There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Chef Kyle Bailey grew up outside Philadelphia in what he calls a “chicken fingers household” and didn’t eat fish until culinary school. “I was told if you eat seafood, you’ll get a fishbone and choke to death,” says the executive chef and partner of the forthcoming New England-style seafood restaurant The Salt Line. “That’s why we didn’t eat it. It’s dangerous.”
In fact, it wasn’t until a few years ago that he became a fan of oysters, which will be a prime offering at the restaurant located in the Dock 79 development across from Nationals Park. “My mom came to visit, and we took her to Brine in Mosaic [District],” he recalls, noting that she had never tried the briny bivalves. “But we sat there and ate them all, and I had a revelation: I like oysters now.”
Bailey has been heralded locally for his terrestrial cooking, first as the opening executive chef at Birch & Barley, where he’d serve up “beast feasts” featuring meaty dishes like porchetta, and later at Sixth Engine, where he championed whole animal butchery.
But for his next act at The Salt Line, opening June 1 on the Anacostia River, Bailey had some catching up to do. “Never having been to New England, and not knowing much at all, we went to eat at all of these places,” he says. “Why have I never had this food?”
Together with his Long Shot Hospitality partners Gavin Coleman, Paul Holder, and Jeremy Carman, Bailey headed north on several scouting trips. For inspiration, they visited Portland’s Eventide Oyster Co., whose chefs won a James Beard Award this month for their brown butter lobster rolls and glitzy raw bar.
But what made a bigger impression were New England’s roadside fry shacks. Carman was born in Massachusetts before moving to Maine at 12, which qualified him for chief tour guide. “I wanted to show them these institution places that have been around, the original fried clam spots,” he says.
Just because the time-capsuled shacks are casual doesn’t mean they’re cheap. “Seafood is expensive,” Carman says. “You go to these hole-in-the-walls, and people don’t blink at spending $30 on a box of fried clams. But here, people would say that’s so expensive.”
Pricing is something Long Shot Hospitality seriously considered. “We were a little concerned about being labeled overpriced,” Carman says. “But we’re not doing the Siren thing, the Fiola Mare thing,” he continues, referencing two local luxury seafood restaurants. At The Salt Line, he says diners can get a $5 beer, “stuffies,” and still tip their bartender for under $20.
“It’s been an exercise looking at our space and thinking about the New England concept, blue-collar concept,” Carman says. He wants customers to get a good value at the restaurant named for the point in an estuary where salt water meets fresh water. “They’re getting a really fresh product, eating seafood in an unpretentious way.”
The menu includes classics like five-ingredient clam chowder ($6), fried Ipswich clam bellies ($15), and Johnny cakes with smoked trout ($9). In addition to so-called “stuffies”—baked clams dressed with smoked linguica, lemon, breadcrumbs, and parmesan ($8)—there are coddies ($6).
“Coddies are actually a Baltimore thing that date back to when crabcakes became too expensive,” Bailey says. “They’re fried salt cod balls served between two saltines with house-made yellow mustard.”
The lobster rolls took the longest to perfect. “We’ll offer both styles,” Bailey says. “It’s too easy not to, and some days are butter days and some days are mayo days.” A split-top bun overflows with morsels of lobster that will typically come from Maine.
Then there’s more nouveau cuisine like a chilled octopus terrine ($15), mackerel escabeche with blistered asparagus and whipped feta ($15), and uni carbonara featuring bucatini, house-made bacon, ramp greens, grana padano cheese, and sea urchin ($21).
There will be plenty of nostalgic dishes for meat eaters too. Chef de Cuisine Mike O’Brien talks up the Boston roast beef sandwich ($16) because it nods at Kelly’s Roast Beef in Revere Beach, Massachusetts. “It’s warm, shaved, really rare roast beef with cheese, barbecue sauce, and sometimes mayo, other times horseradish,” he says.
Finally, the raw bar will boast a rotating selection of Chesapeake and New England oysters, seafood towers ($75 or $140), and adventurous oyster shooters with dressed oysters atop mini cocktails. Bailey’s wife Tiffany MacIsaac of Buttercream Bakeshop consulted on the desserts, including a banana split.
Despite the casual atmosphere at The Salt Line—even more so at the 125-seat riverfront outdoor bar than in the 110-seat dining room—Bailey is taking sourcing as seriously as some of the nation’s top chefs, including Eric Ripert in New York and Thomas Keller in San Francisco.
They all tap into the Montauk, New York-based organization Dock to Dish, which connects small-scale watermen and their sustainable seafood to restaurants, much like a community supported agriculture program (CSA).
The goals are to minimize the number of “touches” that occur from catch to plate and to eliminate seafood fraud. “The whole premise is built on knowing your fisherman,” Dock to Dish co-founder Sean Barrett says. “Within the industry, there can be smoke and mirrors.”
The Salt Line partnership will mark the organization’s foray into D.C. “Kyle is a badass chef,” Barrett says. “They all want to be farm-to-table, but they end up being farm-to-fable. But Kyle is the real deal.” Bailey will get boxes of whatever fishermen from Annapolis-based Old Line Seafood reel in, positioning him to offer the catches as specials.
But because The Salt Line is a New England-style restaurant, sourcing seafood from there is also a priority. Fortunately, Carman’s parents once owned a seafood distribution company in Maine, and he’s making plans to have Maine lobster, Mahogany clams, Peekytoe crab, and steamers shipped to the restaurant.
In building his team, Bailey sought to hire chefs who share his obsession with sustainable sourcing. In addition to O’Brien, sous chef Mike Haney worked with Bailey at Birch & Barley. All three have since grown matching beards that help them look the part of haggard New England fisherman.
Donato Alvarez, who has been bartending at Sixth Engine, created the beverage list, which is replete with wines that pair well with seafood ($9-$14 by the glass), plus local and New England beers ($5-$11) like Maine’s Oxbow Beer and Rhode Island’s Narragansett.
The cocktails too should feel sentimental. The “Allen’s Flip,” for example, contains Allen’s Coffee Brandy, porter, Amaro Montenegro, egg, and simple syrup ($12). “That brandy is the highest-selling spirit in the state of Maine,” Alvarez says. “They call it the ‘Champagne of Maine.’” Other cocktails include a boozy Fish House Punch ($10) and a Blueberry Cobbler made with bourbon and sherry ($13). Selections of sherry, vermouth, and sake round out the drink menu.
The Salt Line will serve dinner nightly and weekend lunch. The outdoor bar will open at 3 p.m. for happy hour, and the restaurant will open at 5 p.m. Weekend brunch will roll out in the fall.
The restaurant’s proximity to the ballpark means the restaurant will operate if there’s a day game. Which is fitting because Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman is an investor.
The slugger spent his early twenties at another Long Shot Hospitality bar, Town Hall, where he befriended Carman. “It makes sense because it’s right next to the stadium, so there’s an obvious tie-in,” Zimmerman told Y&H in February. “It’s a cool thing to be a part of.”
The Salt Line, 79 Potomac Ave. SE; thesaltline.com