Talk about a sea change. The circa-1900 building that had been home to the legendary Willett House steakhouse in downtown Port Chester has been completely transformed into a stylish, modern seafood restaurant. Set alongside the Byram River, Saltaire Oyster Bar and Fish House is owned by the Barnes family, the force behind 50-year-old Queens institution London Lennie’s.
At the Barneses’ new Westchester restaurant, the seafood is just as fresh, sourced daily from the Fulton Fish Market. Chef Bobby Will, who starts with whole fish and changes the menu each day, allows ingredients (many seasonal) to shine, rather than masking them with complex preparations. That said, he strives for intriguing flavor combinations, incorporating elements from his trips to Europe and Asia. And he begins each meal with crave-worthy sweet and tender cake-like cornbread, in small cast-iron skillets, with honey butter.
Still, the star of the show is the extensive raw bar, offering what the restaurant claims is the largest oyster selection in the tristate area. In fact, one-half of the capacious restaurant is a bar area with a blue-and-white-tiled floor and a dramatically lit marble oyster bar at its center. Invariably, that side of Saltaire, though more intimate and small in scale (than the vast dining room), is perpetually lively. For a quieter experience—should you actually want to hear your dining companion—opt for the more sedate wood-paneled dining room, with its high, buttressed ceiling; skylight; massive, round, black-metal chandeliers; and wall of antique maps.
Chef Bobby Will prefers to buy whole fish and butcher it himself
Regardless of which room you choose, stick to that impeccable seafood, including rare seasonal items, such as jumbo Florida stone crabs. Saltaire offers three different raw seafood towers, called Hook, Line, and Sinker, respectively. Even the smallest one I ordered, Hook ($45), was a robber-baron-like feast featuring chilled, cooked mussels, shrimp, lobster, and crab claws, plus raw clams and oysters over a bed of crushed ice. Although the tower comes with three sauces (cocktail, a fruit salsa, and strawberry mignonette), our helpful waiter brought us two extras: grassy and herbal sorrel verde salsa and creamy horseradish aioli. (The service during all three of my visits was professional and solicitous.)
While the plump and juicy Maine steamers are cooked with leek, celery, and drawn butter, the mussels come in four flavor variations, including fra diavolo. My only quibble: The restaurant should serve them with grilled olive oil-brushed, sea-salted country bread, rather than bland, dry slices. Other winning small plates or starters were the elegant and intriguing chilled lobster salad with brown butter, pickled plums, herbs, and brioche; grilled octopus with eggplant purée, pomegranate, and ras el hanout (a North African spice mix); and light and aromatic striped bass poke with grapefruit. The only weak appetizer I tried during my three visits were the tuna sliders, overly charred on the outside and mushy on the inside.
For entrées, the restaurant offers six seared or grilled seafood options and two whole fish (which change daily) and steamed lobster, all of which come with two vegetable or grain sides, and one of three sauces (beurre blanc, sauce Americaine, or walnut-red grapefruit vinaigrette). In addition, diners can choose from several seasonal seafood specials (such as shrimp and grits), plus lobster pot pie, vegetarian sunflower seed “risotto,” and four meat dishes. All of the seafood I tried—including whole branzino (seared sea bass) steamed lobster, and seared (seasonal) scallops—was perfectly prepared (especially the scallops, which were golden brown and rich from having been seared in butter). I loved the intriguing combination of Meyer lemon, fingerling potatoes, artichokes, and capers that accompanied a branzino seasonal special. While I was impressed by the classic sauce Americaine, a rich and intriguing combination of lobster stock, tarragon, brandy, and tomato, I was nonplussed by the oily, broken, walnut-red grapefruit vinaigrette (as well as the undercooked squash medley). Not surprisingly for a seafood palace, the meat entrée I tried (grilled bone-in heritage pork chop with Brussels sprouts, Gala apple mostarda, and hazelnut polenta) was extremely subpar. The meat was tough and dry, while the mostarda was too sweet, and the gritty polenta resembled gruel.
For dessert, standouts included the dark-chocolate cremeux, with crystallized chocolate, salted mascarpone, persimmon, and basil gelée (a sweet and salty revelation); elderflower panna cotta, garnished with fruit and crumbled cookie (truly ethereal); and creamy and seasonal-spiced cheesecake with caramel apple compote and brown butter crumbs. Stay away from the assorted ice cream sandwiches, which are served frozen solid and all feature the same ice cream flavor. Saltaire should instead opt for fresh, warm cookies and vary the filling. To accompany the mostly standout fare, both sweet and savory, the restaurant offers an extensive selection of artisan wines (some on tap), local beers, and craft liquor.
In a sea of seafood options, Saltaire is a true standout—likely the top establishment of its kind outside New York City.
Food: 3/4 | Service 3/4 | Atmosphere: 4/4 | Cost: 4/4
Saltaire Oyster Bar and Fish House
55 Abendroth Ave