WGBH's Henry Santoro interviewed Boston's Saltie Girl Restaurant owner Kathy Sidell and Chef Kyle McClelland about the Tinned-seafood style at the Back Bay eatery that celebrates it's one year anniversary this May. Below is a slightly edited version of their conversation. Click on the audio file above to listen to their interview.
Henry Santoro: The Back Bay Restaurant Salty Girl was open less than a week when word started to travel that it was the place to go for the best fish dishes in town. Platters of screamingly fresh raw oysters and clams, fried oysters like you've never tasted before, Dover sole that melts in your mouth and more lobster than you'd know what to do with. And then the separate menu that features small containers of tinned fish — elegant little vessels of spicy squid mussels mackerel sardines and octopus all swimming beautifully in olive oil. Saltie Girl is the creation of restaurant maven Kathy Sidell, head of the Met Restaurant Group and chef Kyle McClelland. They both join me now on Henry in the Hub and WGBH's Weekend Edition.
Kyle McClelland and Kathy Sidell: Good morning.
Henry Santoro: Thank you so much for coming in. Kathy, first of all, I know how difficult it is to corral you and get you to sit down for just a few minutes in one spot.
Sidell: Yes. True.
Santoro: I thank you very, very much for taking the time out to come in this morning.
Sidell: Of course, thrilled to be here.
Santoro: People say Saltie Girl reflects your personality. Would you agree?
Sidell: I would agree. Absolutely.
Santoro: How so?
Sidell: I think it's you know salty, briny, bold, strong. I also like to think, you know, there is a lot of warmth in that salty girl. But it's a combination of a lot of interesting traits.
Santoro: Look salty girl up in the dictionary and there's a picture of Kathy Sidell.
Sidell: You got it — with a mermaid tail. [laughs]
Santoro: Walking into Saltie Girl, which is tiny — 30 seats, I mean it's a small place — is like walking from the Back Bay into Barcelona. Tell us how the idea was formed and where you came up with the whole creation of it.
Sidell: Well you know it certainly is a combination from growing up in New England and being on a sailboat with my dad and eating, you know, fabulous extraordinary food from the New England coast. You know, my dad was an avid sailor, and I was often relegated to the galley and cooking and we would just buy lobsters off of lobster boats in the middle of Maine. And I really cut my teeth cooking on that boat in a very small space. And then I've traveled extensively, and my husband and I were in Barcelona and we stopped by this wonderful little jewel box of what is really a wine restaurant serving all cold food. And it's a stand up bar. And they had everything smoked, tinned — nothing was heated. The best bread you've ever had. The best cheese you've ever had. It was truly an extraordinary dining experience and so limited. And it just changed the way I looked at what the possibilities of a concept could be.
Sidell: And so I brought that element — that cold, kind of garment element into Saltie Girl.
Santoro: It had never been done in Boston before.
Sidell: No. Never been done. No, no no. And also you know this introduction to tins was pretty phenomenal. Like your tasting things out of tins that blew the back of your head off. I've never had an experience like that before. You know, it was not your Bumblebee tuna, let's put it that way.
Santoro: How did Kyle get involved?
Sidell: Well I think, I hope that I seduced Kyle with the concept, I'd like to think. But Kyle had worked for many years for our executive chef David Daniels. He had been in Nantucket for what, five years?
McClelland: Right. Four, five years.
Sidell: Kyle came to us with this really awesome background that spoke to really what the concept was.
Sidell: And I think Kyle got it after a day hanging out and just throwing ideas around, and I think he was like, 'Wow, yeah, this is really an interesting approach.' And certainly, the tin aspect and all of the other food that we do at Saltie Girl of course, is a natural fit for Kyle, because he had been doing a lot of the sashimis and fresh local fish.
Santoro: So Kyle, now as executive chef of Saltie Girl, you are helping to create this tin fish movement in the United States, really. Talk to us about that.
McClelland: For me it was something new. You know, I think I grew up with my grandfather eating sardines, and I guess for me it was always — it wasn't my thing. I grew up here in New England. To me they always seemed kind of fishy and you know cheap and you know kind of like leftover — I don't know — find it in your cabinet. But you know, we started to taste a lot of these tins, and we curated this list. We've tried so many. You know, we have about 60 tins on our menu now, and we've all chosen these tins. These are the ones you really like. I think for me, exactly like Kathy said, you kind of like blew your mind of how great these things tasted coming out of a can.
Santoro: Well like I said in the intro, they are elegant.
Sidell: They are elegant
Santoro: There's an elegance to them.
McClelland: You know, like the muscles. I think some of the muscles sometimes are better than having fresh muscles.
