Bring a sense of adventure when setting out to find this Alameda restaurant
Under the cold winter stars, a beacon of light beamed out of the Alameda darkness. After circling several streets lined by unlit buildings, Saltbreaker appeared like a remote outpost in the middle of the Arctic tundra. It’s situated in an unlikely destination on the Naval edge of the island.
Due to construction, there are detours galore. The route is marked out by confusing signage that’s difficult to read at night. Once one figures out a way to combine the directions on a phone with some common wayfaring sense, it’s apparent that the restaurant is located in the corner of an unsuspecting multi-use warehouse.
Chef Justin Davis said the owners of Saltbreaker also run the Carrie Dove catering company. Davis answered their ad for the executive chef position. Before moving to Alameda, he had been working in Healdsburg and Sonoma. Of working in Wine Country, Davis said, “Wine comes first and food second, to complement the beverage.”
He also said that Thomas Keller’s influence on the region raises diners’ expectations. These are expectations that, for a variety of reasons, can’t always be met. When the Saltbreaker job provided an opportunity to move closer to his wife’s family in the East Bay, they decided to make a change.
“My background is classically French-trained,” Davis said. He has primarily worked along the West Coast, from San Diego up to Alaska. In his cooking, he uses basic French techniques and principles to reinterpret California cuisine. The result is a fusion with wide-ranging influences. He serves an Ōra King salmon ($29) with a green Thai curry sauce. It’s a coconut milk sauce, without any dairy, that tastes buttery. The salmon itself, on the skin side, retains a remarkable crispness.
Achieving that crispness at home has been an all but impossible feat for me. “The trick is a well-seasoned pan, very hot, and a liberal amount of oil,” Davis said. “High heat and patience. We just get a cast iron pan hot, skin side down in the grapeseed oil, put a weight on it, and then put it in the oven.” I will report back once I’ve tried out this tricky technique.
When we put in our order for the salmon and chicken thighs, we told the waiter we were going to split the entrées. Without asking the kitchen to give us separate plates, they kindly did so for us, halving each dish and then plating each one with the same attention to detail. Having been open only a few weeks, the Saltbreaker team appears to be running a smooth operation. Locals are responding to the comfortably chic atmosphere. On both of my visits, people were turned away because all the tables were booked.
Davis’ vision comes across clearly on every plate. The chef said the steak frites ($30) is already a favorite dish that will likely stay on the menu as the seasonal ingredients change. We ordered the frites separately, listed as shoestring potatoes ($7). They were perfectly seasoned, perfectly crisp and irresistible.
Our caesar salad ($16) was the only dish that both of us weren’t wowed by. An olive crumble added color but no flavor. The salad needed a substantial secondary element to liven up the leaves. Radish slices, tomato wedges, lardons or something more daring such as asparagus tips would round out the idea of making it a fusion dish too.
Desserts are made by Davis’ wife, Annie, who joined the team after he was hired. She made a pretty lemon meringue tart with raspberry and mango purées. The meringue on top was dotted with pomegranate seeds. Her lemon custard interior was tangy and strong enough to stand on its own. I imagined it also as the base of a gelato, as a pudding or the creamy center of a hand pie.
We walked out of Saltbreaker—named for a boat parked in a nearby harbor—slightly disoriented, as if we’d stepped out of a mirage and back into our ordinary reality. This out-of-the-way restaurant won’t be getting any casual foot traffic. But that doesn’t worry Davis. He said they’ve been busy every night (an outdoor dining expansion is in the works for the warmer months ahead). It turns out that neighborly word of mouth is still a viable thing in Alameda.
Saltbreaker, open Wed to Sun, 5-9:30pm. 2350 Saratoga St. (at West Ranger Ave.), Alameda. 510.263.8232. instagram.com/saltbreaker. Reservations recommended.