You’ve undoubtedly read a lot about Frank Sinatra on the occasion of his centennial birthday this month. Although his career took a hell of a lot of hits, he always found a way to bounce back. It was impossible not to be reminded of that during recent visits to Salt ’N Pepper Southern Comfort Bar & Grill in Tivoli Village, as chef Alex Stratta knows almost as well as Sinatra what it means to be “riding high in April and shot down in May.”
Stratta’s career has included awards for his work at The Mirage’s famed Renoir and for his Michelin-starred French and amazing high-end Italian at Wynn, overseeing a renaissance at off-Strip favorite Marché Bacchus, and cooking with his superstar musician pals. But he’s also seen some rough patches, and the past year or so has been a big one.
After short-lived ventures in California and New York, Stratta announced a new business partnership and big plans for a dining empire at the Gramercy and beyond in 2014. But we soon heard he’d split from his partners. And his long-delayed Tapas by Alex Stratta inexplicably moved from a small Tivoli spot to a much larger space in 2015. Seven months later, after mediocre reviews, it closed.
Well, that’s life. But I’ll be damned if Alex hasn’t got it going on once again, doing a cuisine I’d never have expected from him—American Southern comfort food—in the former Tapas space at Tivoli.
Looking back, Stratta admits he “missed the mark” with his tapas concept, conceding that it was priced too high for the neighborhood and that his gourmet approach may have been a little too “elevated” for the market. In response, he says, “We kept on adjusting and adjusting and adjusting, and I found myself saying, ‘We’re doing such an abbreviated version of what we were supposed to do that it was no longer what it’s supposed to be.’” So he turned to Southern food, which is, by its very nature “more casual and more approachable,” and therefore wouldn’t require any compromise.
On my first visit to Salt ’N Pepper, I was blown away by a trio of small plates. The mildly sweet onion hush puppies were fried to delicate perfection; a staff-recommended a cup of the soup du jour, a loaded baked potato soup packed with potatoes, corn, cheese and smoky barbecued ribs; and even a dish I rarely order, fried tomatoes, was fantastic. The thick, red slices were coated in a crispy cornmeal crust that locked in their natural juices while providing a solid crunch.
A second visit, a full lunch with a trio of foodie friends, was more of a mixed bag. Still, the hits outnumbered the misses. The standout dish was a simple shrimp po’ boy elevated to the chef’s gourmet level, with shrimp fried beautifully, literally popping on the palate and not overpowered by batter. The slaw was nicely spiced, the vegetables fresh, and the quality bread was grilled to make it crispy and lightly brushed with remoulade.
Two other favorites featured chicken, one an appetizer, the other an entrée. The chicken and waffles was superb, despite crispy skin that was just a touch overcooked. Nonetheless, the meat was tender and juicy, the seasoning included a nice hint of hot sauce, and the sweet potato waffles were probably the only item of the day to be not just sampled but devoured in its entirety. Good fried chicken is a rarity in this town, and Stratta’s ranks among the very best. But don’t overlook the wings—the combination of slightly sweet barbecue sauce with salt-and-pepper seasoning makes them the perfect bar snack.
That’s not to say everything at Salt ’N Pepper has been perfect. The hush puppies I loved so much on my first visit were thick and crusty the second time in. I would have liked my mac and cheese bites a bit gooier. And I found two preparations of beans—red and baked—to be undercooked. (The biscuits and gravy could also use more gravy, but that’s easily remedied.)
Décor at the new spot is simpler than that of its predecessors Poppy Den and Petra. You get basic tables and booths, but the space feels a lot less cramped than it did as Poppy Den. And once the weather gets nice again, the restaurant has some of Tivoli’s best patio space.
Minor complaints aside, this is well-above-average Southern chow in a town where Dixie dining is suddenly all the rage. And Stratta is definitely back on top—I think Frank would tip his hat.
Al’s Menu Picks
- Cornmeal fried tomatoes ($8)
- Salt ‘N Pepper chicken wings with barbecue sauce ($9)
- fried shrimp po’ boy ($14)
- and fried chicken and sweet potato waffles ($19)
Salt ’N Pepper southern Comfort Bar & Grill
Tivoli Village, 702-483-3555, SaltNPepperGrill.com. Open for lunch and dinner 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Sun-Thu, 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Fri-Sat. Dinner for two, $30-$80.