The ambitious packaging of downtown’s hot new knockout, Salt on Mass, began months before its debut. Well in advance of the soft opening and VIP sit-down, the 200-seat seafood-and-steak restaurant anchoring a snazzy mixed-use development along Mass Ave presented itself as a fully formed establishment, in food-styled photos and interior shots showing off floor-to-ceiling windows and a sand-dollar color palette. Then came the social-media videos as polished as Nike ad campaigns: Here was a place where handsomely bearded men laughed over generous pours of wine, bartenders shook rose-colored cocktails, and glistening, sea-salted potatoes slid dramatically from a chef’s seasoned skillet.
It would be nice if such a place existed—a gorgeous lounge of a restaurant with a sure-handed chef and adventurous menu smack-dab in the middle of a buzzy neighborhood. The real-time, no-filter version of Salt that opened in late August only comes close.
It’s a stunner, for sure. Carmel’s MAWR Design (which also did the nearby Pizzology space) wrapped this 3,000-square-foot slip of natural light in white shiplap and bleached-out stone for that luxurious Gulf Coast beach condo look that makes you want to remove your shoes at the door. A long communal booth curves around the room, and the white marble horseshoe bar backs up to a wall of shiny subway tiles with bottles displayed on decorative-pipe shelves. If you slid off your soft, upholstered bar stool after ordering too many grilled-pineapple caipirinhas, you would land on a shimmering polished-concrete floor, looking up at blown-glass pendant lights floating below the exposed ceiling.
Servers are trained to explain that the restaurant is so committed to its fresh-seafood mantra that it doesn’t even have a freezer.
A screen of weathered ropes and a few driftwood knickknacks hint at a nautical theme, which is funny because the entire dining room is basically a human aquarium, glassed in and on display at the busy corner of Massachusetts Avenue and Michigan Street. Passersby cup their faces to the window to peer inside.
As for the food, some of the dishes deliver deliciously on the kind of luxury culinary experience that Salt’s marketing implies. A thick, firm filet of Skuna Bay salmon seasoned with smoked sea salt and orange-blossom honey is grilled on a plank of aromatic alder. Plated with the burnished wood smashed down hard on those photogenic salted baby potatoes, it is clearly the bijou of the table—as pretty in person as it is in the pictures, with a flavor that morphs from sweet to smoky to buttery richness. In another showpiece entrée, grilled Panamanian cobia wears a surprising (but brilliant) topping of cheesy crab and artichoke. Bright and tangy lime-tomato garlic sauce pops against the creaminess of the dip and the fattiness of the delicate white fish. The combination of complex flavors and textures rivals anything you might order at a high-end corporate house of seafood, like Oceanaire or Ocean Prime, both of which managing partner Freddie Knipscheer—one of the restaurant’s six local owners and the only one who doesn’t wish to remain anonymous—considers the Goliaths to Salt’s David. “We are doing what they do, but without the marketing budget or the big corporate means,” says the former professional hockey player who lives in Carmel and was also a managing partner at Prime 47 steakhouse.
“We find out the day before what’s coming in on the boats,” he says. “We work with local vendors for our produce and meats. We’re printing out new menus every day.” It’s a slick operation. Servers are trained to explain that the restaurant is so committed to its fresh-seafood mantra that it doesn’t even have a freezer. They rattle off daily specials that embrace the ebb and flow of their fish supply. One Saturday, they had 150 pounds of amberjack that sold out that same night. The next day, they had halibut. The next day, grouper. Turf options, such as a noble eight-ounce prime filet from Fischer Farms, a wonderful grilled free-range chicken with goat cheese and artichokes swimming in lemon-butter sauce, and lamb with wild-rice risotto and pan jus, are available but mostly irrelevant. The focus here is on surf—from poke “tacos” featuring bright cubes of tuna and seaweed salad stuffed inside wonton shells, to a thick curl of battered and fried Florida red grouper plunked down on a pile of fries.
Sometimes, however, the focus is a little off—as in a $27 order of disjointed lobster macaroni and cheese, featuring cold, paltry scraps of crustacean merely mounded atop a bowl of creamy spiral pasta instead of mixed in and imbued with gooiness, which is the whole point of ordering a ridiculously decadent version of something traditionally eaten off of a TV tray. A much-anticipated order of shrimp-and-grits hushpuppies tasted of nothing but fried dough. We wondered how the same kitchen that sent out, on that very night, an amazing parmesan-crusted and pan-roasted slab of halibut resting on a mound of properly glutinous risotto and finished with a simple lemon-butter sauce could manage to wreck something as basic as a hushpuppy.
The menu’s lapses in consistency aren’t surprising, considering the equally unhinged chef situation during Salt’s first few months. Originally, former Oceanaire toque Neil Andrews helmed the kitchen, replaced barely a month in by Indy seafood expert Kathy Jones, the one-time chef of Iozzo’s Garden of Italy and owner of Junonia Fish Market; she has spent the past three years in Sitka, Alaska. Officially, Jones took over at the beginning of October. Tommy Thompson of Princess Cruise Lines and Hilton Hotels has remained the executive chef since the restaurant opened.
Whether or not a new chef can right the ship, Salt still sits on prime real estate in Indy’s emerging dining landscape. Mass Ave is home to some of the top restaurants in town: Black Market, Pizzology, and Union 50. Salt can ride that tide of critical mass, especially with perks like valet parking (Thursday through Saturday) and themed dinners to correspond with the marquees at Old National Centre.
That’s probably what those anonymous owners are banking on. But if they want to compete with successful and experienced restaurateurs (who don’t do anything anonymously, by the way), Salt will need to do something more than make a big splash.
Fresh seafood and local steaks with sharable starters.
Pan-seared cobia topped with cheesy crab on a base of tomato-butter sauce.
Shared starters $13–$18; sides $8–$10; steak and seafood $20–$50.
SALT ON MASS
505 Massachusetts Ave., 317-638-6565, saltonmass.com
Sun. 4–10 p.m.;
Tues.–Thurs. 4–11 p.m.;
Fri.–Sat. 4 p.m.–midnight.