A new chef, a relaunch in the works, and five years under his belt: "It's time to reinvent," said Charlie Bryon. The owner of The Salt Exchange in Portland, Bryon calls it "fortuitous timing" that he had a chef change-over around the time he was planning to revamp the restaurant anyway. Expect major changes to be ushered in late in October, but don't be surprised to notice smaller alterations in the meantime.
Former executive chef Adam White stepped down recently to accept an offer from a hotel group outside of Maine (he is listed as executive chef for Northern Hospitality's Sheraton Portsmouth Harborside Hotel), and Bryon said they are still on good terms. Sous chef Torr Kelso, who had been in the kitchen for only two days before White left, stepped up. According to Bryon, it's been a "short but fun" experience with Kelso, who returns to his home state after years out west with the Patina Restaurant Group. Patina owns establishments all over the country, including multiple in Downtown Disney in California, where Kelso opened a Mexican restaurant for the group nine years ago.
Though the outline of the menu is the same as before, Kelso explained he has made changes to most of the dishes already, tweaking them, making them his own, adding complexity. Bryon said he's happy that he and his new chef seem to desire to take the menu in a similar direction, which will become more obvious once the entire thing is overhauled.
The new menu will be "a significant departure," Kelso promised, and they're trying to avoid some of the more common terms dotting the restaurant landscape these days, such as "small plates." When asked to describe the feel of the new, improved Salt Exchange, the chef suggested "progressive, casual dining," something to bridge the gap between casual and fine dining.
Bryon wants to play up the social, fun aspect of the dining experience, making the setting more intimate, comfortable, entertaining; this includes showcasing live music like blues and bluegrass. As always, American whiskey will play a major role in the drink menu, and ingredients like bitters are going to be made in-house. Bryon is also excited about new wooden tables being made for the restaurant by a friend.
The owner said he's "tightening the focus" of the restaurant from what it was a lifetime ago, at a time when he felt more like a manager at his own business than he did an owner. He has learned from mistakes as well as successes, and feels the company is small and flexible enough to switch things up for the better: "You can get stagnant, and I don't want anyone to call me that."
One thing that won't change with a relaunch is the restaurant's commitment to local food and drink, and in particular the fish on the menu, which comes almost entirely from the Gulf of Maine. The Salt Exchange is a sponsor of the Culinary Partners Program for the Gulf of Maine Research Institute's (GMRI) Out of the Blue initiative, which promotes unfamiliar species of responsibly harvested fish from local purveyors and fishermen. Bryon said he's found the issues surrounding sustainable fishing practices to be infinitely more complicated and political than most people realize, and he thinks it's great to have organizations like GMRI assisting the cause. Look for lesser-known fish such as dogfish or cusk on the menu if you're interested in tasting what all the fuss is about.
Bryon and Kelso are still working out the full details of the relaunch, but be on the lookout for a big party to kick things off toward the end of October.