Washington restaurateur Jeff Black has been in the news a bit lately, but the attention hasn’t entirely focused on his food. For this week’s Bar Food Bites, I posted up at Black’s casual seafoodery, BlackSalt, to see if the popular boutique oyster happy hour is still high-grade.
Folks like me—-the kind with advanced culinary impulsivity—-are easy prey to BlackSalt. Though the restaurant sits nondescript on MacArthur Boulevard in the Palisades, one step inside reveals a contrasting picture. To get to the bar and dining room, you have to pass through a bright and usually busy fish market that will render whatever defenses you thought you had useless. The fish is as fresh and beautiful as you’ll get anywhere in D.C., and fish stock, seafood salad, cheese, coffee, pastries, sauces, and spices crowd the shelves around the counter.
If you’re able to navigate the entry area without just tossing your wallet to the fishmonger, you’ll reach the long bar area, where people scrum for open high chairs and the handful of four tops along the wall. Drinks are mandatory for retaining sanity while watching other people slurp tray after tray of oysters. I finished a 16-ounce Brooklyn Lager and my wife had a champagne cocktail with angostura bitters, both $5, during the wait.
We dispatched two dozen salty and spotless Barcat oysters almost before we finished sitting down at the bar. The dollar-per-shell price at happy hour (4-7 p.m. on weekdays and 4-6 p.m. on weekends) made them all the more delicious, but good as they were, my mind was already somewhere else on executive chef Thomas Leonard‘s bar menu.
If your noble aim is to taste as much of BlackSalt’s fresh fish as possible in one dish, the Provencale seafood stew ($10) will help you realize it. The version I had was packed with the perfectly cooked bounty of the fish counter—salmon, swordfish, tuna, tilapia, calamari, shrimp, mussels—in tomato broth. I admit to being a little disappointed that the broth wasn’t as rich and fishy as in visits past, but I find it hard to go wrong with the dish. It remains one of my favorite bowls in the city.
Other items on the bar menu are pretty good, too, including the fish and chips ($8) and the various mussels ($8), but I tend to eat them only when I’m feeling self-destructive. To keep your bill below the century mark, it’s worth sticking to oysters, beer, and stew. But even that’s not foolproof against a spending spree. I picked up bottles of quality fish sauce, sweet soy, and Sriracha on the way out. A bag of dark chocolate toffee and a peanut butter cookie also found their way into my hands before I paid. BlackSalt can be an evil master if you are powerless when faced with the freshest seafood and gourmet goods.
Here is BlackSalt’s Provencale Seafood Stew recipe, courtesy of Chef Leonard:
Provencal Seafood Stew
1 tablespoon chopped shallots
1 teaspoon chopped garlic
1 teaspoon chopped parsley
2 oz. tomato concasse
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 oz. saffron infused white wine
4 oz. fumet (fish stock)
2 oz. butter
1 oz. lemon juice
2 oz. spinach
1 16-20 shrimp (peeled & deveined)
1 oz. calamari rings
2 oz. market catch (diced fish)
6-8 PEI Mussels
Salt and pepper to taste
¼ oz. canola oil
Start by sautéing the garlic and the shallots in the canola oil. Season the garlic and shallots with salt, pepper, and chili flakes. Then add the tomato concasse, mussels, shrimp, and the fish (reserve the calamari until the end). Deglaze the pan with the saffron wine. Reduce wine by half and then add the fumet and the butter. Cover and let simmer until the mussels open and the shrimp is no longer translucent. Then add the calamari and cook for about thirty seconds or until calamari in no longer translucent. Finish with the lemon juice, chopped parsley, and spinach. Check for seasoning.
Photo by Sam Hiersteiner