After spending 13 years focused on Mexican food at El Camino, her beloved neighborhood eatery in Brunswick, chef Eloise Humphrey is throwing off the constraints imposed by a single style of cuisine. Salt Pine Social, her new venture with El Camino co-owners (and sister and brother-in-law) Daphne and Paul Comaskey, is a freewheeling plunge into modern American cookery.
With executive chef Jeff Kent, Humphrey has crafted a menu that reflects the owners’ well-established enthusiasm for fresh ingredients and local products, while spanning the globe for culinary influences — think dishes like lamb kofta (Turkish meatballs) with the roasted eggplant dip baba ganoush, Portuguese fish stew, and barbecued celery root with locally made blue cheese. The restaurant’s name reflects its mission statement: “salt of the earth, reliable, trustworthy, and straightforward; pine after, desire or hankering for the rich and the real; and social, from the Latin socius, meaning friend.”
Located in a renovated house with attached storefront, just steps from Bath’s Waterfront Park, Salt Pine Social’s sprawling dining room wraps around an entirely open kitchen. Depending on where you’re sitting, you practically experience the meal from the perspective of behind the line — which finds me resisting the urge to jump in and help expedite chits. Furnishings are sleek, blond-wood tables with black chairs. Soft-gray walls are accented by large, boldly patterned rugs woven by local artisan Hector Jaeger. A cluster of colorful, exotic pendant lights is suspended over the bar.
“Eloise was inspired by similar lights from a café she visited in Paris,” Daphne says. “Finding them for ourselves was not an easy task.” They pinpointed a source in India, and the ornate lights were delivered in five FedEx crates (only one was broken). To achieve random placement, Humphrey and the Comaskeys each tossed seven wooden discs up into the air and marked their landing points with blue tape. An electrician then used a laser to mark the ceiling above each spot and installed the lamps.
The beverage selection includes austere, classic cocktails as well as fruit-driven Tiki drinks. The wine list is predominantly French, with a slant towards natural and biodynamic producers from all over the world. We choose a bottle of Pierre-Olivier Bonhomme Touraine Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire Valley to drink with our appetizer — slices of crusty baguette spread thickly with sweet butter that’s been heavily studded with salty caviar and served with radishes for a nice crunch. The wine is a lively accompaniment, its subtle tropical flavors giving way to bracing minerality and gunpowder-like notes in the finish — considerable complexity for a bottle priced under $30.
There’s a little too much going on in our second appetizer — tender sautéed squid with charred Brussels sprouts, pickled vegetables, and sun-gold-tomato sauce. The dilly beans and tomato puree overpower the squid. Far more successful is Salt Pine Social’s take on the Japanese comfort staple asari no sakamushi — clams steamed in sake, complemented by rich, crispy pork belly and a dash of chili oil and served in green stoneware bowls. It comes with naan to mop up the aromatic broth.
As our evening unfolds, the dining room fills up, and the pitch rises but never overpowers or intrudes. To go with the rest of our meal — smoked hacked chicken — we order a bottle of Frank Cornelissen’s Contadino Rosso, a field blend from Sicily made predominantly from Nerello Mascalese, a variety of dark-skinned grapes that grows on the slopes of Mt. Etna. In the realm of natural-wine makers, Cornelissen is regarded as a demigod of sorts for resurrecting the process of aging wines in amphorae that he buries in Mt. Etna’s volcanic soils. The result is a wine that cycles through different flavors — black cherry, smoke, oolong tea, and leather — at an astonishing rate as it takes in oxygen.
The chicken, served with baked beans, crunchy slaw, and a cheddar-cornbread stick, is tender, with a pleasant char to the skin that in turn brings out the flavor of the beans, and the coleslaw is crisp with bright, clean flavors. The cheddar-cornbread, unfortunately, has gone quite awry, its texture like sawdust. A warm mushroom salad, consisting of earthy, flavorful hen of the woods, oysters, and shiitakes, packs a nice hit of vinegar in the dressing, and the accompanying fingerling potatoes are perfectly cooked.
Given the high level of service and the overall high quality of the food, I’m inclined to chalk the evening’s few mishaps to new-restaurant wrinkles that will soon be ironed out. The outdoor seating and beautiful fire pit will surely be a draw in the warmer months, and I’ve little doubt that Salt Pine Social will match the reputation of its Brunswick sister.