At its best, Italian food is simple: well-cooked pastas and sauces that rely more on fresh ingredients than complex recipes to make a good meal. Too many modern Italian restaurants take this traditional simplicity and use it as a cover for laziness, producing dull food overwhelmed with bland tomatoes and an overabundance of melted cheese. The folks at Salut Bistro avoid these mistakes by keeping things light and combining quality ingredients to create bright, vibrant flavors — flavors we were rather surprised to find in a small restaurant tucked away in an anonymous-looking office building on North University Avenue.
The bistro made fans of us even before we placed our appetizer order with a small loaf of hot garlic bread and a red pepper pesto that blew us away with the clean, sharp flavor of fresh basil. We savored every bite of the buttery bread. Having had our taste buds primed for basil, we turned our attention to a large Caprese salad ($10), reveling in the flavor of the herb coupled with Roma tomatoes, soft mozzarella, and aged balsamic vinegar. Big enough to serve as an entree in and of itself, this salad was one of the best bites we had all evening.
Our second starter, steamed mussels ($12), was a nice contrast to the light salad, with shellfish, roasted tomatoes and caramelized onions floating in a heavenly broth of white wine and saffron. The deep, rich flavor of the tomatoes and onions was the perfect match for the earthy flavor of mussels, and while we came across one or two bites that were a touch too fishy for our taste, overall the dish was good. Two slices of grilled bread were put to good use mopping up that saffron-scented broth, and we found ourselves wishing we hadn't been so eager with the first plate of bread we'd received.
Moving on to our main course, we decided to go for a dish seen on many Italian menus, eggplant Parmesan ($12), and one we've not seen before, chicken cannelloni ($15). Being more familiar with the Italian-sausage version of cannelloni, we were quite pleased with this shredded chicken version, covered in a rich tomato sauce. Even better than the sauce, however, was the large pile of fried spinach leaves topping the dish. Each leaf was still perfectly green, as if it were fresh, but fried to a light, crisp texture that was compelling in flavor and color. We discussed for some time how the kitchen managed to get the leaves to stay so green while getting them so crisp. At any rate, it was a delicious discovery.
The eggplant Parmesan, two massive pieces of breaded eggplant served with fettuccine, was even more successful, a good balance of eggplant, cheese and sauce. Having been burned by bitter-tasting eggplant in the past, we were hesitant to order this dish, but each bite was sweet and good, despite a rind that was a bit tough at times. The breading held up reasonably well to the sauce, although things got a little mushy in the middle. The pasta served with the eggplant was cooked to perfection.
We left the small restaurant enamored with its dimly lit, intimate setting, and pleased with the quality of service we received. The small complaints we had were made rather trivial by the overall meal experience, and it was clear to us that there is a high level of skill operating in the kitchen. The office building setting is a bit off-putting at first, but once we settled into our meal of fresh, simple food, everything seemed just right.