IN early 2016 top class chef Paul Foster launched a crowd-funding campaign to fund his dream of opening a fine dining restaurant that reflected his own particular brand of culinary imagination. His backers clearly knew something we didn’t because an incredible £102,000 was quickly raised and, in March the following year, Salt was born in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Unassumingly nestled in a small Tudor building in Church Street, the restaurant’s reputation for excellence quickly put Salt on the regional foodies’ map. And today it boasts awards as well as pride of place in the Good Food Guide.
Paul has worked at Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons and as head chef at Mallory Court in Warwickshire over the course of a career that began in his teens. He describes his style of cooking as modern British with an emphasis on wild, seasonal ingredients and purity of flavour.
To qualify as a ‘fine dining’ experience it is, of course, all about the food. But first impressions are also important and these I have to say, were good.
Not a fan of stuffy service or overblown gestures, the understated simplicity of whitewashed walls, flagstone floors and minimalistic elegance, coupled with the effortless conviviality of the staff, left me feeling instantly relaxed in unpretentious surroundings.
And then there’s the tiny half-open kitchen at the back which is also a reassuring sign of culinary confidence.
It’s immediately obvious this Salt experience has Paul’s personal touch on everything – both in the kitchen and out – from the bespoke plates themselves (apparently specially sourced and designed) to the masterpieces on them.
And so to the food. . .
My husband and I were invited to sample the seven-course taster menu.
While we pondered the many delights to come, we were treated to some smoked almonds and olives followed by, what I can only describe as the most mouth-watering warm malted bread rolls, with malt-glazed crust. If this was just to get us warmed up, I couldn’t dare to imagine the wow factor which awaited.
Making the most of the all-too-brief asparagus season, Salt’s dish of English asparagus, soured cream, pea salad and lovage proved the perfect introduction to whet our appetites. Deliciously crisp and fresh, it left us craving more. But, with six more courses to follow, taster size portions were the order of the day. I’m a big convert to this little and often approach - a wonderful way to sample as many excellent dishes as possible in one sitting!
Then came the first of two fish courses in the form of John Dory, dill emulsion, oyster and cucumber. Stunning flavour and texture combinations that really made the most of the finest ingredients.
This was followed by what proved to be one of my favourite forays of the night – Cooked carrot in chicken fat, crispy chicken skin and pickled carrot. The description doesn’t come close to doing this dish justice. Carrot in chicken fat. Who’d have thought it. Trust me on this one! Divine.
The single best thing about tasting menus? You’re putting yourselves entirely in the hands of the experts. I was led into trying new recipes I would never have chosen from an a la carte menu – many of which I would now happily make a beeline for in the future. I had been enlightened in my culinary education and even relished the fish dishes. (I’m not really a big fish eater.)
One ingredient I would definitely not have chosen is Quail. But the BBQ Norfolk Quail, shallot, green olive and pistachio was a delight, as was the second fish dish which was to follow, Roast Cornish cod, seaweed, wild garlic and hen of the wood. (Or you can opt at this juncture instead for Otterburn mangalitza beef with Jersey royals cooked in smoked bone marrow.
British cheeses served with apple chutney and lavoche bread is an optional extra which, for a supplement of between £8 and £12 you may decide is a rather pricey addition. A delicious palette cleanser though nonetheless before the menu turns to sweeter incentives.
Here again is where blind faith in the chef pays huge dividends in the guise of two of the most exciting - and creative - desserts I have tasted in a long time – Baked yoghurt with mint oil, buttermilk and shortbread and, then, Valrhona chocolate cream with sea buckthorn and pumpkin seeds.
Helping to wash down these delicacies are a flight of fine wines selected from the restaurant’s extensive rack to complement each dish. The origin and flavours of each label were described upon serving. It was my only regret that I had to exercise a degree of restraint as it was a ‘school night.’ But for the connoisseur, this wine pairing menu option is worth the extra £42 on top of the fixed £65 tasting menu price.
And when we’d washed down our coffees and were just coming to terms with the realisation of approaching taxi time, a final treat arrives at our table – a glazed choux pastry bun filled with cream sweetened by a syrup flavoured with Douglas fir pine. Another new terrific taste experience.
Sorry, but you can keep your petit fours! What a high to end on.
There is also an a la carte menu (three courses for £45 and two courses for £37) within which some of the above feature, but check the website at salt-restaurant.co.uk for seasonal menu variations.
All in all, in a town almost overcrowded by restaurants, this little gem manages to shine among the brightest of them all.
Stripped back sophistication at its most honest – and a credit to the chef who made his dream a triumphant reality. A visit here genuinely is. . . Such stuff as dreams are made on.
Since this was published, Salt has gone on to be awarded a Michelin star.