Pink Himalayan rock salt is having a moment. The coral-colored mineral, which comes from ancient salt mines in Pakistan, is viewed as a kind of miracle substance among New Agers, who believe it does everything from promote sinus health to increase sex drive. Over the last decade chefs have started using it in their cooking because of its clean, briny flavor and primordial pedigree. Now, restaurants are using Himalayan rock salt in an unexpected way: as an architectural and design material.
Perhaps it's no surprise considering that pink rock salt is both versatile and beautiful: at once earthy and celestial, like a solidified chunk of the northern lights. Chef David Burke has rock salt designs at each of his eight restaurants—from the salt brick wall that frames the bar at his modern American restaurant, Townhouse in Manhattan, to the light pink slabs he uses as butter plates. He also patented the technique of lining the walls of meat aging cellars (like the ones at David Burke Prime steakhouse in Connecticut and Primehouse in Chicago) with Himalayan salt tiles. The salt, he says, helps tenderize and flavor the beef with the bonus of making a room full of drying meat look chic. This fall, Primehouse will debut a dramatic installation of Himalayan salt cubes suspended by rope in the center of the dining room.
Burke's rock salt obsession seems to be spreading. "In the last year we've seen a huge surge in interest for our rock salt bricks, which are ideal for architectural applications," says Laura Castelli, who founded the company POSH Salt with her husband. POSH Salt supplied bricks to The Mission, a Latin American restaurant in Scottsdale, Arizona, which built a glowing, 20-foot-long wall between the kitchen and dining room. In California's Napa Valley, guests at Bottega, Michael Chiarello's upscale Italian restaurant, are greeted at a host stand made from a mosaic of shimmering peach- and cherry-colored salt tiles. New York City's Highpoint Bistro & Bar offers a high-concept riff on fondue: hot caramel poured over a blush-colored rock salt platter and served with popcorn, marshmallows, and other fixings. And in Chicago, Benjamin, a contemporary American restaurant that opened in August, heats slabs of rock salt to 600 degrees Fahrenheit and serves them with thin slices of Wagyu beef, which diners cook tableside. "It's a culinary application with explicit design implications," explains manager Michael Brockob.
One of the most ambitious design projects is the bar top at Canvas, a bar and small-plates restaurant in Poughkeepsie, New York, that will open in October. The bar's surface is constructed entirely out of 9-by-18-inch blocks of rock salt and lit from below for an ethereal effect. The choice was more aesthetic than practical, admits Charles Fells, who co-owns Canvas and its sister restaurant, the Artist's Palate, with his wife, Megan Kulpa Fells. Salt, of course, is prone to water damage—a particular threat for a surface designed to hold drinks. Still, the visual effect was so stunning that they did it anyway, coating the salt with clear sealant to avoid a meltdown. The restaurant, which plans to open to the public this Halloween, has already hosted a handful of private parties where the staff kept close tabs on drippy martini glasses. "We go through lots of cocktail napkins," says Charles. "But it's worth it."