The Saltwater Cafe has lots of things going for it-comfort, variety, value and size. It also has a nautical theme, including a long, colorful aquarium that parallels a line of booths. A dark, handsome bar (complete with old-fashioned black-and-white tile floor and brass boot rail) separates the two main dining areas from a private, glass-enclosed dining room with a cheerful undersea life mural on the wall.
In all, the place seats 350; but it’s artfully divided so that it doesn’t seem that vast. Although it’s noisy at peak hours, both from chatter and live music, the atmosphere feels relaxed and convivial. Those enjoying dinner appear to be in no particular hurry, although those standing in the parking lot with beepers waiting their turn probably wish they were. The outdoor front courtyard includes a fountain, and green market umbrellas give the redwood tables a feeling of intimacy.
The restaurant is owned by Rolf Zahnd, the 35-year-old Swiss chef of the establishment, and his mother, Katherina Zahnd. They bought the restaurant six years ago, keeping the name and expanding the menu.
Printed tabloid-style on an 11 x 15-inch size newspaper, the menu includes eight color pages of food descriptions and nautical art. It’s a big menu with lots of seafood and plenty of other choices, too. If you go without knowing what you want to eat, you’ll either be delightfully surprised by where your taste buds can take you or too confused to decide. The varied menu appeals to inter-generational families who need to find something children will eat as well as choices that accommodate special diets, allergies, or vegetarian requirements.
If all else fails, order a pizza, either a quarter, half or whole pie. The Saltwater ovens bake up excellent pizza crust, and you can order traditional red sauce varieties as well as 10 white pizzas, including one made with blackened grouper. You can even build your own personal pie, specifying ingredients from mozzarella to mussels. Prices range from about $8 for a quarter pie up to $20 for the Boscaiola, which incorporates heavy cream and fresh wild mushrooms into the mix.
What else? Anything from a burger of ground sirloin ($5.99) to crab and lobster ravioli to Spanish paella or bouillabaisse, pan-fried soft shell crab ($14.99) or key lime salmon ($16.99). Entrées come with homemade Swiss bread, fresh vegetable, and either potato, rice or pasta of choice. Entrées average about $16, and it takes a big appetite to finish what’s set before you.
Chef Zahnd likes to experiment, and he’s inspired by many cultures. His concoctions can be pretty unorthodox. One is called Kathrin’s pasta; it combines kielbasa sausage, shrimp, snow peas, shiitake mushrooms, tomatoes in a light garlic butter and Cajun seasoning atop your choice of pasta ($15.99). It tastes better than it reads.
While Saltwater Cafe primarily targets the frequent diner who prizes big portions, budget prices, and plenty of choice, the restaurant also appeals to gourmands with a monthly six-course dinner that honors a specific nation or region and features about eight accompanying wines. A wine expert extols the unique characteristics of each of the labels, supplies some history of the winery and suggests harmonious wine pairings.
For these occasions, Chef Zahnd gets out the fine china (the modernistic square green glass plates with dots of gold are simply grand) and indulges his taste for artistic constructions. The wine dinners are held the last Thursday of each month and cost $50 a person. Reservations are accepted up to a few days in advance.
At a recent wine dinner that celebrated the gastronomic glories of Spain, I thought the Saltwater’s spicy gazpacho had much more kick and depth of flavor than anything I encountered in Spain. These wine dinners showcase a whole different side to what is possible at Saltwater Cafe, and it is probably what the young chef takes the most pride in orchestrating. Rolf Zahnd deserves encouragement and admiration for periodically elevating a popular budget restaurant to a higher cuisine experience.
1071 N. Tamiami Trail,
Easy parking in restaurant lot
Lunch and Dinner: Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m.-late night. Sunday brunch, 11 a.m.-2 p.m.