Out on Indian Shores, a stiff and balmy wind blows in off the Gulf, the best of the Bay area's late summer weather. Tourists and locals stream into Salt Rock Grill in a wide array of fine-dining beach couture: shorts and sandals and golf shirts right alongside suits and dresses. Middle of the week and the place is packed.
This restaurant has become an institution, one of the few Indian Shores players to get a lot of recognition away from the beach. In the past few years, owner Frank Chivas has parlayed that success into a growing collection of similarly Florida-themed places up the coast. If this night is any indication, his home base is just as popular as ever.
But if high-school cliques and presidential elections have taught us anything, it's that popularity isn't always an accurate indicator of quality. Two visits to Salt Rock Grill made me think that this time the masses have got it wrong.
Salt Rock's dining rooms are laid out in literal and figurative tiers. Best are the cozy, moodily lit tables down by the water. Above that, you still get a water view, along with the contrasting scene of a vibrant kitchen and entry area. Then there's the bar, where we're seated on our first visit, at a table adjacent to the heavily trafficked foyer.
No big deal; we did call in with a late reservation. Our waitress is harried, but brings the wine and water quickly enough, which is when I notice the vibration. My feet are tingling, my legs are shaking — dear God I'm having a stroke! No, wait a minute; everyone else can feel it too. Something under the bar floor is giving me the magic fingers.
I'm sad to report that I still don't know what that strange vibration was.
Our starters — two raw, one cooked — hit the table almost instantly. Coconut shrimp ($9.90) is an iffy choice anywhere; there's only so far you can take a tourist staple like that. At Salt Rock, the coconut shreds are more savory than sweet, happily free of excess oil, and paired with a powerful hit of ginger in the form of a sticky sweet sauce.
I figure that you've got to order stone crabs this month no matter where you are, and Salt Rock has a velvety mustard sauce that competes with the best. It's a tasty start to the season, even though the armored claws ($32.90 a pound) are not quite pre-cracked enough, and the meat is a bit waterlogged. On a cocktail sampler platter ($18.50), more coconut meshes well with shreds of blue crab — although there's nothing else to wake up the flavors of either. Two shrimp drizzled with cocktail sauce and a tuna-and-avocado ceviche round out the platter.
In the middle of the course, our server ambushes us to removes a few of the plates, some with food still on them, without asking. Hey! I kind of wanted to eat that grilled pineapple garnish, lady! At this point, noticing how many people are still waiting for tables, I start to assume that Salt Rock has gone into turn-and-burn mode — quick starters, quick clean-up, quick entrées?
Not so much. The entrées take their time arriving, allowing us to comment on the lack of bread plates — removed earlier and not replaced even after we asked for and received a plate of sadly frozen butter to replace the bland and ubiquitous olive oil and herb mash-up. I end up spilling crumbs across half the table in my quest to find a place for my slice of warm boule.
After about a half hour, our entrées show up. They're less skillfully executed than we might've hoped.
Halibut ($24.90) is hopelessly overcooked and underseasoned, the formerly moist piece of flesh rendered into protein cardboard. Also, I'm not sure if dumping a pile of nuts on a piece of ruined fish counts as "crusted."
The veal porterhouse ($26.50) is absolutely beautiful, exceptionally tender and lusciously flavorful. Pesto coats the top of the meat and is mild enough to actually serve as an accent for the subtle flavor of the veal.
My plate — a sampler platter including cedar plank salmon, teriyaki tuna, grouper cake and a couple of skewered scallops ($28.90) — is more of a mixed bag. The salmon is thin but well cooked, the rich filet scented with just enough wood smoke to add another layer of flavor to an already nice piece of fish. In contrast, the tuna is horrid, riddled with chewy connective tissue, hidden by a cloying and gelatinous sauce and seared on just one side. The scallops are fine but show no signs of a sear at all, and the grouper cake is a bland little hockey puck.
Disappointment follows us right out into the balmy evening.
On my second visit a week later, Salt Rock is still busy, but the service is good enough that I'm able to pay more attention to the little disconnects that make me wonder what the restaurant is trying to accomplish. Casual family joint with expensive food or beachside fine-dining? Tourist trap or destination restaurant?
By the front door is a Halloween display complete with a seizure-inducing strobe that blinds everyone approaching the hostess stand; food runners in T-shirts slam tray jacks down beside my table a half-dozen times during the meal; even away from the bar, the noise level and general hubbub is distracting. More important, even on a night less crowded than the week before, the food still has problems.
I could have predicted that a cold appetizer of sliced filet topped by blue crab and gorgonzola ($12.90) would taste solely of the pungent blue cheese, although a little salt on the meat could have helped. Overcooked grouper stuffed with more crab ($27.90) could at least have been disguised by hollandaise if the sauce wasn't the flavor and consistency of buttery water. Although cooked perfectly, lamb ($24.90) is hampered by a soggy coating of breadcrumbs and mustard.
Look at the prices, and you'll wonder at the noisy, casual and populist vibe of Salt Rock Grill. Try the inconsistent food and you'll wonder about those prices.