When people talk about restaurant options on the Portland waterfront, the Willamette River first comes to mind. While the mighty Columbia River is the more well-known big brother to the Willamette, its banks are lined with heavy industries, marinas and an airport. It seems like hardly the place for a fine-dining establishment, but don’t tell Laura Reeder that.
Location, Location, Location
As the general manager of Salty’s on the Columbia, she finds their offbeat location to be an asset. Situated just behind Portland International Airport on the south bank of the Columbia River, Salty’s is about as far away from the heartbeat of downtown as you can get, and that’s just fine.
“It doesn’t matter that we aren’t downtown,” Reeder bluntly states. “We have a rich history. We’ve been here for twenty-seven years and are a local’s favorite.”
With a location centralized next to a marina, the airport, and between two major freeways, Salty’s is in a sweet spot. And while it might be easy to assume being next to an airport is a liability, Reeder doesn’t see it that way.
“It’s not a problem,” she says. “It’s actually a draw to the restaurant because you can sit out on the decks in the summertime and see and hear the planes. People will come for that. And we get to see the fighter jets take off early in the morning.”
Being one of the only restaurants on the south bank of the Columbia also works in Salty’s favor. As Portland tourism explodes, intrepid travelers are looking to experience every aspect of the Pacific Northwest. What better way to do so than by having lunch on the shores of one of the greatest rivers?
“We get people from all over the world,” Reeder says. “We also get lots of visitors from landlocked states that don’t really know about the Columbia. That’s one of the fun parts of working here, you meet people from all over.”
Salty’s on the Columbia is one of three locations, the other two being in Seattle. They are owned by Jerry Robert Kingen and his wife Cathy. If you haven’t heard his name, you certainly have heard of the restaurant chain he founded and eventually sold: Red Robin. After turning his Seattle location into a burger empire, he sold it off and used the money to buy Salty’s.
In the kitchen you can find head chef Josh Gibler cooking up exquisite meals using classic techniques, but with his own modern flair. Gibler, an Oregonian born and raised, attended culinary school in Vancouver, Washington and brings a rich Italian heritage to his work.
When asked about how he goes about composing his dishes, Reeder says he “takes inspiration from ingredients and he likes to create from there.” But like any good chef, he also relies on a tried-and-true method for discovering things the people will love: Childhood classics. “Every Christmas he likes to bring back an anchovy linguine he had as a child,” Reeder says.
Taking inspiration from the ingredients – whether from his childhood or something more modern – wouldn’t be possible if the ingredients weren’t the best. Although they may not be in the hubbub of downtown, Reeder knows what Portland foodies have come to expect.
Sustainably and Locally Sourced
“We only bring in food that is sustainably harvested,” Reeder says. “We know what those are, they are identified, so we don’t bring them in.”
Salty’s sources its seafood from a company that participates in the Pacific Watch program. “They bring us seafood that is sustainably harvested, versus seafood that has been overfished and the populations aren’t increasing within the harvest year.”
And while there’s very little bad to be found in such a policy, at times it can be a double-edged sword. “We do get people who come in and say ‘Oh, you don’t have sea bass,’ or something like that. But if it’s not a part of that [Pacific Watch] program, then we don’t bring it on,” Reeder states matter-of-factly.
Salty’s also gets a large portion of its produce items from local sources. They even source some of their chanterelle mushrooms from local hunters. “Because we live in the Northwest, we get the best ingredients we can choose from right here in our backyard, and we take full advantage of that,” Reeder explains.
Expect a showcase of local favorites behind the bar. “All of our beers on draft pour are local,” Reeder says. “And we have a heavy Oregon and Washington wine list.”
Food at its Finest
You may initially be a little intimidated upon first arrival to Salty’s. It has an expensive look, but don’t let that fool you. As Reeder explains, this is an everyman’s restaurant.
“Salty’s is that type of place where you can come in for a lobster and Dom Perignon dinner or come in for a burger and have a beer,” she says. “We’re kind of everybody’s restaurant.” While we love burgers, let’s face it, lobster and Dom Perignon has a nice ring.
The evening starts with a bowl of their “secret” Clam Chowder. The velvety clam bisque is chocked full of bay shrimp, scallops, clams and bacon, then topped with a heaping of Dungeness crab and a drizzle of Spanish crème sherry. The crab adds a sweetness to the bisque that’s remarkably balanced out by the bacon’s salty goodness.
Next up is a Pacific Northwesterner’s favorite: Columbia River Steelhead trout. This one is delivered with a cold smoke and draped in roasted tomato butter, which melts under two large prawns huddled together atop the fish. The entire display sits in a pool of mushroom bisque and is complimented by potatoes and steamed broccolini. The fish is cooked perfectly, the flavors are subtle, and the prawns practically explode in juiciness with each bite.
Then, the dinner coup de grâce; a simple title understates this feast for the senses: The filet and tail. The seven-ounce filet is brought to the restaurant from a local farm in Boring, Oregon. It’s cooked to a perfect medium, set on a bed of mashed potatoes, then topped with fresh Dungeness crab, drowned in house-made hollandaise sauce, and sprinkled with chives. To one side is a small pile of steamed broccolini and to the other a large, juicy Maine lobster tail just begging to be eaten. As if steak and lobster weren’t good enough, delectable hollandaise sauce poured over crab elevates the whole dish to another level.
But just when you think dinner stole the show, dessert arrives. It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. It starts with a bed of dry ice topped with cedar branches and a cast-iron skillet. Inside the skillet is a layer of graham cracker crust, a chocolate ganache, and a marshmallow made in-house with Bullit rye bourbon. A small pitcher of hot water is poured into the bowl as you watch, causing the dry ice to melt into a gas, erupt out of the bowl and cascade down the sides of the table. As you giggle in delight at this unexpected trick, the waiter reveals a torch and proceeds to melt the marshmallow for you. Once the marshmallow has the perfect crisp, he moves the torch down to the cedar branches, singes them a bit, and instantly the smell of a campfire fills the air. Pure brilliance. A night to remember concludes with a fireplace to one side and the river to the other, all while a jazz band plays in the background.
So next time you are looking for a classic, local Portland experience on the banks of the mighty Columbia River, pay Salty’s a visit. It’s very unlikely you’ll be disappointed. Also check out their epic weekend brunch, which offers a wealth of seafood and bottomless mimosas at a price you can afford.
William Bessette – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor
William Bessette is an author, journalist and blogger who’s been writing professionally for over eleven years. When he isn’t writing or eating, then writing about eating, expect him to be outside enjoying the natural splendors of his home in the great Pacific Northwest.