When Salt & Ash blew into town in November, option-lean Placentia got a refreshingly modern choice for neighborhood dining. Despite its esoteric name, this earnest indie serves a menu of forthright, discerning New American eats in a zone that sorely needs it.
Locals clearly agree as the 82-seat, near-hidden venue frequently bustles with diners who vary as the day unfolds—gal pals at lunch, guys sampling new local beers after work, families and groups out for a low-key brunch. These scenes play out often, but rarely in tame, inconspicuous Placentia.
Immigrants from San Diego’s fine-dining scene, chefs Scott and Jennifer Mickelson have done stints at The Addison at the Grand Del Mar and The Lion’s Share, and they’re eager to belong in this ’hood. Even the house T-shirt bears the township’s hallmark water tower over the motto Straight Outta Placentia. As a longtime local, it makes me smile.
Their compact menu works all day. The sandwiches are ideal for lunch, while a smattering of entrees that includes steak and pork tenderloin cater to bigger appetites. Savory noshes—say, duck empanadas, deviled eggs, or grilled cheese—have a gastropub tone, though a kids’ menu that’s longer than the taps lineup might negate the pub aspect. But extra points are in order for a teensy, thoughtful wine list with value-priced wines from Italy, France, Sonoma, and my current favorite, Hahn’s Monterey County pinot noir for $25 a bottle.
Spare and rustic in that hip-casual Pinterest mode, the unfussy setting is loaded with cold, hard elements—polished cement flooring, stainless steel trays for utensils, metal iron posts holding rolls of craft paper, metal platters as plates. Most seating is on bare metal chairs or stools. Barn wood accents, glossy wood tables, and the friendly staff project the warmth in this space.
With two dozen menu items, the efficient selection avoids monotony by having five specials that change daily. On each visit, I insist the waitress debrief me on the day’s soup, fish, pasta, bread pudding, and seasonal pie. Servers usually volunteer the day’s pasta and fish, but don’t let them slide on the dessert because they’re typically from-scratch gems by Jennifer.
Because the offerings vary in heft, it’s easy to order based on degree of hunger as opposed to time of day. My first visit was a meal cobbled from shared plates and dessert. Two large duck empanadas seem pricey at $12, until the golden, flaky, from-scratch pastry pockets reveal juicy diced meat bound by reduction sauce. Ribbons of lime-spiked cream flecked with fresh cilantro garnish the buttery pies, balancing each bite with a bright, dairy coolness. Deviled eggs are granny’s-kitchen good, updated with bits of fried kale and maple-sweet bacon as garnish. Dry ribs are delicious inch-long niblets of flash-fried pork ribs, dusted with coriander, sea salt, and black pepper. Soft and spicy meatballs are gone for now, but worth remembering when they return in the fall. Quinoa-couscous salad peppered with corn, broccolini bits, and almonds is a welcome respite of textures and subtle flavors.
Sandwiches are a mixed lot. The fried chicken suffers from texture and balance problems. The boneless thighs, garlicky chimichurri, and drippy sweet peppers on foccacia disintegrate into a soggy mess that obscures any fried chicken flavors. The Cuban sandwich is a ham-free version that relies on roast pork, bold mustard, and house-made pickles for its satisfying flavors. Too bad the skin-on fries served with both sandwiches are tepid. The shrimp stack binds chunks of cooked sweet shrimp with aioli spiked with preserved lemon.
Execution of entrees is consistent. The Washington steelhead isn’t overcooked. Duroc pork loin is tender, not dry. And the hangar steak is exactly medium-rare. Most are served with (or atop) savory, fresh-tasting complements such as saffron-squash risotto, roasted cauliflower, or root vegetable mashers. Sadly, the cooling effect of the metal plates works against these dishes, which would be better if served hotter or in cast iron or stoneware that retains heat. Also, it might just be bad timing, but the night’s fresh pasta is always spaghetti on my visits. Alas, it’s so thin and delicate that it becomes near mush when twirled in sauce. I see linguini and clams in a Yelp picture, so I’ll hope for that special on a future visit.
Portions are modest, but it’s good to have room for dessert here. A so-so caramel-sea salt bread pudding prompts sampling the surprising house-made pineapple-serrano ice cream. I fear the chile heat might not be widely appreciated, so I also try the devil’s food cake with stout ganache. It’s scrupulously fresh, with a supple texture, and it’s not sticky-sweet. This is the dessert to beat in 2016.
Weekend brunch offers only eight exclusive dishes; the remaining options are on the regular menu. If Sunday is your thing, stick with the crunchy, hazelnut-coated brioche French toast, the satisfying lightly smoked salmon on a bagel with the usual trimmings, and the Our “Not So” Parfait with silky Greek yogurt, fresh berries, and local honey. Skip the soupy chicken chilaquiles.
I confess the name Salt & Ash, and its enigmatic reference to rebirth and elemental flavor, continues to baffle. It seems illogical and not enticing. But I’m not at all puzzled by the delights of this unexpected newcomer. It’s definitely worth its salt.
BEST DISHES Duck empanadas, dry ribs, deviled eggs, quinoa-couscous salad, Cuban sandwich, shrimp sandwich, catch of the day, pork tenderloin, brioche French toast, yogurt parfait, homemade ice cream, devil’s food layer cake
PRICE RANGE All day, $7 to $24; kids’ menu, $3 to $6; brunch, $8 to $16
FYI Placentia’s historic water tower was built in 1935.
SALT & ASH
1390 N. Kraemer Blvd.