Restaurant Review: The Salt Line
The seafood restaurant's Ballston outpost is a winner for raw bar, lobster rolls, stuffies, chowder, cocktails and more.
The Salt Line’s “Perfect Storm” double Bloody Mary is quite literally a thirst trap. Instagrammable to the max, the $30 monster cocktail arrives in a tiki glass garnished with a lobster claw, cocktail shrimp, a dressed oyster, a fried coddie (salt-cod fritter) and other “accoutrements.” I know it’s meant to entice weak people like me with its folly and excess, and I thoroughly enjoy the interactive fun of it—the cracking of the lobster claw, the slurping of the oyster—not to mention the buzz.
The Ballston seafood restaurant, which opened in October, is an offshoot of the original Salt Line that debuted in 2017 next to Nats Park. (Former Washington Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman is an investor in both locations.) Parent company Long Shot Hospitality, which also owns Dauphine’s in downtown D.C.—its partners are Jeremy Carman, Gavin Coleman, Paul Holder, Jon Ball and chef Kyle Bailey—chose Ballston for their first expansion of the concept, in part because the neighborhood has a density and clientele akin to Navy Yard’s. “It could be a place for date nights or families,” says Bailey. “And the outdoor space was a huge plus.”
The outdoor space he’s referring to, designed by GrizForm Design Architects, includes a patio with seating for 40, plus a hybrid outdoor bar with heaters and removable wall panels that accommodates another 30 at the counter and 15 at high tops. GrizForm also designed the restaurant’s 3,800-square-foot, nautical-themed interior, which seats 90.
Chef Matt Singer, who helms the kitchen in Ballston, collaborated with Bailey on a menu that includes a few classics from The Salt Line in D.C. (coddies, lobster rolls, stuffed clams), plus original dishes influenced by Singer’s experience working at Italian restaurants in Boston—most recently a four-year stint at Bar Mezzana.
It’s no accident that guests are immediately greeted by a bountiful raw bar stocked with oysters, crab legs, shrimp and clams, and an overhead sign that reads Let’s shellebrate. A shellfish tower is never a bad way to get the party started, although if you don’t want to shell out (oops) $150 for “The Kraken” (that being the smaller of the two towers), consider downing a couple oyster shooters instead. I can recommend the sake bomb, which finds a glistening bivalve dressed in ponzu, scallions and chilies, resting on a shot glass filled with yuzu, sake and Optimal Wit beer.
The piping hot pimento crab dip, rife with lump crab and gooey cheddar and served with puffy Old Bay chips, is also a fine starter to tide you over as you ponder your next menu choices.
The crudos here are stunners. My favorite of the four features thin slices of Atlantic halibut topped with avocado, lemon, shaved fennel, celery, Kalamata olives and a drizzle of bay leaf oil. It’s pretty to behold and a clever balance of fat, salt, acid and sweetness. Another crudo gives rockfish belly the tartare treatment, mixing it with Fresno chilies, cucumber, red onion and olive oil, with an orange-lime dressing.
I’m drawn to many of The Salt Line’s classics, including the stuffies—large clam shells packed with chopped clams, linguiça sausage, Parmesan, Parker House breadcrumbs and hot sauce. Chef Singer’s clam chowder relies on cream and clam stock for a tasty broth, rather than being thickened (and ruined) by a pasty roux, as so many places do.
An entrée of Ritz-cracker-encrusted baked cod finds the flaky fish perched atop perfectly al dente haricots verts and Yukon Gold potato purée, then finished with lemon-pepper butter. It’s a simple, sumptuous dish.
Don’t overlook the sandwiches. They score extra points because the fries that come with them are made fresh, not frozen. The lobster roll—which you can order warm and bathed in drawn butter, or cold and dressed with mayo, shallots, tarragon and lemon—doesn’t skimp. It’s packed with 4.25 ounces of tail and claw meat. Bailey says the kitchen goes through about 300 pounds of lobsters per day.
The crispy fish sandwich, an enormous hunk of buttermilk-dipped and battered Chesapeake blue catfish with lettuce and pickled-pepper tartar sauce, wins out over any other I’ve had.
Bonus: Blue catfish are an invasive species that prey on our precious blue crabs, so consuming them performs a public service. Do another one by washing your meal down with a glass of Olé & Obrigado Garnacha rosé; a portion of each sale goes to the Oyster Recovery Partnership, a nonprofit whose mission is protecting the Chesapeake’s waterways.
There were a couple clunkers on my visits to The Salt Line, perhaps due to inconsistencies in the kitchen. The night I ordered bucatini and scallops with ’nduja (a spreadable, spicy pork sausage), the noodles were stuck together and the scallops were visibly overcooked. But the same dish looked completely different—the pasta fluffy, the shellfish plump and inviting—when I spied it on a neighboring table a different evening.
A chilled seafood salad of calamari, mussels and scallops was tragically overmarinated and dubiously accompanied by deep-fried artichoke hearts that were cold.
Like that colossal Bloody Mary, the desserts here are quite photogenic and obviously crafted with social media in mind. A banana split featuring three ice creams, three sauces, multiple toppings and made to look like a pirate ship, complete with a skull-and-crossbones flag, is AARGHuably tasty and picturesque. (Sorry!)
A parfait of devil’s food cake and butterscotch mousse adorned with chocolate pearls and caramel popcorn was so enticing that it elicited a Pavlovian response from the gawking couple next to us. Score another dessert sale for The Salt Line.
GrizForm’s fresh, sophisticated, playful décor speaks the vernacular of New England and Chesapeake Bay seafood restaurants with subway tile, a blue-and-tan color scheme, bleached wood accents and the requisite harpoon. Fish on.
What to Drink
Economies of scale kick in when you’re a high-volume company, and the beverage offerings at The Salt Line are remarkable.
The wine list includes 3 sparkling, 5 reds, 5 whites and 2 rosés by the glass or bottle, plus another 8 sparkling, 23 reds, 23 whites and 7 rosés by the bottle only. Wine prices range from $11-$19 (glass) and $15-$298 (bottle).
Beers, including 14 on tap and 13 canned, run $5-$10.
Spirits aficionados will be impressed by The Salt Line’s booze offerings, too. Most of the 9 craft cocktails are $12-$13, save the $30 “Perfect Storm” double Bloody Mary with its panoply of seafood garnishes. The cleverly named “Wilson Boulevardier” (rye, Aperol, sweet vermouth, orange), $13, is silky smooth.
The Salt Line
4040 Wilson Blvd., Arlington
703-566-2075 | thesaltline.com
Monday through Thursday: 4 to 10 p.m.
Friday and Saturday: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Sunday: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Street parking or the Ballston public parking garage in Ballston Quarter.
The Ballston Metro station is three blocks away.
Appetizers: $6 to $18; Entrées: $27 to $34; Desserts: $6 to $16