Let's Do Lunch: Sweetsalt

There are some great lunches to be had in this town, and we want to celebrate the midday meal. So, let's do lunch, shall we?

Last fall, Alex Eusebio joined the ranks of Top Chef-testants from Season 5 of the hit Bravo cooking show to head up a Los Angeles restaurant (that's Stefan Richter and Fabio Viviani). Providing a welcome break from the tired standards and stalwarts of Toluca Lake, Eusebio and his wife Sara are the team behind Sweetsalt, a small cafe-style eatery that celebrates seasonality and offers casually elegant eats.

Eusebio has often described his cooking style as eclectic, thanks to his Spanish, Dominican Republic, and New York background, and got his start in cooking after realizing he was not enjoying a career on Wall Street. He left his post at Lehman Brothers at the World Trade Center in August of 2001, and while obviously one can't say he didn't look back, he is here in Los Angeles—in Toluca Lake, no less—putting his stamp on the local food scene.

Sweetsalt, already a very popular lunch option in the area, offers sandwiches, soups, and salads that use fresh, seasonal, and locally-sourced ingredients. Chatting over a recent lunch, Eusebio admitted he is prone to making slight and frequent ingredient changes that might keep the staff on their toes, but that stem from the availability of a particular item; what he ensures stays the same, however, is the basic structure of the dish and its core flavor profile.

For our lunch, the Lavender Duck Confit proved to be an irresistible selection, trumping the popular Short Rib Roll largely because it was a warmer day and something milder and lighter seemed to be the way to go. The tender shredded duck meat is served on a roll with sprouts, onion confit, chevre, and lavender honey, and the richness of the protein is tempered by its mild seasoning, and the brighter notes of the greens and the cheese.

From the large chalked menuboard we were clued into the daily soup special, and sampled a sip of both the hot tomato soup and the vibrant, cool tomato-melon gazpacho. Eusebio is in the process of changing the menu to reflect the warmer weather, and is looking forward to making great use of the lively flavors spring and summer produce offer, as well as having chilled soups remain on the menu for the hot days ahead.

Dessert at Sweetsalt share Eusebio's new-lease-on-life biography, since the pastries come from a recreational baker who went from impressing his fellow poker players to providing the sweet bites for shops like Sweetsalt. They also stock the gourmet popcorn of a close friend, Cordelia Culver, who pitched in to help popcorn-enthusiast Eusebio keep his favorite snack item on his restaurant's menu--how about Bacon Truffle Caramel Popcorn? Diners can also pick up bags of chips, like Zapp's (we tried, and loved, the Cajun Dill ones) to have on the side, or other packaged goodies like those of local sweets-maker Valerie Confections.

Tucked into a slender storefront on Riverside Drive, Sweetsalt is definitely filling a void in the area for thoughtful, non-commercialized, affordable food. They're open for dinner, but they are a godsend for the local lunch crowd, and no matter how Season Five turned out, Eusebio is adding just the right seasoning to the scene with Sweetsalt.