The rise of the wine bar has been quick and hot. The mix of light tapas, inexpensive wine and gourmet menus have become a favorite of Phoenix happy hour hoppers, and Valley joints like local chain Postino Winecafé, Tempe’s classy-casual Caffe Boa and Old Town’s swanky Kazimierz World Wine Bar have perfected the concept.
It might not be the most upscale location, but when Salut Kitchen Bar found a home on University Drive between McClintock Drive and Rural Road just a few months ago, it brought a lot of excitement to the area. Settling in a strip mall, the concept would offer a wine café setting away from the Mill Avenue hubbub.
You have to hand it to Salut. They’re certainly ambitious, but with varying levels of execution. Full disclosure: I gave Salut a try two weeks after it first opened and food quality was low (so much salt!) and service was slow, but hey — they were new to this! The restaurant has been advertising insane nightly specials, so I decided to give it a second shot. After all, I wanted to like Salut’s ambition, even though it failed miserably the first time around.
My dining companion and I arrived late on a Monday night and were given the option to sit inside or out. Both atmospheres offer industrial chic décor, with exposed ceilings, a stainless steel bar, warm candlelight and quirky touches, like glasses and candle holders made from refurbished wine bottles.
If you want a casual cocktail in Tempe, Salut is the place to be. The bar offers a massive selection of beer, wine (they even have wine on tap!) and custom cocktails. I started my meal off with a lavender lemon fizz. It’s admittedly a girlier choice than I’d normally make, but the combination of gin, lemon juice, sparkling lemonade and lavender syrup was only slightly sweet and hugely refreshing. Perfect for a hot summer day.
Since Salut specializes in tapas, we ordered two from the menu — prosciutto wrapped melon and the Ciprian Salsa bruschetta. The prosciutto wrapped melon grabbed my attention because the idea was so bizarre, it had to be good. The combination of sweet and salty piqued my interest. In reality, the melon, wrapped in an extremely fatty, thick-cut prosciutto and topped with almond flakes, lavender syrup (this place loves lavender!) and mint was rather bland, tasteless and poor quality. I was getting the impression this place was all about putting on airs — all ideas and no follow through.
Then came the Ciprian Salsa bruschetta. It is lovely to the eye. It blends cherry tomatoes, garlic, shallot, basil, pomegranate, parmesan and a balsamic reduction, all atop light crostini. Wow. The flavor just explodes on your tongue. Acidic tomatoes and savory garlic are punched up by pops of sweet, tangy pomegranate and salty parmesan. I was impressed. My only qualm is that the crostini could have been a bit more on the crunchy side. Still, I’ll be craving this starter for weeks to come.
When it came to main dishes, my dining companion played it safe with a classic Chicken Panini, toasted up with peppers, onion, provolone and garlic aioli on parmesan focaccia. Really, it was nothing special. This might be an option for less experimental diners, but it was overall bland, though the focaccia took it one step above a normal grilled sandwich. What was really unique was the side — the restaurant’s trademark Salut fries. The shoestring fries are topped with citrus vinaigrette, feta and parmesean cheese and herbs. I’m still unsure where I stand on these. They’re unlike anything I’ve ever tasted, but not in a bad way. It seems like the flavors shouldn’t blend, but they somehow magically do.
My entrée, second to the prosciutto wrapped melon, was probably my least favorite item of the night. The Spicy Beer Braised Shrimp pasta certainly lived up to its name. It was super spicy, packed with a Cajun seasoning that hits you quick, but no real depth of flavor. It was mostly just hot, with the noodles slightly overdone and mushy.
For diners, my advice is to stick to the tapas menu and grab one of the bar’s inspired cocktails. This is the perfect casual happy hour spot, but skip the entrées and head somewhere else when you’re really hungry.
Salut Kitchen Bar
1435 E. University Dr., Ste 12 Tempe