Beachy seafood bistro Salt Air is keeping its flavors fresh, light, clean and fun

By Angela Matano

Salt Air’s mussels in coconut broth prove that simple dishes can be truly delicious
Photo by Jakob Layman

With autumn already banging its drum throughout much of the country, Southern California contends with two more months of compulsory Indian summer. Salt Air, a beachy seafood bistro on Abbot Kinney Boulevard, embraces the warm days, with Chef Patrick Costa’s seasonal menu maintaining light, clean flavors well into November.

Salt Air manager Andrew Clark, hailing from Australia, understands mixed-up climates.

“Chef Patrick cooks fresher, funner things for fall,” says Clark, as Duran Duran’s steamy summer classic “Hungry like the Wolf” beats in the background. “It feels controversial, but last year, October was scorching. I think having a menu that pertains to what’s outside is more important than ‘fall.’”

After jockeying for parking and fighting the heat, the cool white interior of Salt Air hits the spot even before drinks hit the table. Nautical in theme without going overboard, the restaurant screams “date spot.” Maps line the walls, augmented with a giant marlin, and cozy banquettes fill the corners, plumped up with navy-striped pillows. Sitting down prompts a deep sigh of contentment. There’s a feeling that you are in good hands.

We begin with a Spritz — a combination of Dubonnet (aperitif), vya (vermouth), prosecco, soda and grapefruit bitters. Garnished with a tuile-shaped pink grapefruit rind, the drink echoes the carefree, en plein air mood of arriving at Salt Air.

Salt Air’s pea tartine: goat cheese, snap peas,
smashed peas and lemon
Photo by Jakob Layman

Clark strives to ascertain a perfect pairing for each diner, aided by his well-curated wine list.

“The L.A. customer is very aware of what they want,” says Clark. “We will pour through lots of tastes until you find what you like.”

In our case, my wine-ignorant husband indicated a desire for something not too fruity or sweet. Clark unearthed a La Formica Soave, from Italy, that worked beautifully. Served quite cold, the light white wine was a good accompaniment to the fish that would soon arrive. “It’s perfect on a hot day, and a great intro for people who don’t drink European wine,” Clark explains.

The menu at Salt Air changes quite frequently — “fortnightly,” says Clark — with the availability of produce from local farmers markets dictating the direction.

Of course, that means you have to jump on any dishes that move you. The crudo, on the menu in early September, might not be there in October. And the crudo is delicious. Chef Costa starts with gorgeous fish, like yellowtail, and layers flavors like fennel, chili and Frog Hollow Farm’s magnificent plums.

Toasts are central to the experience; we are after all on Abbot Kinney, birthplace of the artisanal toast. Two versions frequent the menu: a pea tartine with smashed peas and goat cheese, and steelhead trout tartare. The trout sits up prettily on its toasted bed, ruffled with Japanese cucumbers, horseradish and cultured cream. These were my favorite bites of the evening.

Among larger plates, one of the best is the black cod. Heartier than you might expect, the generous portion comes with meuniere, browned butter and cauliflower rice. Clark encourages mixing everything altogether so that the dish came to resemble one of the newly ubiquitous bowls you come into contact with around town. The result is cozy and satiating, a sort of updated casserole.

Desserts at Salt Air are seasonal, changing frequently — spontaneously, even — as in keeping with the rest of the menu. The standout for my meal was a coconut-set custard with a lime-lemon-basil granita. Refreshing, like a modernized orange 50/50 bar, the bracing citrus of the semi-frozen ice and the creaminess of the custard combined for a light and bright finish to the meal.

My easy-to-please husband said the sweet “tasted like a vacation.” It is true that the dessert nearly transported us to tropical climes, like Jamaica or Puerto Rico, and it didn’t hurt that Lipps Inc.’s “Funkytown” played in the background.

With regulars making up the lion’s share of the customers at Salt Air, Clark does his best to maintain staff and create a familial atmosphere.

“Fun and frivolity are what we do at Salt Air. Life should be fun,” says Clark.

Stop by for a meal or a quick bite of toast and a glass of rosé, and you’ll leave confident that summer is here to stay.

Salt Air 1616 Abbot Kinney Blvd., Venice, (310) 396-9333 saltairvenice.com

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