- Thom Sheridan
- Sal & Angelo's kitchen shows a fondness -- and talent -- for wood grilling.
But beneath its fancy facade, the restaurant has some quirks that can drive a diner bonkers, especially on a busy Saturday night. For one thing, it's crowded -- so crowded that, first off, I got cussed out roundly by a little old lady for bumping her chair as I tried to sidle into mine, and later, I got elbowed in the shoulder blade by a different nearby diner who was gesticulating to make a point. For another, it's noisy -- so noisy that we actually developed sore throats from shouting at one another across our two-top. And service? At least on that Saturday-night visit, service was so slow and inattentive as to be downright shameful.
What with the shouting, the cussing, the jabbing, and the waiting (a full 40 minutes, by my watch, from the time our server cleared our entrées until our dessert showed up), the evening had a lock on the surreal and the slapstick. And yet, I can understand why East Siders continue to flock here. For one thing, the food is often fabulous: impeccably fresh wood-grilled salmon, dreamy garlic mashed potatoes, and thin-crusted pizzas in smoky, grown-up flavors. For another, the prices are right: It's entirely possible to fill up on thick slices of crusty Italian bread, a savory bacon-and-blue-cheese-drenched wedge salad, and an artistically arranged entrée, complete with those garlic mashed potatoes and a vegetable, for around $20.
While our Saturday-night visit was a painful experience, on a weeknight, when the large, open dining room was sparsely populated, the atmosphere was charming. Through the judicious use of dark paneling, wood and stone flooring, soft lighting, and walls painted in shades of butter, sage, and tomato, the designers have done a commendable job of capturing the sense of a cozy neighborhood bistro. White napery, sturdy water tumblers, hefty flatware, and substantial white porcelain plates are both functional and stylish. Through the windows, an ever-changing panoply of humanity -- kids on skateboards, families with dogs, and pierced youths of every hue -- provides plenty of local color. And thumping house music, so much more interesting than the overplayed Sinatra, forms a fitting soundtrack to the parade outside.
A weeknight server was a gem, making right-on recommendations, relentlessly refilling water and iced tea glasses, and crumbing the table -- twice! When our decaf proved to be contaminated by water-softener salts, she informed the manager, ran gallons of water through the faucet, brewed a fresh pot, and comped our dessert to make up for the inconvenience. But what a difference on the weekend, when we couldn't help thinking that our friendly, good-looking waiter would make a better son-in-law than a server. We had to make a special request to see the wine list; we had to ask for the dessert menu. He poured our half-bottle of Alexander Valley Merlot without spilling a drop, but he pocketed the cork, and he never came back to refresh our glasses. The table wasn't cleared, let alone crumbed, and our water tumblers became dry as a sun-scorched bone. Throughout the interminable wait for dessert -- a wonderful Apple Galette, incidentally, served warm with vanilla bean ice cream, whipped cream, and a mint leaf garnish -- we saw him only rarely and never received an explanation or apology for the delay. And we waited, again, when it was time to get the bill.
But even on this night, our meals (once they arrived) were mostly beyond reproach. Indeed, about the worst thing that can be said of Sal & Angelo's food is that the sheer number and range of possibilities -- lobster bisque, phyllo-crusted crab cakes, oven-roasted salmon, pasta Bolognese, rack of lamb, and filet mignon au poivre, just to name a few -- are almost overwhelming. Ingredients like dry-packed sea scallops, dry-aged strip steaks, and Ohio City ravioli are of excellent quality. And, with only a few exceptions -- a slightly overdone steak, a bland à la carte order of sautéed spinach, and a lackluster special of wood-grilled tuna on a bed of greens, with an undistinguished sesame vinaigrette and nuggets of overcooked lobster meat -- composition is intelligent and preparation attentive.
An appetizer of four plump, peppery blackened sea scallops, served in a half-shell with sweet-tart red-onion relish, was one of the standouts, with a splendid interplay of sensations piqued by buttery blue cheese crumbles and crisp toasted walnuts. We ordered thin-crusted mushroom pizza, with lush slabs of wood-grilled portobellos and caramelized onion peeking out from a blanket of Romano and provolone cheeses, as one night's first course for the table, and it was so good, we had to force ourselves to save room for the entrées. And a simple main dish of wood-grilled salmon, served with mashed potatoes and juicy grilled vegetables, matched the assertive flavor of the pristine fish against a zesty lemon-lime butter sauce, creating a heads-up flavor fusion that roused the entire plate.
An ample serving of Ravioli Angelo (red-pepper pasta pockets filled with smoked mozzarella and served in a precisely balanced marinara, with hints of fresh basil) was a full-bodied meat-free option, although we admit we thought it strange that the kitchen chose to hide it beneath what seemed like an acre's worth of tender baby mâche. And if a carnivorous companion's petite tenderloin, wrapped in bacon, smothered with melting blue cheese, and drizzled with a robust bordelaise, was a trifle past the requested medium-rare, its richness was still dazzling.
The large international wine list is as varied as the dinner menu. Although the emphasis is on well-respected Californian Cabs and Chards, there's also a solid selection of Merlots, Zinfandels, and Chiantis, as well as Sauvignon Blancs, Pinot Grigios, and Viogniers. A by-the-glass list offers nearly two dozen options, and another 12 or so selections are available by the half-bottle. There's also a stylish little martini menu and a written list of beers in bottles and on draft. And the menu of desserts -- homemade tiramisu, cheesecake, that rustic Apple Galette, and Mitchell Brothers Ice Cream, among them -- also includes a long list of cognacs, port, cordials, single-malt scotch, and spiked coffee drinks.
So it's clear the place has plenty going for it. If it were my call to make, I'd remove a half-dozen tables (especially the poorly situated two-tops crowded into the middle of the room, between rows of larger tables), figure out a way to regulate the noise, and do whatever it takes to ensure server competence. Then I'd stand back and let the accolades roll in. Just like with that spoiled rich kid, a little straightening out is probably all it would take to turn Sal & Angelo's into an exemplary member of the community.