spices — cinnamon, nutmeg and star anise — and throws in rice and leeks.
Where to Find It: Bar Cento, on the antipasto appetizer and the liver and onions pizza
Dishing on the Dish: This spreadable pâté is rich with a slightly metallic edge, like spinach.
Raw Facts: Leg of lamb seasoned with cumin, fresh rosemary, lemon thyme, coriander and fennel seeds, hung three to four months
Where to Find It: Dante, on the charcuterie board
Dishing on the Dish: It’s similar in taste and texture to the Italian ham, but with a touch of gaminess.
Raw Facts: Salmon takes an 18-hour cure in a bath of brown sugar, sea salt, cinnamon, allspice, garlic and vinegar.
Where to Find It: Bistro 185, shaved thin and served atop potato pancakes
Dishing on the Dish: Mark Levine does 30 pounds of fish every couple of weeks with this Swedish-style recipe that delivers a dense, silky treat.
Raw Facts: Spicy sausage prepared with ground pork and dried 60 to 80 days. The hot smoky notes come from a combination of ancho, chipotle and pasilla negro chiles.
Where to Find It: Lola, with the daily charcuterie selection
Dishing on the Dish: Michael Symon’s sous chef and CCO (chief curing officer) Nate Sieg achieves just the right relationship between sweet heat and salt.