BY DEBBIE TUMA
September 1, 2017
Walking into Saltbox you might get the impression that it’s another Hamptons pub-style restaurant, replete with casually rustic and beachy accents, but you’d be wrong. Distinguishing Saltbox is its creative menu, food, and flavors created by Chef Nadia Ovalles.
She blends her keen sense of seasonings and spices to kick up the tastes of her seafood, meats and side dishes. A recurring thought as I ate was that Saltbox should not be keeping this girl a secret.
Saltbox Restaurant & Bar is tucked away inside one of Carl Fisher’s original Tudor-style buildings across from the Montauk Tower on the village green. Although in its third year, Saltbox is still relatively new by Montauk standards. It replaced the popular O’Murphy’s Pub, which was there for decades before moving to its present Montauk Harbor location. There are small traditional tables and a few long picnic tables, a full, lively bar, and lots of nautical framed artwork of surfers, waves, mermaids, and fishermen on the walls. Its large windows look out on the Montauk Circle and the lovely village green. You can dine al fresco along the sidewalk.
When asked about the name, “Saltbox,” Nadia explained that the restaurant was named after the old saltbox cottages that remain sprinkled around Montauk. One of the better-known examples is Second House Museum on Main Street just west of town.
“My food is a fusion of what Montauk has to offer, with a twist,” Nadia says, taking a break from the hot kitchen on a recent summer evening. At 32, she has already cooked in some of the world’s best restaurants, from her Caribbean roots to NYC’s well-known eatery, Nobu 57, a blend of Asian and Peruvian cuisine, and the Italian restaurant, Marea. She got her start at the Art Institute of New York City.
Nadia explains that she’s a specialist with umami, aka “savory taste”, which is considered one of the five basic tastes (along with sweetness, sourness, bitterness, and saltiness). Commensurately her cooking honors all five human senses…and it shows in her creations at Saltbox with ridiculously tasty dishes for the palette that also delight our other senses, eyes included.
But I’m getting ahead. Wayne Connolly, the personable manager and bartender, came over that night and helped us select from a creative menu of specialty cocktails as preamble to Nadia’s delicacies. We tried the Ditch Punch, of Bacardi white rum, hibiscus, pineapple and fresh lime juice…light, smooth and summery, and the Aji Margarita, of Avion silver tequila, chili peppers, orange liquor, and lime juice…peppery, spicy and delicious. There is also a Mango Coconut Martini for the martini lovers and a Lazy Point Iced Tea, with citrus vodka. I sipped and marveled at the unique silverware on the table. It has a creative fishtail motif. Very Montauk.
To the food. Mark, our waiter, brought out a big bowl of Montauk Steamed Mussels in a light, spicy tomato broth, which was a nice change from the usual white wine and garlic. The mussels were fresh and tender, served with soft warm bread for soaking up the incredible sauce. Mark then came over with some of Nadia’s special garlic fries, which have garlic mojo, cotija cheese, parsley, and a savory truffle mayo. Not just your usual French fries.
Sampling a few more appetizers, we chose the Tuna Poke, (in case you’re wondering, this is pronounced “po-kay”, OK?, and there is no accent over the e – I looked it up) which was chunks of fresh raw tuna, mixed with a tangy Chipotle mayo and served on fried pita triangles…savory, crunchy and delicious. Next up was a sight to behold; our waiter carried out two Lobster Sliders perched on a “hammock” above two Salty Bloody Marys. The Lobster Roll, or sliders, are also very fresh and a favorite at Saltbox. They go well with the zesty Bloody Marys, a great summer drink.
One of Saltbox’s most popular appetizers is Nadia’s signature dish, the crunchy, savory Chicken Wings. Nadia energizes them with a spicy Korean twist and pairs them with House ranch dressing. “All our sauces and dressings are made in-house,”
said Nadia, who works alongside her Sous Chef, Alex Figueroa.
My dining partner and I shared an entree of Seared Scallops, which was one of our favorites. It consisted of four giant sea scallops perfectly cooked so they were juicy and succulent, resting on a bed of warm quinoa salad with cilantro jalapeno aioli. The combination was original and divine. We shared another entree of Clams Marinara with Pasta, which was no ordinary spaghetti with clam sauce. Nadia whipped up some fresh Korean spices and flavors, like Gochujang, for the red sauce, served over thin pasta with baby hard clams. “It’s simple, but delicious,” she said. “That’s the trick.”
After this wonderful meal we simply had no room for dessert, but we hear the cheesecake and chocolate mousse cake are worth a trip by themselves. We’ll have to head back soon.
The Saltbox Restaurant & Bar is open daily year-round and has live music in the summer from 7pm to 10pm. They feature many different musicians and styles. 99 South Edgemere Avenue, Montauk. Call 631-238-5727. www.montauksaltbox.com.