Midway between Castroville and Monterey, State Route 1 cuts through Marina, a small and irregularly shaped city hemmed in by Salinas to the east, and Monterey Bay to the west.
At highway speed, it takes on the order of three minutes to traverse Marina along its north-south axis—just enough time to note an impressive agglomeration of sand dunes and an equally impressive and persistent wind that buffets them, a combination of factors, which, according to the Monterey County Convention and Visitors Bureau, makes this the "premier hang gliding spot in Central California." While I've driven this stretch more times than I can remember—on the way to Carmel Valley or Big Sur or points farther south—being rather leery of wind-powered flying machines, I never thought to stop and explore the dunes. Until a recent dinner invitation, that is.
There was a new restaurant called Salt Wood Kitchen and Oysterette, the invitation said, at The Sanctuary Beach Resort, just off the highway and steps from the Marina Dunes Preserve. Of particular interest was the fact that Salt Wood's chef, David Baron, had worked previously with Dominique Crenn, Daniel Patterson and Chris Cosentino, to name a few.
Housed in a big, barn-like structure on the resort's property, Salt Wood is airy and bright, its interior all wood and wainscoting—modern with a rustic touch, or vice versa. From my suite in the dunes, I made my way there an hour before sunset, and kicked things off at the bar with a classic daiquiri—an unfussily and refreshingly brisk blend of Ron Zacapa, lime and simple syrup. As I sipped, I kept a corner of an eye on the nearby grill, where things were heating up over an almond wood fire.
Migrating shortly thereafter to a grill-side seat, I ordered a trio of oysters. The first two were Miyagi, cooked to a fare-thee-well, one drowned in delightfully funky-spicy kimchi butter, the other in a tangy-creamy tarragon pesto; and then, a raw Kusshi, a wisp of a thing with an ethereal saline flavor, garnished with a decadent little mound of white sturgeon caviar. To go with these delicacies, the bartender had recommended a Melon de Bourgogne from Lieu Dit, a winery in Lompoc which specializes in varieties indigenous to the Loire Valley. Bright, crisp and lemony, the Melon was an absolutely perfect chaser between bites of bivalve.
For a seafood restaurant, Salt Wood has some lovely options for non-pescavores—fried chicken with braised greens, artisanal Monterey Jack, and biscuits; or porcini-rubbed hanger steak with roasted carrots, turnips and wild mushrooms—but I was in a fishy mood. How often, after all, does one come across such impeccably fresh Monterey sardines—the bycatch of a local squid fisherman—in this case marinated with citrus and herbs, grilled, and garnished simply with Pecorino Romano breadcrumbs and Meyer lemon zest; or a great, meaty cut of locally-caught salmon served on a bed of mouthwateringly savory black lentils, roasted beets and delectably charred yellow and green pole beans?
I was so happily enmeshed in the food and the flavors that I didn't immediately register how seamlessly the whole operation was running: the ease with which the grill-master went about her work as the orders came flying in; the smiles and the unrushed pace of the servers as the dining room filled steadily up at 6 o'clock on a weekday evening; nary a rough edge in sight. Not bad for a restaurant that had been open to the public for exactly one week.
Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised, considering David Baron's resume: chef de cuisine at Atelier Crenn, chef de partie at Incanto, sous-chef at COI, and before them, posts at Aqua and at La Bouitte, a 3-Michelin-star Relais & Châteaux property in Savoie, France. And while he thrived in those rarefied heights, Baron had long been dreaming of opening a somewhat more relaxed restaurant on a beach. In early 2014, he began laying the groundwork, moving with his then-pregnant wife to the Monterey Peninsula, where he took on a seemingly impossible workload: cheffing—simultaneously—at three restaurants and two wineries. Comparatively speaking, running a single restaurant—albeit not a small one, with 250 seats indoors and out—must be a breeze.
When I first got word of the project, it struck me as a bold move somehow—opening such an ambitious place in a city without the immediate name recognition of a Monterey or a Carmel-by-the-Sea. But after an evening at Salt Wood, it's clear that Baron knows exactly what he's doing, both in the kitchen, and more broadly speaking, in Marina, which will in no time be recognized as a culinary destination in its own right. // 3295 Dunes Drive (Marina), saltwoodkitchenandoysterette.com