Hold the chef: Patrons are 'gobsmacked' by charcuterie restaurant

One person conspicuously absent at Salt is Chef -- or any cook, for that matter -- although on most nights you'll find a few of the city's top chefs unwinding at the bar or community table, sampling cured meats and artisan cheeses.

 Salt bills itself as a tasting room, a restaurant concept new to Vancouver and much of North America (Bar Jamon in New York and Cava in Toronto come close). What makes Salt unusual is that it has no kitchen.

 This is how it works. Patrons pick three items from 20 meat and cheese selections. With condiments (perhaps homemade piccalilli, organic apricots or Spanish Marcona almonds) and a basket of breads, that's dinner for $15.

 Italians call it salumi, Brits call it a ploughman's lunch and the French call it charcuterie. This style of eating has been around for centuries, so why has North America taken so long to catch up? One reason may be that after refrigeration became widely available, it was no longer necessary to preserve meats by smoking and curing.

 Today, with growing interest in artisanal and "hand-crafted" food, a restaurant combining the best charcuterie, cheese and wine was bound to be popular. (Not to mention that opening an eating establishment sans chef is the perfect solution to the current labour shortage in Vancouver, where dishwashers are quickly elevated to line cooks and a good chef can demand a salary approaching six figures.)

 Vancouver has quickly embraced Salt. Patrons who perhaps ventured gingerly into this unusual eatery now confidently order buttery, earthy ox tongue and ethereal smoked pork tenderloin; or wild boar salami paired with organic apricots; and an alchemy of Stilton cheese with Similkameen honeycomb.

 The restaurant has also presented an opportunity for local producers to sell their wares and for chefs to show off. Already on board at Salt: superb duck rillettes from David Hawksworth, the chef at Vancouver's acclaimed West, and a gutsy terrine by Aurora Bistro's Jeff Van Geest.

 Asked about the public's acceptance of his new dining place, co-owner Sean Heather, chief meat and cheese slicer, says without hesitation, "They're gobsmacked."

Heather developed the concept at least partly out of frustration: "I watched charcuterie flying out the door at Salumi in Seattle and Oyama in GranvilleIsland and you can barely squeeze into Les Amis Du Fromage [the Vancouver cheese shop] on a weekend."

 So he married the best meats and cheeses, added a few condiments, a great selection of wines, seating for 50, and moved them all into Blood Alley, formerly "the dark side of town."

 It is probably the only restaurant in Vancouver with a front door that opens on to an alleyway. "People always said to me location, location, location. I always say lease, lease, lease. With a sweetheart lease, if this place doesn't work out, I can pack up and move on, turn it into something else," he adds.

 And no kitchen means that there is no need for an expensive ventilation system, one of the big costs of opening a restaurant.

 Nor does Heather have the usual bureaucratic headaches associated with opening a restaurant. "We couldn't explain the concept to City Hall so to get past the initial permit stage we told them we were opening a sushi bar," says Heather, grinning. "But in the final phase, when they came to the restaurant, it was obvious we weren't opening a sushi bar and we told them it was like a sushi bar. Fortunately, the inspectors liked the look of Salt and they were delighted that we were doing something positive in Blood Alley."

 In Toronto, Chris McDonald, one of the city's culinary elite, recently opened Cava, an Iberian-style tapas bar with a focus on cured meat. He, too, speaks of the relative ease of charcuterie. "I'm not yelling at cooks any more," he says. "Instead I'm slicing ham and chit-chatting with customers." Everyone is surprised to find him up front. "They're taken aback that I'm behind the bar."

 Although the concept is "modern-casual," McDonald has lost none of his respect and love of food. "This is a deeply urban environment but curing meats on the premises is my nod to slow food." He has converted a wine cellar into a place he can cure the meat, mostly heirloom breeds from a local farmer. "This concept is a lot easier on everyone, me included," he says.

 Will charcuterie tasting bars be the next big trend? McDonald thinks they could be. He's noticed that people favour this casual approach to eating, without even the commitment of a reservation: just small plates of meat and cheese and well-chosen wines by the glass.

 In other words, a restaurateur's dream: food that is ready to eat, cook friendly, just slice and plate, no muss, no fuss.

 And little risk of bad reviews -- though conceivably patrons could complain about the quality of the meat and cheese, unlikely given the care with which suppliers are chosen at both Salt and Cava.

 This pleases Heather, who has suffered some negative reviews on eGullet.com -- the popular online equivalent of Zagat, i.e., a free-for-all -- of his gastropub, The Irish Heather, a stone's throw from Salt. In his new venture, he says, laughing, "One of my goals was to eGullet-proof the operation."