- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 8, 2005

The 23-pound amberjack, head and tail on, looks as if he’s smiling, sitting proudly in the showcase at Blacksalt, the new fish restaurant on MacArthur Boulevard in space once occupied by MacArthur Drugs. The amberjack is surrounded by glistening, multicolored snapper, skate, scallops, shrimp, salmon and a dozen other sea creatures. We’ve got clams, mussels and oysters, too.

But Blacksalt is not just a fish market selling fish, spices, sauces and other fishy items. Step back into the building to find an elegant long steel bar with stools for wining and dining. Beyond that, separated by a glass-and-wood partition is a small, cozy restaurant simply and stylishly decorated.

Blacksalt, the newest creation of chef Jeff Black, is in its fourth month, and it’s a winner in a neighborhood that has been longing for an ambitious restaurant. The chef’s other restaurants — Addie’s, Black’s Bar and Kitchen, and Black Market Bistro — are in nearby Maryland.

Blacksalt offers small plates, appetizers, soups, a raw bar, mussels prepared five ways, salads, seafood stews and fish entrees, with a few meat dishes thrown in. Just about everything we sampled was delicious, both at dinner and at lunch, when the menu also includes sandwiches and large salads.

There are numerous ways to create a multidish meal, even for the small appetite, and the chef will prepare special dishes for diners at their request as well as a customized $84 tasting menu, which must be ordered by all the guests at table.

Wood-grilled sardines ($4 each) are outstanding. The smoky flavor imparted by the wood, the drizzle of olive oil and parsley give the little fish delicious complexity. It’s a splendid starter. So, too, are the marinated white anchovies splashed with lemon juice and a spoonful of tiny greens.

The fried clams are not to be missed, served with an aioli sauce and a lovely, slightly sweet vinaigrette. The tiny morsels are flash-fried and served hot and crisp, sweet and tender.

The kitchen works magic with shrimp. A lunchtime salad of glazed shrimp, served on a sugar-cane brochette was superb: The shrimp were tender and delicious, with just a touch of sweetness. They were served on a mound of arugula with a few orange segments, pieces of black olives and bits of feta cheese, an inspired combination.

Equally good is a dinner starter of glazed white shrimp, also served over an arugula-and-feta salad with two small rounds of crisp-tender potato cakes. In the latter case, the shrimp are butterflied for grilling, while in the lunchtime salad, they are left whole.

A carrot-and-ginger soup of the day was banal and not up to the quality of the fish soups and stews. The zarzuela, a Spanish stew of prawns, mussels, red snapper, Serrano ham, tomato and green olives is a delight. The fish and shellfish are fresh, and the broth is fragrant with saffron and spices. Other stews include an Italian mix of bronzini, shrimp, squid and clams with rapini, tomato and anchovy; and a French bourride of monkfish, salmon, scallops and oysters with potatoes, pernod, sorrel and aioli.

A main course of a pan-roasted sweet and tender lobster with bok choy, rice, mussels and squid, perfumed with lemon grass, was a perfectly prepared dish.

The only disappointment was a bland wood-grilled dorado. The fish appeared to have been sauteed rather than grilled, and the broccoli rabe that accompanied it was tough. On the other hand, the side of polenta was creamy and very good, as was the rosemary butter sauce, redolent with oven-dried tomatoes and pine nuts.

Mussels are another real treat at Blacksalt. The classic preparation of a broth with shallots, garlic, tomatoes and lemon is light and delicious. The excellent little mussels also can be ordered Thai style (with coconut milk, kafir lime leaves and green chilies); Moroccan (with merguez sausage, preserved lemon and tomato); Spanish (with saffron, chorizo and marjoram); or Vietnamese (with fermented black beans, cilantro, scallion, mint and bean paste).

Some of the fish appetizers and main courses change daily. Scallops are on the menu now, as are tuna, salmon and many others. Lunchtime sandwiches include oyster po’ boys, clam rolls and broiled crab cakes. Unfortunately, in this region, where the crab is king, the kitchen had run out of crab cakes at a recent dinner.

Blacksalt is not limited to fish dishes. The chef also prepares a wood-grilled hanger steak with potatoes Anna. Sometimes short ribs are on the menu, sometimes roasted Cornish hen. Among the starters is a trio of ham — speck, Serrano and prosciutto; Hudson Valley Farms foie gras is teamed with duck confit, raisins and a caramelized pear.

Pastry chef Susan Wallace’s chocolate hazelnut crunch cake with caramel and chocolate sauces is splendid — rich and creamy but not overly sweet. Key lime pie, a small round topped with a froth of whipped cream and a spoonful of huckleberry compote on the side, is a fine finale. The hazelnut souffle need not be ordered in advance, for it comes to the table in 10 minutes, trembling high above its individual-size souffle dish.

Blacksalt’s wine list is interesting and well-chosen with vintages from all over the world and bottles at all prices.

Service is courteous and accommodating but overwhelmed. The wait between first and other courses is overly long, but perhaps the kitchen still needs time to find its stride on busy nights. It’s usually worth the wait.

RESTAURANT: Blacksalt, 4883 MacArthur Blvd. NW; 202/342-9101

HOURS: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and noon to 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Dinner, 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday and until 10:30 p.m. Friday, from 5 to 10:30 p.m. Saturday and until 9 p.m. Sunday

PRICES: Appetizers and small plates, $6 to $11 (lunch), $3 to $17 (dinner); main courses, $9 to $17 (lunch), $24 to $35 (dinner); desserts, $6 to $10

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Adequate street parking

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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