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RESTAURANT REVIEW

Saluté Wine Bar in Santa Monica

A great place to snack and chat, but it could be much more.

March 11, 2009|S. IRENE VIRBILA | RESTAURANT CRITIC

Yet another small-plates restaurant without any particular hook seems like such a yawn, so you'll forgive me if I didn't rush out to try Salute Wine Bar in Santa Monica the minute it opened. OK, so the small plates are called piattini ("small plates" in Italian), then what?

A fancy name in no way confers heated interest. Nor does the fact that Salute is a wine bar. Plenty of places dub themselves wine bars without any particular focus on wine.

But one night I was driving down Main Street on my way to another restaurant and realized we were just a block away from Salute. Here's a chance to at least see what it's like, so I pulled over and ran in for a minute.

A couple of young Hollywood types were enjoying a smoke and a martini (martini?) outside. A wide glass door pivoted open on a wildly sociable scene inside. There's no recognizing it as the old Rockenwagner space. Opened up now to loft-like dimensions, the single big room has a high wood ceiling that arches over the restaurant like the roof of an airplane hangar. Low L-shaped couches and leather ottomans are grouped around coffee tables with a handful of regular tables lined up along the north wall.

I took a look at the menu -- salumi, cheese, thin-crusted Neapolitan pizza, a few salads and such, a couple of pastas. Not groundbreaking, but appealing enough, considering how inviting the space is. The rain poured down outside. Why go somewhere else?

I ran out, told the friend I'd left sitting in the car to call my other guest (she wouldn't have left yet) and ask her to meet us here instead. After canceling our other reservation, I ordered a couple glasses of flowery white Apremont from the Savoie in France while we waited for a table and for our friend to show.

A party across the room breaks into the birthday song. A nearby group of film people in from London discusses the fallout from the Oscars. A pair of couples running away from the kids for the night linger over their food. Otherwise, it's girlfriends galore, four or five of whom have drawn bar stools into a circle, so intent on their conversation that the entire scene around them could have disappeared in a puff of smoke and they never would have noticed. Weaving through the room to a (finally) empty sofa, we feel more like guests at a crowded party than paying restaurant-goers. Which is a good thing, because the service isn't all that organized.

Party snacks

And that sense of Salute not quite being a restaurant follows through in the food. The most appealing items are party snacks -- bowls of vivid green castelvetrano and cerignola olives glistening in a slick of olive oil and bruschetta -- toasts topped with a gutsy white bean puree or fresh milky burrata cheese and sea salt or a vinegary sweet caponata made with eggplant and capers. Just the thing with a bottle of Vermentino from Antinori or a Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel.

Top-notch salumi and cheese plates are refreshingly generous. Our salumi plate included prosciutto di Parma, smoky speck (a cured ham from the Alto Adige), finocchiona (a fennel-laced salame from Tuscany), cacciatore (a spicy little salame) and salame Toscana, with a garnish of enough olives that we needn't have ordered a separate bowl. Strewn on top are skinny breadsticks (if only they brought more when you needed them).

Winemakers have a saying, "buy wine on water, sell wine on cheese." That's because cheese disguises any defects, making the wine taste rounder and softer. The largest cheese plate (five selections) would cost an arm and a leg at a fancy cheese shop, but here it's only $16. I've bought a tiny wedge of Roquefort for that price. But Salute is not dishing out slivers of cheese and the choices are first-rate. They've got Mt. Tam from Cowgirl Creamery, and tangy Humboldt Fog from Cypress Grove Chevre, also an Epoisses from Burgundy and a cave-aged Gruyere from Switzerland.

Salads are pretty good too, but not entirely wine-friendly. Perky fresh arugula and watercress salad with shaved fennel is drenched in a slightly sweet pomegranate dressing. Stick with the heirloom beet salad tossed in a walnut vinaigrette: It's a better match with wine.

Dining choices

You could, if you're so inclined, get a full dinner at Salute, and if you ordered the crispy braised duck leg with Taleggio-laced polenta and black kale at $20, you'd likely end up feeling you did pretty well for the price. Chef Cindy Crosbie comes from the Little Nell in Aspen, Colo., and does the duck proud. She's got trendy Kobe beef sliders on the menu too, but I'd ask for them without the balsamic onions (also a wine killer), please.

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