Yet another small-plates restaurant without any particular hook seems like such a yawn, so you'll forgive me if I didn't rush out to try Saluté Wine Bar in Santa Monica the minute it opened. OK, so the small plates are called piattini ("small plates" in Italian), then what?
A fancy name in no way confers heated interest. Nor does the fact that Saluté is a wine bar. Plenty of places dub themselves wine bars without any particular focus on wine.
But one night I was driving down Main Street on my way to another restaurant and realized we were just a block away from Saluté. Here's a chance to at least see what it's like, so I pulled over and ran in for a minute.
A couple of young Hollywood types were enjoying a smoke and a martini (martini?) outside. A wide glass door pivoted open on a wildly sociable scene inside. There's no recognizing it as the old Röckenwagner space. Opened up now to loft-like dimensions, the single big room has a high wood ceiling that arches over the restaurant like the roof of an airplane hangar. Low L-shaped couches and leather ottomans are grouped around coffee tables with a handful of regular tables lined up along the north wall.
I took a look at the menu -- salumi, cheese, thin-crusted Neapolitan pizza, a few salads and such, a couple of pastas. Not groundbreaking, but appealing enough, considering how inviting the space is. The rain poured down outside. Why go somewhere else?
I ran out, told the friend I'd left sitting in the car to call my other guest (she wouldn't have left yet) and ask her to meet us here instead. After canceling our other reservation, I ordered a couple glasses of flowery white Aprémont from the Savoie in France while we waited for a table and for our friend to show.
A party across the room breaks into the birthday song. A nearby group of film people in from London discusses the fallout from the Oscars. A pair of couples running away from the kids for the night linger over their food. Otherwise, it's girlfriends galore, four or five of whom have drawn bar stools into a circle, so intent on their conversation that the entire scene around them could have disappeared in a puff of smoke and they never would have noticed. Weaving through the room to a (finally) empty sofa, we feel more like guests at a crowded party than paying restaurant-goers. Which is a good thing, because the service isn't all that organized.
And that sense of Saluté not quite being a restaurant follows through in the food. The most appealing items are party snacks -- bowls of vivid green castelvetrano and cerignola olives glistening in a slick of olive oil and bruschetta -- toasts topped with a gutsy white bean purée or fresh milky burrata cheese and sea salt or a vinegary sweet caponata made with eggplant and capers. Just the thing with a bottle of Vermentino from Antinori or a Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel.
Top-notch salumi and cheese plates are refreshingly generous. Our salumi plate included prosciutto di Parma, smoky speck (a cured ham from the Alto Adige), finocchiona (a fennel-laced salame from Tuscany), cacciatore (a spicy little salame) and salame Toscana, with a garnish of enough olives that we needn't have ordered a separate bowl. Strewn on top are skinny breadsticks (if only they brought more when you needed them).
Winemakers have a saying, "buy wine on water, sell wine on cheese." That's because cheese disguises any defects, making the wine taste rounder and softer. The largest cheese plate (five selections) would cost an arm and a leg at a fancy cheese shop, but here it's only $16. I've bought a tiny wedge of Roquefort for that price. But Saluté is not dishing out slivers of cheese and the choices are first-rate. They've got Mt. Tam from Cowgirl Creamery, and tangy Humboldt Fog from Cypress Grove Chevre, also an Époisses from Burgundy and a cave-aged Gruyère from Switzerland.
Salads are pretty good too, but not entirely wine-friendly. Perky fresh arugula and watercress salad with shaved fennel is drenched in a slightly sweet pomegranate dressing. Stick with the heirloom beet salad tossed in a walnut vinaigrette: It's a better match with wine.
You could, if you're so inclined, get a full dinner at Saluté, and if you ordered the crispy braised duck leg with Taleggio-laced polenta and black kale at $20, you'd likely end up feeling you did pretty well for the price. Chef Cindy Crosbie comes from the Little Nell in Aspen, Colo., and does the duck proud. She's got trendy Kobe beef sliders on the menu too, but I'd ask for them without the balsamic onions (also a wine killer), please.
Order anything else, and you may be disappointed. Especially with the Neapolitan pizzas. The crust is cracker-thin, without much flavor. And while I'm definitely for sparer toppings in the Italian style, at Saluté it gets ridiculous. Our bianca is supposedly made with bufala mozzarella and granapadana (with arugula and prosciutto on top), but when the pizza comes, we can't detect any bufala. No blob of white, however small. All you can taste is salty grana padana grated over the top. I seriously think the kitchen has forgotten the mozzarella. Yet the manager insists the bufala has just melted into the crust. He's from the south of Italy, he says, so he knows. Come on. What are they using, a Microplane grater to shave the pricey bufala? The Margherita is underwhelming too. But I kind of like the pizza topped with pears drizzled with wildflower honey if you didn't think of it as pizza per se.
Pastas are a little better. The taste of a ravioli filled with house-made ricotta is milky and lovely, a fine contrast to the walnut pesto. I like the pumpkin agnolotti filling, but the pasta is a bit thick and crude. Fix that, and I'd love to stop in for a plate of ravioli on a rainy night, especially given the fair prices.
I also think they could do better with the wine list, which is organized by vague adjectives, such as "succulent," "ravishing," "voluptuous" and "decadent," and rife with misspellings. Great wines at great prices are easy to come by, so why not search out the best values in each appellation instead of going with so many middle-of-the-road and dull but familiar labels?
But then Saluté is more a wine bar for people just discovering wine or for people who just want to socialize over a nice glass than a serious wine bar. The owners, who want to be known as Marco and Tony (no last names), have bought into new wine-dispensing technology with a row of machines that offer 2-ounce, self-serve pours. Most wines poured there, our server tells us, are not on the list. It's a novelty, fun once or twice, but not for anybody who actually wants to drink wine.
On the lively and fun sociability scale, Saluté is pitch-perfect. As a wine bar, it could do better. As a restaurant, it has a way to go when the salumi and cheese turn out to be the most appealing items on the menu.
Bottom line: Get the kitchen on track and this place would be packed every night with people coming to eat and drink. As it is, Saluté threatens to turn into a bar scene with snacks.
Saluté Wine Bar RATING: * LOCATION 2435 Main St., Santa Monica; (310) 450-3434; salutewinebar.com. AMBIENCE Loft-like wine bar with a hip, sociable vibe. SERVICE Disorganized and often slow. PRICE Salumi and cheese plates, $9 to $16; bruschetta, $6 to $12; pizza, $12 to $16; other items (salad, pasta, meats), $9 to $20; desserts, $8 to $14. BEST DISHES Salumi and cheese, marinated olives, burrata bruschetta, crispy braised duck leg with polenta and kale, affogato, chocolate caramel tart. WINE LIST Pitched to wine fans but not aficionados, could be more exciting. Corkage fee, $25. DETAILS Open 5:30 p.m. to midnight Monday to Thursday, until 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Full bar. Parking in adjacent lot, $5. Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality. ****: Outstanding on every level. ***: Excellent. **: Very good. *: Good. No star: Poor to satisfactory.