Santoro: Right. Yeah.
McClelland: It's just this strange concept because you think that if something's in a tin, it couldn't possibly be fresh. And so it's an oxymoron in a way. That being said, you know, what I think we've discovered is not only that — you know you can eat it from the tin kind of just simply like that — but there are a plethora of things that you can do with these tins. Which is where Kyle is taking it, which I find so interesting.
Santoro: And make full dishes out of them.
Sidell: Yes exactly.
Santoro: Does the fishing season affect the tin fish?
McClelland: It does. Yes, it does.
We actually, in our research, a lot of these canneries overseas — Spain, Portugal — they have their seasons where they fish. So we have found that some of these tins will be out of stock until the following season when they can actually fish and can them again.
Sidell: I imagine one day there'll be a book of tin fish and you'll say: The year 1983 was good for this.
Santoro: I think I'm looking at two people who can probably put that book out.
Sidell: It's so interesting, and the taste does vary does vary like wine.
Santoro: One thing I like about the menu — the tin fish menu especially — is that it tells you where each fish comes from. Spain is very popular. As are Portugal and Brittany, France. But the tinned oysters you serve come from Willapa Bay in Washington State.
Sidell: Yes, they do.
Santoro What's up with that?
McClelland: I think for us, you know, coming here in New England we wanted to have fresh oysters, but we also wanted to have a tinned oyster. I think it speaks well for New England. We haven't found anyone here in New England doing it.
Sidell: So interesting.
McClelland: So we did find these guys in Washington State that are our canning oysters, smoking them, and they're really good. We have three different flavors: barbecue, habanero and an original smoke.
Sidell: Yeah. Very good.
Santoro: I'm sitting next to some tinned fish. So, let's do a tasting. And I'll let the two of you walk me through what is here in front of me.
Sidell: Well you have beautiful mussels ... which [are] a hint spicy.
Santoro: These mussels are as plump as any you're gonna get anywhere.
Sidell: No question.
Santoro: I'll taste one right now. ... Oh my God.
Sidell: Yeah really good. Really good. I recommend taking a little bit of the bread, putting a little butter on it and then dipping it in the oil.
Santoro: Okay [laughs]
Sidell: It's heaven. It's heaven.
Santoro: Oh dear. Yes. This is such a treat.
Sidell :You know we talk about it often, like being like Cuttery for tin fish. It seems to be the way people can most understand what it is we're doing with it. So you can get two or three different tins and experience, you know a range of flavors. How good is that?
Santoro: That is a flavor sensation.
Sidell: Yeah that's true. That's true.
Santoro: Unbelievable! And what's this other little tin?
McClelland: It's octopus. It's paprika octopus with like caramelized opinions.
Sidell: And what's so interesting is some of these tins do have vegetable components to them. There are a couple that we sell that are —well of course — they have peppers, some with onion. A lot with garlic.
Santoro: It's so mild. It's just really ... I mean it's nothing.
Sidell: Nothing. It's true.
Santoro: It's so delicious.
Sidell : Yeah. Really tender.
Santoro: Tinned food ... you know, we think, like you said earlier Kathy, we think, you know Bumblebee tuna, we think you know mushy sardines. But caviar has always been a tinned food.
Santoro: And you have a caviar service, correct?
Sidell: We do and it's been quite popular actually. And we try to make it really affordable and approachable so people can experience it in a way that they might have felt was out of their category. So we'll put just a little dollop on something for a very reasonable price. And, you know I think it's been quite successful that way.
Santoro: Where does good caviar come from these days?
McClelland: Well, good caviar — there's no wild caviar anymore. Everything is farm raised. But they're doing it everywhere. You know, France, Germany, you know, Israel, China. There's some in the States — Georgia, Idaho. So, a lot of farm caviar is popping up everywhere now. But with it being farmed it's becoming much more approachable.
Santoro: Which is a good thing for the consumer.
Sidell: Yeah a really good thing. I think really good thing. Taking the myth away from it is great.
Santoro: Yeah. You put those little legs on your tongue and smash them against the roof of your mouth.
Sidell: Nothing better than that.
Santoro: And they explode
Sidell: Last night I had a little bit of caviar on top of oysters but Ooni. And I just like two of those for dinner and I'm good. I don't need much else.
Santoro: That's unbelievable. Very, very cool. Well, Saltie Girl is located at 281 Dartmouth Street just steps off of Newbury Street. Kathy Sidell, Kyle McCallen, thank you so much for coming in. This is absolutely delicious. And we'll see you at Saltie Girl.
Both: You will indeed. Thank you.