Saltie Girl is the newest standout in West Hollywood
Small squid had been stuffed with rice and suspended in glossy tomato-pepper sauce spiced with clove and bay leaf. Sardines in pepper olive oil were paired with piquillo peppers or spritzed with lemon or hot sauce before canning. A few threads of seaweed among pickled mussels reinforced the flavors of the Galician coastline where the mollusks were harvested. In a simple brine, razor clams maintained their yielding chew and mild, distinct salinity.
A meal at Saltie Girl in Boston five years ago was a lightbulb moment in my appreciation of conservas, the tinned seafood tradition from Spain and Portugal preserved with a level of care that rockets their straight-from-the-container pleasure far beyond Chicken of the Sea basicness.
Appetizer spreads highlighting a featured tin of fish or shellfish with good bread and butter had been showing up more on menus across the United States over the last decade. The choices at Saltie Girl, which opened in Boston's moneyed Back Bay neighborhood in mid-2016, numbered in the dozens. I hadn't grasped before how much variety existed among conservas. The restaurant also served a dizzying selection of seafood towers, New York-style smoked fish, crudo, pastas, fried clams and toasts covered in things like uni or snow crab. I stayed intent on the tins, veering away only for a warm, butter-drizzled lobster roll as a rich finale.
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Conservas and lobster rolls are also the marquee draws at the small, impeccably designed outpost of Saltie Girl that arrived on the Sunset Strip in December. Though its menu zigzags as broadly as the one at the original location, zero in on the tins and the New England specialties to understand why prime-time reservations are constantly booked — and how the restaurant instantly became a standout dining option around Sunset Plaza.
Quality tinned seafood isn't as much of a novelty in Los Angeles these days. During the darkest days of the 2020 quarantines, fancier markets and restaurants-turned-grocers stocked up on beautifully packaged conservas as a pantry-stable shelf item; plenty of us took solace in yanking the metal tab on a tin — relishing the satisfying pop and scrape — and consuming the contents as a no-thought-required solo lunch. (Tins are also excellent in earthquake-preparedness kits.) As the world reopened, cozy new hangouts like Bar Moruno in Silver Lake and Kippered near Grand Central Market downtown laid out beautiful conserva spreads alongside glasses of herbal vermouth or sparkling wine.
Saltie Girl charges into the arena with a collection of more than 100 conservas divided into 17 categories of fish and shellfish. It's a little overwhelming to absorb, and the per-tin prices stretch from the teens to a $63 splurge for delicate grilled branzino.
Beyond basic preferences — for example, does yellowfin tuna appeal over mackerel? — I tend to choose a couple of tins that emphasize contrast. Something straightforward like sardines in olive oil, or silvery needlefish for a close variation, sets a benchmark. They have the classic mellowed fishiness, and they taste ideal slightly mashed into buttered bread with a sprinkle of salt and maybe a dollop of piquillo pepper relish, all of which are part of the presentation.
Juxtapose them with a more distinctly flavored option: smoked oysters, Norwegian mussels marinated in dill and fennel, hake in salsa verde, white anchovies in roasted garlic, or the brined razor clams that are as umami-packed as I remembered.
With a martini or a shochu-gin-cucumber cocktail at the bar, tins could comprise the whole meal. I mean, yes, you also want a lobster roll. The cold version, with the lobster meat lightly dressed in mayonnaise, arguably best evokes Maine's fleeting summer, but I still prefer the warmed buttery version loaded into a toasted bun.
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Saltie Girl feels calibrated for indulgence, which is one way it differentiates itself from Connie & Ted's, the modern institution a mile away that also happens to be a West Hollywood restaurant specializing in East Coast-style seafood. Connie & Ted's is rambling and rowdy and serves chowder samplers, fish and chips, herb-crusted Rhode Island monkfish and its own great lobster roll. Saltie Girl is compact and elegant. The wraparound patio's languid appeal defies its location on a chaotic and ultra-sceney stretch of Sunset Boulevard. Inside the aesthetic oozes an Art Deco yacht vibe. Note the wooden statues of mermaids affixed to the bar; they’re reclaimed boat figureheads and a signature touch of owner Kathy Sidell, who also recently launched the third Saltie Girl in London.
With so much homegrown talent to cover in Los Angeles, I don't often race to imported restaurant concepts. But the breadth of the restaurant's tinned seafood program initially pulled me in, and several top-notch dishes overseen by executive chef Kyle McClelland keep me returning. Oysters and other starter seafood options — including shrimp cocktail and cold Jonah crab claws that match the mood of the place — have been pared down to a mercifully short list and prepared with minimal fuss. Spicy lobster spaghetti is a feel-good heap of tomato, basil and fried garlic that doesn't overpower the star ingredient.
A pile of Parmesan-dusted fries crowns a bowl full of mussels steamed in white wine and butter; it's one of those timeless combinations into which I disappear until nothing is left. Same for the chewy-crisp fried clams that need nothing more than tartar sauce and a wedge of lemon.
The kitchen could honestly halve the menu without losing the soul of its premise. Escargots, steak tartare, whole fried black bass scented with ginger and soy and the $249 Wagyu tomahawk rib-eye push meals in Continental or steakhouse directions and strike me as overkill. Some concoctions — I’m thinking specifically of an uni-on-toast situation punctuated with black sesame, shiso, lardo and fried garlic — over-earnestly check boxes for ingredients that shout "Los Angeles." It isn't necessary. We’re here for a righteous lobster roll, not an excessively precious, $34 cylinder of King crab and avocado rolled in soy paper.
One foray into culinary California that would be welcome? A few more seasonal vegetable dishes to lighten the blitz of richness and, wonderful as the tinned seafood is, weave in more freshness. Saltie Girl did turn up in winter, so fried Brussels sprouts and well-trodden salad ideas like beets with yogurt or radicchio with blue cheese and walnuts make sense, but our farmers markets are showing early signs of spring; I hope the kitchen takes inspiration duly. Pastry chef and actor Ben Sidell, Kathy's son, crafts the pastry program. Currently he makes an olive oil cake that he covers with beautifully suprêmed blood orange segments that make an endearing of-the-moment statement. It's a strong finish and a good start.
8615 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, saltiegirl.comPrices: Most tinned seafood $14-$63, small plates and starters $14-$34, most large plates $26-$48, smoked fish plates $20-$30.Details: 5-11 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday, 5 p.m.-1 a.m. Thursday-Friday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5 p.m.-1 p.m. Saturday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Sunday. Full bar. Lot and street parking.Recommended dishes: Tinned seafood, warm lobster roll, spicy lobster spaghetti, moules frites.