I go to a lot of restaurants and wine bars, both with friends and as required by my demanding editor. But, I rarely return to most of them. The exception — the new Saluté wine bar. I’ve adopted it and it’s my official hangout. You can now find me there a couple of nights a week, because it’s wonderful.

First, there’s the modern, open (think really high ceilings) inviting décor with comfortable seating. Who wants to pay money to be squeezed into a tiny table surrounded by people you don’t know — even if some of their conversations can be very interesting. Plus, the background music is mellow and soothing, not the Baptist choir revival-influenced music heard in so many restaurants.

Second, I love the food. As promised by the chef-co-owner Marco, the pizza is like the pizza in Naples. At Saluté I shared the wild mushroom pizza, made with the thin crust I prefer.

Unbidden, early-on the waitress brought to the table a dish of olives and Italian flat beans that went well with the wines.

The star dish of the evening: the warm poached figs and goat cheese on toasted walnut bread makes for a magnificent combination and was perfectly executed.

Available too: an excellent cheese service matched only in top restaurants. The epoise was runny like it is supposed to be, but rarely is. The other two cheeses, morbiere and petit Basque — each had strong, distinctive flavors. And to really make it special there were candied walnuts, honey and a balsamic fruit jam accompanying the cheeses and assorted breads.

When the three different salamis arrived, my friend Harvey said he felt like he was back in Italy. Although very tasty, it’s not easy to find finocchiona (salami with fennel seeds) soppressata, and capicola on your neighborhood restaurant’s menu.

Another somewhat unusual feature at Saluté is the wine service. When walking in the front door most folks notice the red lights on the wine dispensing machines that line one wall.

At Saluté, because of the layout and open space, it’s a nice, pleasant walk to the array of wine machines. We bought a wine card which kept track of our purchases. I took recommendations from Tony. Also, and in concert with the general feeling of casual comfort, if you don’t want to use the wine dispenser, there is a satisfactory wine list available from the waitress.

If you are a wine drinker, the machines offer a good opportunity to easily taste different wines. At the wine dispenser the price per 2 oz. pour is listed; many are priced between $2 and $4. Since in most restaurants a glass is a 6 oz pour, that’s equivalent to $6 to $16 a glass.

I started with an Italian Cabernet Sauvignon from a producer I didn’t recognize. At Tony’s suggestion I moved on to another Italian Cabernet, from “Luisa,” which had a slightly bitter aftertaste. Next I had a glass of Primitivo “Layer Cake” from Puglia that was fruity and slightly sweet. Although a relative of Zinfandel, it tastes nothing like a California Zinfandel. Finally I tried a glass of Bonardo from Argentina. While in the hills of northern Italy I’ve drunk many Bonardo wines, but this was my first from Argentina. The wine had a nice, mild fruity nose and a pleasant mild fruit taste. It whet my appetite for dessert.

In our family my wife handles the important matters. So she gets to select the dessert. There was no question in my mind that she would take the assortment of chocolates, and she did. This consisted of a traditional rich mousse with banana, a white chocolate “feather” that was a real treat, and an exceptionally good assortment of chocolate candies. I can’t believe how good it was.

Even the service was above average. Both Jen, at the front door, and Elizabeth, our waitress, were friendly and efficient. Service was prompt.

So where can I find fault? Well, the wine selection could be improved. This is an Italian wine and tapas bar. And, in any Italian establishment of note I think that it’s fair to expect to find the big four in Italian wines: Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera and Brunello, as well as Dolcetto and a few Super Tuscans made primarily from Sangiovese. Ideally, it’s nice to also offer a few lesser known wines and some French wines to give customers more opportunity to experiment. But with food of this caliber I expect the really good stuff. From talking to Tony I know he’s working on this and I expect constant improvement over time.

Stop in and say hello. And look for me.

Saluté

2435 Main St.

Santa Monica, CA 90405

(310) 450-3434

Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at mervynhecht@yahoo.com

Print Friendly