To get the best meal of my life, I flew 4,550 miles from Boston to Anchorage, Alaska, then another 221 miles to Homer. Also called "The End of the Road," Homer sits in the southern reach of the Kenai Peninsula. But Homer isn't the end of the road for me: My destination— a small restaurant in a small village on a small island—requires hopping a fishing-boat-turned-ferry called the Danny J and skimming five and a half more miles across the Kenai's Kachemak Bay. Then climbing a steep harbor ramp and winding path, which finally deposits me on the patio of The Saltry, high above glistening Halibut Cove. I am here. I am hungry. And I am ready to eat.
Alaska is more famous for craft beer and fried halibut than for foodie restaurants, but The Saltry, which was opened by Marian Beck in 1984, has become a destination for chefs and food lovers and people like me who just want a damn good meal. After almost a week in Homer, I've gorged myself on fish-and-chips and omelets overflowing with smoked salmon, and more fish-and-chips and more salmon, all of it washed down with Homer's own Old Inlet Pale Ale. Now I'm craving something different, something unforgettable, and that's what The Saltry promises.
The sun is warm; the air is brisk and smells of salt. You can sit inside The Saltry's boathouse-style interior, but if it isn't raining or snowing (yes, it can snow here just about any time, even during The Saltry's season from roughly Memorial Day to Labor Day), why would anyone give up the opportunity to sit on this patio and sip cold white wine while slurping down a mountain of mussels? The view in front of me is one of evergreens and glaciers and silvery water, like an ad man's conception of what Alaska should be. But then a bald eagle flies by with a salmon in its mouth and you realize, this is real!
It's not just my recent (and steady) diet of fried food that makes my mouth start to water as soon as I look at the menu. No, it's beets, mascarpone, citrus, and sesame; black cod in a pho broth with shiitake mushrooms, edamame, and carrots; mussels cooked in white wine and garlic and served on grilled focaccia; local Glacier Point oysters with traditional cocktail sauce or mint granita; and pickled salmon from China Poot Bay.
Sixty-two-year-old Marian was born in nearby Seldovia back when this island had no electricity, telephones, or cars. She grew up fishing and clamming with her father, so it is no wonder she is admittedly very picky about what she serves at The Saltry. She buys only a first-class product from local fishermen, often traveling by boat, dressed in her rubber boots and layers of fleece, her long hair loose in the wind, to pick it up along with produce from farmers in and around Homer. There's also a quarter-acre of garden on a hill above the restaurant where Marian grows salad greens and herbs. Part of the magic of The Saltry is that you can only eat there during the brief Alaskan summer, when the sun seems to never set.
Of all the items on the menu, it's the pickled salmon, that inimitable red of my old Fiestaware, that is the stuff of legend. In fact, some people come to The Saltry to eat only this. Marian's husband, Dave, catches the salmon in Cook Inlet, more than 80 miles away. (He also makes new batches of the restaurant's ceramic plates, as well as its mosaic tabletops.) Marian's pickled salmon takes months: salting it, skinning and deboning it, cubing it, and, well, pickling it. Even then, those cubes, layered with onions and lemon and covered with vinegar, need 15 more days before they are ready to eat.
I fall in love with that salmon, and those oysters and mussels, and every bite of everything else I put in my mouth. But I also fall in love with the waiters who feed me here. Food-obsessed snowboarders and skiers who spend winters in Park City, Utah, resorts, they come to The Saltry for the summer, where they live in tiny cabins behind the restaurant. They turn positively dreamy when they describe the food, and break out in grins when they hear you moan from its absolute fresh deliciousness. In fact, after just one bite of that pickled salmon it becomes clear that all of the salting and cubing and pickling and waiting is worthwhile. "It tastes like candy," I say, swooning. And like candy, one order is not enough. Neither are two. After the third, my waiter gives me a gift of a jar full of glowing red pickled salmon to take back to Homer, perhaps the best gift a man has ever bestowed on me.
My ferry leaves Halibut Cove at 5, which means I have only four brief hours to eat halibut ceviche and oysters and shrimp poke, to wash it down with a Kung Fu Girl Riesling or King Estate Pinot Gris, to order a second bottle of wine and still more food because there is no place in the world with food this artful, this good, with this view. As I board the Danny J, full and happy and clutching my jar of pickled salmon, I know one thing for sure. I will do it again someday. I will travel the 4,771 miles to Homer, board this boat, climb the gangplank, take a seat overlooking Halibut Cove, and eat.
To get to The Saltry, you first need to get yourself to Homer, Alaska. If you have a boat, you can tie up at The Saltry's dock (call ahead). Otherwise, take the Danny J ferry. Reserve online at halibut-cove-alaska.com/bookin.htm or call 907-226-2424.
The Saltry is open from roughly Memorial Day to Labor Day. To make reservations for lunch or dinner, go to halibut-cove-alaska.com/bookin.htm or call 907/226-2424.
Alaska's Ridgewood Wilderness Lodge, an architectural gem near Kachemak Bay State Park, offers views of mountains, oceans, and estuaries; 907/296-2217 or ridgewoodlodge.com. Hideaway Cove Wilderness Lodge is inside the park and has direct trail access; 888/503-7160 or hideawaycovelodge.com.