At Salt's Cure, an endearing new WeHo restaurant, the server brings out a wooden board with a few of the cured and smoked items we've chosen from the day's short printed menu. There's a deep red, thinly sliced duck ham that seems to concentrate the rich slightly gamey taste of the duck breast, and a slab of nicely textured pork liver pâté. And some potted pork, a close relative of rillettes, to spread on house-made crackers.
Though the skinny crackers are crunchy and delicious, you can also ask for bread, and you should — thick slices are cut from a huge country loaf sitting at the end of the counter. That would be next to the hand coffee grinder. No electric burr grinder for these guys: Chef-owners Chris Phelps and Zak Walters are die-hard purists. And in this context, that's a good thing.
The young duo have a good amount of experience. Phelps has been cooking since he was 15 and here in L.A. has worked at Canelé and the Hungry Cat, while Walters has been sous-chef at both the Hungry Cat and Cube. Those credentials give a good indication of where their hearts lie, which is with small farmers and purveyors, straight-ahead flavors and simple presentation.
Salt's Cure isn't a big place. When the tables are all taken, guests perch on stools at the bar, which looks into the open kitchen where the two chefs are cooking hard and fast. A boxing ring comes to mind. Watch a little while: They don't take the easy road — with anything.
Everything that can be made in-house, they're making it — bread, crackers, pickles, smoked fish, charcuterie, sausages, bacon. And that's just for starters. Consider Salt's Cure a restaurant in progress, which follows the chefs' enthusiasms and passions with an ever-changing, reasonably priced menu. The vibe is friendly and engaged, laid back and unhurried, which could make A-types impatient but maybe be welcome to the rest of us who relish a conversation with friends over dinner.
For me, the charcuterie and smoked fish are a big draw. Every time I go, there's always a slightly different array of items, and they really taste homemade. Nothing looks as if it is issued from a fancy commercial charcuterie. Cured meats and terrines or pâtés are rustic and plain, hardly beauty queens, but the taste is definitely present.
At times, you might want to turn your meal into a homegrown version of tapas. Another option: Order a bowl of deep-flavored butternut squash or mushroom soup and a pretty butter lettuce salad from the small menu chalked on the blackboard.
But you can also have something more substantial. An excellent bacon cheeseburger with strips of bacon laid across the top is a regular main course and comes with a heap of golden fries that puts the Astro Burger across the street to shame. And if you're wondering, the bacon is cured in-house and is thick-cut and salty-sweet. I loved the braised pork shoulder with heirloom shelling beans too.
This is the kind of food that's easier to find in Portland, Ore., than in L.A. — rugged, satisfying and pulling no punches with the flavor. The kind of dishes that seem to go well with a bottle of craft brew or a sturdy red Rhone or Central Coast Pinot. Especially if you've got the giant 20-ounce Tamworth pork chop in your sights. Lightly charred, rosy on the inside, this is some great pork, tailor-made for sides like the fresh buttery mashed potatoes or roasted baby broccoli, and perfect for sharing.
Roasted half chicken, dry-aged New York strip steak, leg of lamb — they're all good. Meat is carefully sourced (they get in half or whole animals and break them down). There are only a few fish dishes offered, just one or two a night, but every one I've tried has been straightforward and delicious.
Waiters here are invested in seeing the place do well and seem truly concerned that you're enjoying the food. I enjoy the mix of characters who show up for dinner — Hollywood types in suits, scruffy techs and actors, couples enjoying a night out without the baby.
The space is pretty bare-bones, high-ceilinged, washed with light in the daytime through a tall arched window. It's a small restaurant with an open kitchen and tables lined up along the brick wall, just 30 or so seats in all. The art consists of photos of animal shapes — a cow, a fish, a piglet — pressed into salt. The original idea was to have a butcher case where customers could buy fresh and prepared cuts of meat from the small local ranchers and farmers who supply the restaurant. That's on hold for the moment.
Lunch at Salt's Cure offers another excuse for that bacon cheeseburger, a pulled pork sandwich or a classic ham and cheese made with their own ham and a Winchester Farms aged Gouda. I gravitate, though, to the sausage roll — how many places make their own sausages? This one is a classic country sausage spurting juices and slid into a soft bun with a mess of sautéed padron peppers and onions. Terrific. Sometimes, there's also a roast beef dip sandwich with a spunky jus. And when tomatoes are at their height, BLT. Have any of them with an order of fragile homemade potato chips doused with a little vinegar.
Brunch is a good bet too. Get the "2+2+2," two eggs any which way with two slices of that fine house-cured bacon and two patties of lean house-made chorizo, along with a flaky pale biscuit. Biscuits! I'm so glad to see them reappearing on breakfast and brunch menus again.
Instead of lox, they serve lightly smoked black cod with crème fraîche, pickled shallots and rectangular handmade crackers. Don't overlook the baked goods from pastry chef Naomi Shim, especially the tall slice of classic coffeecake laced with sugar, cinnamon and walnuts. She has the touch, whether she's baking scones or lovely little tartlets.
Salt's Cure belongs to a new order of restaurants from young chefs committed to natural ingredients, butchery and a can-do-everything philosophy, the culinary equivalent of the crafts movement. At times, it can be a little ragged around the edges. Not every dish works every time. There are occasional glitches in service. But there's such a sense of passion and the desire to do well, to offer honest food at honest prices, that in the end, Salt's Cure is capable of winning over even the most die-hard skeptic.
RATING: Two stars
LOCATION: 7494 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood; (323) 850-7258; http://www.saltscure.com.
PRICE: Cured menu, $7 to $18; cheese plates, $5 to $13; dinner starters, $7 to $15; plates, $15 to $29; a la carte, $21 to $34, sides, $5; dessert, $3 to $6; brunch items, $9 to $16. Lunch sandwiches, $8 to $11; sides, $3; desserts, $3 to $5. Wine and beer. Corkage fee, $15; one bottle waived for every bottle you buy.
DETAILS: Open for lunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday and Wednesday to Friday; for dinner 5:30 to 11 p.m. Wednesday to Monday. And for brunch 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Free parking across the street at dinner and brunch; otherwise, street parking.
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.