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Salt & Pepper: Shaking Things Up

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Quaint neighborhood BYOBs have become defining characters of Philly’s restaurant scene. Salt & Pepper, a cozy space on the border of Bella Vista and Queen Village, provides a great study of the confluence of this and other streams that came together over the last decade to establish Philadelphia as a foodie destination.

Before buying Salt & Pepper in 2005 and transforming it from a confused Mediterranean-style joint to his own delightful atelier, owner and manager Robert Reilly worked as an underappreciated server at several stand-outs in the Stephen Starr chain: Buddakan, Striped Bass, and Barclay Prime. The Philadelphia dining renaissance that saw a flowing of BYOBs was fueled in large part by the hip slickness and attention to detail that restaurateur Starr brought to the Continental Old City and the later additions to his food empire. Reilly clearly learnt something from Starr’s focus on presentation and service, but added a warmth in atmosphere and low-key relaxation sorely missing from the Starr oeuvre. Part of this is due to Salt & Pepper’s size: with only twenty-four seats inside and perhaps eight more outside, you can see the kitchen and all the staff from anywhere in the restaurant.

Salt and Pepper

Owner Manager Robert Reilley helps out at the Salt & Pepper kitchen

Reilly’s inviting presence is likely to be the first thing to greet you as you enter from the southwest corner of Sixth and Fitzwater streets. While you eat, he might come over to ask your opinion of a new item on the seasonal menu. It’s not uncommon to receive a visit from a restaurant manager, but when Reilly asks, “how is the salad,” you get the feeling he is really interested — your opinion may inform next week’s menu.

Salt and PepperAccording to Reilly, the rotating menu (new dishes are added weekly) is “an equation” worked out between him and chef Lacina Kone. Kone is originally from Francophone Côte d’Ivoire and was schooled in the art of French cuisine, skills he refined in a decade as sous chef at Brasserie Perrier. The equation “takes the essence of French cuisine — a concentration on techniques and sauces — and applies them to New American dishes."  This blend — another key to Philly’s dining renaissance — has been evident since Reilly took over Salt & Pepper, but Kone’s arrival last Fall (he replaced his nephew) has seen further refinement of the dishes and more complicated, though still accessible, flavors and presentation

The highlight of Salt & Pepper’s menu is the pan-seared scallops appetizer — huge diver scallops bought fresh from Samuel & Sons on Packer Ave and cooked on a piping hot pan to create a hard seared outside and a delectable medium-raw interior. Served with an oven roasted tomato vinaigrette, haricots verts, red onion, and cherry tomatoes, this item — an unusual mainstay on an ever-changing menu (It’s hard to replace such a popular dish,” says Reilly) — is a must-order dish.

The Salt & Pepper menu is balanced nicely between meats and fishes and all the items are easily altered to accommodate dietary restrictions (“customer proof,” in Reilly’s words). The fish dishes are rave worthy: everyone I spoke to who ordered the branzino (Mediterranean sea bass in a tomato caper vinaigrette) was delighted with their choice. The steak filet with red wine vinaigrette and frizzled leeks is also deservingly popular. Not every entrée is an unqualified success: at medium rare, the oven-roasted rack of lamb seemed to have had some of its natural flavor cooked off.

Stick around for dessert. Reilly is a self-proclaimed crème brulee connoisseur and his classic take on this dessert, using Madagascar vanilla beans, is as good as any I’ve tasted. The chocolate lava cake, served a la mode with fresh berries, was also delicious.

With its cozy BYOB atmosphere, hip presentation, and French-inspired cuisine, Salt & Pepper is a shining exemplar of Philadelphia’s new class of quality dining establishments. Grab a bottle or two of your favorite wine and bring a date or group of close friends.

Contact Christopher at cpmunden@gmail.com

Address: 

Salt & Pepper

746 S. Sixth St., 19147 (SW corner of Sixth and Fitzwater sts.)

215-238-1920

Seasonal American BYOB, $$ (credit cards accepted)

Tu–Sat, 5:30–10 pm, reservations appreciated