These days, it’s commonplace for a chef to let the seasonality and availability of ingredients dictate the dishes he or she serves—and the industry as a whole is better for it. While this is certainly a driving factor for what you’ll see at SaltAir Seafood Kitchen, for executive chef Brandi Key, inspiration for how to serve those ingredients can come from anywhere—a work of art, a color (“I want this entire plate to be green”), or the music of a band named after Lebanon’s capital.
"When I wrote the menu here, I actually listened to Beirut on repeat,” says Key, admitting that it sounds a bit odd. “But if you think about Beirut and how diverse their music is, it helped me write the menu."
Indeed, while Clark Cooper Concept’s other restaurants are primarily focused on a national or regional cuisine—Spanish, Italian, American Southern—SaltAir provides Key with a wider net from which to build its globally influenced, seafood-focused menu.
“For me, if it touches the ocean, it’s free game,” says Key. She’s attracted to the bright, market-driven fare of California, as well as flavors and preparations from Southern Asia, Spain, Italy, the Middle East and other coastal regions of the States.
While about 80 percent of seafood that comes out of SaltAir’s kitchen is sourced from the Gulf, Key, ever on the lookout for great product, keeps her options open. “If I’m able to get a really fantastic fish from Cape Cod that no one has had before, and I feel like it’ll fit and I can give somebody an experience, then I’m going to get [it].”
Late this spring, SaltAir rolled out a new bar menu, offering a curated rotation of small plates, available daily from 4 to 7 p.m. at the roomy, horseshoe bar and on its Kirby-facing patio.
The offerings will consist of seven to ten items daily, with a mix of new dishes depending on what comes in from the market, as well as reliable mainstays, like the vegetarian spring rolls. Wrapped in crispy wonton skins and served alongside a balanced, sweet chile dipping sauce, they’re the best version of what your nostalgia thinks the Chinese-American classic should be.
“The bar menu is a different way that Houston people can dine,” Key explains. “Everyone can do a happy hour. Our wine prices are already set the way that they are so you’re basically drinking at retail anyway.” Indeed, Clark Cooper Concepts is committed to offering most of their wine selections at a reduced markup, making it more appealing to spring for a whole bottle… Or two. “To then have something that’s always changing from a bar feature standpoint is exciting for me.”
Other standouts include lemony marinated white anchovies that are almost joltingly bright with acidity—a good thing. The flavors are Italian, while presentation atop crunchy rice cakes provides a Japanese feel. Savory beef satay sings of ginger and garlic. Hot crab toasts, i.e. buttery lumps of broiled Texas crabmeat atop Japanese milk toast, are happily rich and creamy. A ceviche, classic but well-executed, builds in heat thanks to serrano, encouraging you to linger over it while you sip a tequila-laced beverage.
Each item is under $10, so you can stick to the list for a light meal or, after 5 p.m., mix in items from the dinner menu and raw bar.
General manager Wendy Lambert has geared SaltAir’s wine list selections to elevate the kitchen’s lighter, seafood-heavy fare. About 30 of the 250 wines are offered by the glass. Cocktails also lean light and approachable. The Norwegian, for example, is aquavit-based and muddled with dill and lime; Key notes it pairs swimmingly with the freshness of a shellfish platter.
As the weather heats up, light seafood paired with refreshing libations will be your go-to grub. Groove to some Beirut, head to SaltAir, belly up to the bar and heed Key’s advice: “You don’t have to come here and eat a big grand dinner. Come have some bites and a martini.”
We’ll see you there.