Above: Oysters on the Half Shell with Saltaire signature sauces
Photographs: Gus Cantavero
In the seafood business, it’s not just what you know, but who you know. Saltaire owner, Les Barnes, has personal connections at the Fulton Fish Market that date back fifty-five years. He began shopping the market with his father at age five and guarding the best catch: He recalls how his dad would sit him on top of a tall stack of metal “cans,” each filled with twenty-five pounds of fish, hand him a donut and tell him, “Don’t move until I come back.” Today things are run a bit differently at the market. But Les still procures seafood and whole fish there for his father’s original restaurant, London Lennie’s in Queens, and for Saltaire, which is located in a historic building in Port Chester and named for a favorite oyster from Prince Edward’s Island.
Whether you sample the oysters at the bar or enjoy a full meal in the dining room, this expertise is evident. We started our evening in the spacious bar room, which is inviting enough that many guests also eat dinner here. It’s decorated with framed maritime signal flags and photos of old sea captain,s and houses high-top tables, two flat-screen TVs and a three-sided marble-topped bar with a huge display of fresh seafood on ice in the center.
“The first commandment of the raw bar is, ‘Let me see you shuck,’” says Les.
The bartender here is ready to talk oysters and preps everything in front of you. He gave us a rundown of that day’s selection—there are usually at least a dozen varieties available—and we opted for the big and briny Onset oysters and the smaller, wild Falmouth that paired perfectly with the apple cider mignonette. Other raw-bar options include Jumbo Florida Stone Crabs, Jonah Crab Claws, Chilled Lobster and the “Hook,” “Line” and “Sinker,” towers of assorted seafood, depending on the season.
The main dining room evokes Nantucket or the Cape with its blue-painted wooden booths in the center of the space and colorful nautical charts on the walls. Booths line the perimeter of the room, but we wanted to move to an ordinary table. At first we were told that you need to reserve these in advance, but a few minutes later a hostess granted our request. Menus are printed daily to reflect changes, depending on what’s freshest. We started with one of the four varieties of Mussels in a Pot (with pommes frites), the Smoked Bacon, a hefty portion of plump and very tasty mussels with big pieces of fennel, sundried tomato and a smoky tasting broth—a hearty dish. These mussels are from a Dutch grower in Maine and they’re a must-order for the table. Among the small plates, the Vietnamese shrimp noodles were a surprising and refreshing starter, the cold noodles made from shrimp and flavored with mint and nuoc cham. In addition to classic apps such as steamers and fried clams, Saltaire dabbles in non-seafood starters with a roasted pork belly and hanger steak tartare.
For mains, the Top of the Catch section of the menu is like a seafood mix-and-match, where you choose your favorite with different preparations (seared or grilled) and sauces, as well as from a variety of greens and grains. Halibut with the beurre blanc sauce was decadent, while the grilled yellowfin tuna was best sans sauce, though it came out more rare than we ordered. We swooned over the Atlantic John Dory, a sweet and buttery dish with carrot risotto and cauliflower and garden cress on top. There’s an Italian-style preparation of whole branzino, white and flakey fish with peppers and big pieces of artichoke.
Seafood restaurants and stellar desserts don’t often go hand in hand, but we loved the banana pudding with richness and texture from pieces of chocolate, caramel and brittle; the layered butterscotch cake was another sweet ending.
Service slowed around dessert time—yes, we were deserted at dessert—but eventually the waiter and check appeared. By that time, we were already plotting our next visit to this restaurant well worth its salt.
OWNER, LES BARNES’ FAVORITE DISHES:
Nantucket Bay Scallops, Clam Chowder, Mussels and Soft Shell Crabs. For drinks, he suggests, “Talk to our wine director, there are great gems on the list.”
The restaurant’s building is more than 100 years old and once housed a grain company; during the renovation, an old road was discovered beneath the bathrooms. An adjacent private dining room can seat sixty guests for parties or corporate events.
The Fishinista cocktail, a blend of citrus vodka, Aperol and fresh-squeezed orange juice, is named for the owner’s wife, Beth, who works in the fashion industry.
55 Abendroth Ave. Port Chester
Mon.–Fri. 11:30 a.m.–4 p.m.
Sun.–Mon. 4–9 p.m.
Tues.–Thurs. 4–10:00 p.m.
Fri.–Sat. 4–11 p.m.