Cafe Reviews

Salut Offers Respite from Mill Avenue, but Not Without a Few Issues

Salut Kitchen Bar is a kind of Mill Avenue detox, a comfortable, low-lit room where glasses of wine take the place of tequila shots, where an ironic '80s tune never gets loud enough to drown out conversation, and where getting up close and personal with your neighbor at the bar is more a matter of choice than the result of the room's capacity maxing out. Some nights it feels like a post-party afterglow, but with everyone coming from a different party. And if it weren't for the menus and plates of food in hand, the friendly staff might just as well be on the guest list.

About a mile and a half east of Tempe's main drag, Salut sits at the corner of a near-abandoned strip mall on University Drive. Chances are you'd drive right by if you didn't know it was there. Owner Anastasios Tirkas opened the place in April, stocking it with more than 50 selections of Old and New World wines and, along with chef Jesse Carlson (of the burger spot The Grind and the defunct Chick Rotisserie in Arcadia), a selection of familiar American eats — some, as a nod to Tirkas' homeland of Cyprus, with a Mediterranean twist.

A relaxing place, Salut is small enough to be considered snug but, thanks to a high ceiling and a garage door that opens to a pleasant patio on cool evenings, it never errs on the side of compact. At its center is a bar wrapped in slats of reclaimed wood and surrounded by tall metal chairs. Two televisions overhead are usually tuned to college sports. And when the setting sun floods in through the large windows on one of the walls, it bathes the room in a kind of mystical light that nearly turns the dark wood of its dining tables white and makes the Art Nouveau-style absinthe fountains dotting the bar twinkle.

Although Salut's stage has been set for its guests to unwind with a Windy Bay pinot noir, a cold craft brew, or a Dutch chocolate martini, its offerings in the way of familiar eats — bruschetta, bar snacks, sandwiches, salads, and a few entrées — are still a step or two behind. And given some of the prices, like a $12 quinoa salad and a $23 filet mignon, one might wonder just what kind of disposable income Tirkas believes his mostly 20-something crowd has to spare. Some of the dishes are good, more are mediocre, and nearly all of them might have you saying, "If only . . ."

As with the bruschetta: If only the bread were better.

Pretty much an obligatory dish at any wine bar, Salut's bruschetta lacks the crunchy, garlic-rubbed, and olive oil-drizzled foundation crucial to the Italian antipasto. Usually served quite soft and barely warm, its long, narrow pieces of bread don't offer much flavor, forcing the toppings into doing the heavy lifting. An acceptable pesto with tomato and Parmesan and a better Ciprian Salsa creation made with tomatoes and sweet pomegranate seeds seem up to the task, but a wild mushroom that tastes more canned than fresh and a rubbery halloumi cheese most decidedly are not.

There are flashes of good things going on in the shared-plates section. Greek fries, thin and crispy and topped with feta and Parmesan cheese in a citrus vinaigrette, and a more health-minded quintet of bite-size, mildly spicy and sweet red peppers stuffed with goat cheese are simple yet hit the spot. And although you might prefer your hummus served in a bowl or on a plate, you probably aren't going to turn down Salut's version of "nachos" — thick and lemony dollops of hummus sprinkled with feta cheese, red onion, and pomegranate seeds, drizzled with balsamic, and served atop triangular wedges of crunchy pita bread — even if the somewhat messy snack means having to wash your hands afterward.

For the most part, the salads are an acceptable lot. But a few of the entries don't warrant their asking price, especially when the addition of chicken or shrimp puts them around the $15 mark. There is a rather mushy quinoa salad with not very much quinoa, and a better concoction of roasted corn tossed with ingredients like avocado, tomato, and mozzarella. Thankfully, its very sweet champagne vinaigrette is served on the side.

If (only) there were more burgers on the menu, the sole Salut Burger could be expanded with variations showing off chef Carlson's well-spent time at The Grind. Its basic (but not at all boring) well-seasoned and well-prepared Angus beef patty is layered with Romaine, tomato, red onion, melted cheddar, and a tasty roasted garlic aioli between a soft but sturdy bun. For now, the signature burger keeps company with sandwiches like a salty and sweet sourdough creation layered with prosciutto, apple, warm Brie, and honey that's agreeable — but not memorable enough, flavor-wise, to be ordered again; and a dry and fairly tasteless turkey burger that, regrettably, carries the name of The Sun Devil.

Aside from being the most expensive item on the menu, the $23 filet mignon is easily the best. Lightly coated in a peppercorn sauce, the hunk of beef, like the hamburger, is juicy and executed well, wrapped with a salty strip of bacon and served with a tasty side of bacon-studded sautéed spinach and slices of crunchy Parmesan-topped toast with a sweet pepper relish. Far less successful are spicy beer-braised shrimp, which are neither spicy nor beer-y and, on my visit, were all but lost in a bowl of wide noodles that contained none of the menu's promised additions of spinach, garlic, or shallots. Store-bought mushroom ravioli, at $13, is hardly worth mentioning.

If only the desserts were homemade, you might consider ordering one. But at this point, it's probably better to take a pass in lieu of another pour.

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Laura Hahnefeld
Contact: Laura Hahnefeld