The Salt Exchange: small plates, big flavors

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Last week, I lunched at the The Salt Exchange, and I have four words to share: duck sliders, truffle chips. Really, I could end this posting with those words; they’re all you need to know to have a good experience. But let me tell you a bit more about this restaurant on Commercial  Street in Portland.

The Salt Exchange promises: “seasonal, locally-sourced small plates in a West Coast-inspired dining environment that is just as carefully curated as the cuisine.” Sounds good, but what’s that mean?

Let’s start with the space: You enter the bar/lounge that’s open to the kitchen, with bar seating both at the beautiful, locally designed, curved cherry-wood bar and another overlooking the kitchen; nice touch. That area gives way to the adjacent dining room. Floors are wood; ceilings are high, industrial, and lime green; walls are brick (hey, it’s Portland, deal with it). Flavoring the space is local artwork, in shows that change quarterly.

Now the food: Just reading the lunch menu requires a lot of mental tasting and mouth gymnastics as you try to wrap your tastebuds around the possibilities. We each ordered the Business Express Lunch ($15),  which includes a choice of half sandwich (BBQ braised duck sliders with mustard-crème fraîche cole slaw; club sandwich with house-brined roasted turkey, smoked bacon, and onion marmalade; or Blythedale Farm brie sandwich with spinach, Dijon mustard, roasted tomato, peppers and onions) paired with a choice of seasonal soup or farm greens and accompanied by coffee, tea, or soda. An upgrade to a hand-picked Maine lobster salad B.L.T. served on artisan-made bread with applewood bacon is $21. Substituting the house cioppino for the soup or greens is an additional $3.75.

I went with the duck sliders paired with the cioppino; my lunch date chose the brie and the pumpkin-lobster bisque. We  substituted orders of  house-made truffle chips and caper chips for the plain ole regular variety. The chips arrived first, and I would  have munched happily on these all day. The truffle won, but the caper flavor was darn close.

The cioppino was  tasty, if a bit fussy: I was served a bowl of seafood pieces (a Jonah crab claw with the meat extruding from the tip, mussel, fish, etc.) accompanied by a big chunk of grilled sourdough bread, then the waitress poured the spicy broth over it. It was very good, but it didn’t wow me; I’m more a traditionalist. I think next time I’d go with that pumpkin-lobster bisque, which I eyed with envy.

The express lunch came with two duck sliders. Oh. My! Tender, rich, sloppy yet contained by the bun; I ate both, although one would have been sufficient with the soup and chips. Earning equal praise was the brie sandwich. My lunch partner didn’t expect the quality of brie; it was fabulous.

Dining at The Salt Exchange isn’t for those on a tight budge:. The dinner menu lists both hot and cold small plates, at $8-18 each, with the advisement: We recommend you select 3-5 of our small plate selections for a complete dining experience. That can get pricey, very pricey if you don’t want to leave hungry. Either go, splurge, and savor the experience and the professional service, or keep it more wallet friendly by going for lunch, and uttering those four words:  duck sliders, truffle chips. 

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