BY JOHN LEE
Proprietors of Le Salbuen Cafe Market, Christina and JohnA few weeks ago Hot From The Kettle took a little peak behind the brown paper at Le Salbuen and shared the owners’ dreams, plans and ambitions for their Café Market on Walnut Street. This past week we attended their soft opening and found ourselves caught in a culinary paradox of time and place that left a sense of complete fulfillment but yet yearning for more.
When we last visited Le Salbuen, the café’s windows were still covered over, tile was still being set, and furniture was on a truck somewhere in a Hudson River tunnel. So many details were in place and so many others were still in the planning stage. Christina spent time telling of the brick wall, constructed of recovered brick from old warehouses in Brooklyn and John talked of his childhood experiences in his grandmother’s kitchen. Stories and details filled the conversation, and as if by magic those stories and details gave birth to a culinary experience that leaves the guest wondering if they are in Lisbon or London, in Paris or Paso Robles, in the past or in the present. (hint: it all depends on the details)
First impressions of the space leave guests wondering what filled the space before. Classic black and white tiles, pressed tin ceiling tiles, and vintage fixtures feel as if they have been there forever. The space was an empty shell a few months ago, trips to salvage companies and vintage shops filled the space to tell its story. John and Christina wanted Le Salbuen to have a familiar feel presented in a new way, all the details in the café do just that. It’s easy to think that they inherited the place from their ancestors, and in many ways they did.
Trying to understand how this gem came to be isn’t all that hard to understand. Just like the Braised Duck and Parisian Carrots great things take time. For John, the story food started when he was a child. His grandmother was a housekeeper in England before coming to America . That experience, cooking for others, started a family tradition about which she most surely would be proud. Her pancakes were the first dish he made, that led to him expanding his culinary experience by cooking breakfasts for himself daily starting at the age nine. Since then he has kept journals of recipes, recipe ideas, and sketches of restaurant ideas. One of those journals was in the restaurant this week - chock full of handwritten notes and scribbles. The physical details of Le Salbuen tell a story of vintage familiarity, but it’s the journal that shows how the ideas were inherited from family and travel. This place has a soul all its own.
Just as the café contains old things presented in new ways, so does the menu. A stand out on the breakfast menu is the Croque-Madame Empanada (egg, ham and Swiss cheese): Traditional French faire presented with Latin techniques. If that doesn’t make you rise and shine grab an espresso. No push button espresso here: The Elektra machine used hand pressed grounds to create the perfect shot.
The espresso machine is just one part of the story of authenticity. Peaking behind the counter its surprising to see the size, or lack of size, of the refrigerator and freezer, that’s because the emphasis is on fresh, organic, and local if it’s possible. Instead of restaurant supply stainless steel serving trays guests will notice that the braised duck is being served from Le Creuset, and the Penne is being served from Emile Henry – just like grandma’s kitchen.
But don’t let all the mention of tradition fool you into thinking everything is old school. Quinoa is somewhat trendy, and most of what is on restaurant menus taste like something from a commune at Berkely, not here. The quinoa is made with dried cranberry and eggplant was topped with yogurt avocado hummus mousse.
Here’s a secret, that’s not much of a secret anymore: John is a triathlete and is hardcore into fitness. Combine that with being a foodie and suddenly it becomes apparent that decadence of his recipes from spices, fruit and vegetables instead of the old standbys of salt and butter. Can it still be called comfort food if it’s actually good for you? We’ll have to think about that question and get back to you after we have another plate!
Christina’s passion for food comes from her Portuguese heritage, but she’ll be the first to stop any food writer from calling LeSalbuen anything but World Cuisine. Like many Portuguese households, the women spent a lot of time in the kitchen, tasks were handed down and in the process a heritage of flavors and techniques were shared with a new generation. Having met John in High School, the two have travelled the world, exploring off the beaten path places to find the real culture of distant locales. Those journeys eventually led to the Café Market idea where Moroccan Merguez Lamb Sausage is found alongside Quinoa from South America. It’s where Italian Lasagna is given a French accent by using duck, Parisian carrots, and clove thyme béchamel. It’s where iced tea, has new depth of character as its made from a combination of green oolong, and Darjeeling tea.
Across from the vintage cash register is a market shelf with some real goodies. Local honey from Tassot Apiaries take a prominent place, as do the custom spice blends. A favorite one is the “Le Salbuen Blend” containing Sage, Thyme, Rosemary and Himalayan Salt that I used on a simple roasted chicken Wednesday night. It was brilliant!
If time permits, peak around corners and notice the details. A vintage washboard is near the dishwashing sink to hide the modern pipes. The new mirrored menu board has a wash that gives the impression of an old mirror that is losing its silver. A vintage fruit scale is used in place of a fruit bowl, and vintage album covers line the restroom door. Check out the sconces, they are made from bridles which is a small tribute to the buildings past as a stable.
Take note: desserts are not being mentioned today. Portuguese Flan, Basmati Chair Rice Pudding, and double shot antioxidant chocolate mousse headline the dessert menu. They merit a story all their own!
Le Salbuen is a place to discover, a place to get lost in the all of the flavors and fragrances, and a place to visit again and again.