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Salts delivers duck to die for in Cambridge

Now and then, a star is born right before your eyes. On a Saturday night at Salts, a five-year-old restaurant recently bought by new owners, I notice all eyes trained toward a back table. A couple sat looking fondly at a bronzed whole duck being carefully carved for them by the waiter. The sight seemed to ignite sighs all around the room, along with whispered vows to order the dish the next time.

Whole duck is a rarity, superseded by rare-cooked breasts and confited legs. And tableside carving is almost unheard of. We've gotten used to thinking of duck not as a sum of its parts. But a yearning for the whole bird may be lurking just under the surface.

The next visit, my friend and I order the duck, which comes stuffed with a savory bread mixture, Vidalia onions, slender carrots, and delicate glazed turnips. The waiter carves, expertly but slowly, as heads turn at other tables. Each of us gets a long rectangular plate with a piece of breast meat under its perfectly crackly skin, and a leg and part of a thigh, plus all those vegetables. It's exquisite, and immediately I know I've been dying for whole duck all along.

Chef Gabreil Bremer and his wife, Analia Verolo, reopened Salts in early March after buying the restaurant from Lisa and Steve Rosen, who had had success with it under the same name. The little place, with 42 seats, has been a beacon of personalized and imaginative cooking since Bruce Frankel opened it as Panache in the late '70s; Robert Calderone and his wife, Susan Finegold, also owned the restaurant for several years before moving their name for it, Anago, to the Lenox Hotel.

Bremer is certainly upholding the place's culinary reputation, and not just with the duck. After stints at Fore Street in Portland, at Rialto in Cambridge, and at Le Soir in Newton, this is his first restaurant. His cuisine is French with a clean and contemporary American finish.

It's a happy marriage, as an appetizer special one evening of a warm salad of asparagus over a poached egg in a gougere shell demonstrates. All the components in this dish are appealing: the egg shimmies a little on the shell as the plate is set down, and the yolk breaks into liquid as soon as the fork touches it. The egg white is fluffy; the cheesy gougere shell flaky and the asparagus just right to catch the rivulets of yolk. Over the green spears are a few delicate stalks of wild asparagus, adding drama and extra crunch (especially since the waiter tells us they were smuggled in from France).

In a classically presented appetizer, creamy-textured French foie gras is cut in thick circles like a sausage and is accompanied by tiny cubes of almost-spritzy Sauternes wine gelee. Triangles of toasted brioche and rhubarb flavored with vanilla finish the plate. Because French and not American foie gras is featured, this is a pricey dish at $18, but then again, it's close to perfection.

Hamachi, cured for a short time in sugar, salt, coriander, and herbs, shows a modern edge, especially with the bracing herbal notes in the dressing. A pea soup, intensely green and tasting only of peas without a hint of cream, also is a modern interpretation, although the foie gras in it, American this time, seemed too heavy for the rest of the soup. A galantine of rabbit (Bremer's menu has enough classic French to send one to a culinary dictionary for definitions -- galantine means rolled and poached to be served cool) has great accompaniments of a little radish salad, fava beans, and pickled mushroom. But the rabbit itself is a mite too chewy.

The appetizers are showy enough to make you wonder if the entrees will keep pace -- often a problem for young chefs. But Bremer keeps his head, for the most part. Fat circles of ballotine (dictionary again: boned, stuffed meat rolled and roasted) of chicken looks like three frilly packages set atop a froth of potato puree and topped with tiny cubes of carrot and cepes mushrooms. Panroasted tenderloin is succulent and moist, and the topping of pickled ramps are so good we're tempted to order a round as a side dish. The other stellar entree is a pot au feu of veal, a clean, spare dish that gentles the palate but doesn't bore it. There are cubes of tongue and sweetbreads to add complexity to the meat tastes, and then a little pot of mustard and more of those pickled ramps to pick up the flavors of the mild broth the meats sit in.

The intelligence of that dish makes the vegetarian entree more disappointing. Spring onion and artichoke tart tatin sounds so promising, but the flavor is muddy and the texture heavy; a dollop of farmer's cheese whipped into a mousseline adds a nice bit of piquancy but can't really lift the dish.

Desserts are another story, though. Lemon souffle tart is a little marvel -- fluff and bite from the lemon melded with the tang of an intense frozen lemon curd, pools of mint oil, and sweet-sharp slices of oranges and grapefruit. Bremer's warm chocolate cake is a nice example of the ubiquitous dessert, and the spice in a scoop of coffee-cardamom ice cream and a little glass of chocolate frappe give the dessert distinction. Only the slightly too-rubbery texture of a sheeps milk yogurt panna cotta distracts from another dessert; I would have been happy just with the pretty rhubarb consomme and a scoop of tart muscat sorbet.

Salts's service, watched over by Verolo, is careful and solicitous. On a weekend night, there are long pauses between courses as though the staff can't keep up with a not-quite-full dining room; a weeknight visit is much smoother. But by the time we're having dessert, the duck orders seem to have exploded. Keeping up with them may tax the tiny kitchen.

Hopefully, Bremer and his staff can cope, because his creative and beautifully nuanced food is well worth seeking out.

Restaurants reviewed by the Globe's regular critic, Alison Arnett, are rated on a scale of one to four stars, four being the highest. Star ratings are not used for compilation reviews or pieces by guest writers. Full restaurant reviews may be retrieved from at Scollay Square Solid star 1/2 21 Beacon St., Boston. 617-742-4988. This place has the feeling of old Boston (though the real Scollay Square was several blocks to the east). The best of the fare are steaks and chops in this friendly spot with the added advantage of outdoor seating on Beacon Hill. (5/13/04)Spire Solid starSolid starSolid star Nine Zero Hotel, 90 Tremont St., Boston. 617-772-0202. A young chef, Gabriel Frasca, with his first kitchen is wildly creative. Frasca's style starts with French technique and takes off with contemporary American energy. His finely crafted dishes are worth seeking out. (4/29/04) Terramia Solid starSolid star 1/2 98 Salem St., North End, Boston. 617-523-3112. A longtime favorite for inventive food in the North End brings in a new chef, Chris Bussell. He manages to embellish the new-wave Italian cuisine, keeping Terramia fresh and exciting. (4/22/04)

Bristol Solid starSolid star Four Seasons Hotel, 200 Boylston St., Boston. 617-351-2053. The Bristol, sans the lounge designation and with fuller menu, sports stylish classics. But the real energy is in the power breakfasts. (4/15/04)Istanbul Cafe Solid starSolid star 1/2 1418 Commonwealth Ave., Brighton. 617-232-1700. Moving up from a small place to a stylishly appointed restaurant, this Turkish restaurant celebrates a light, vegetable-rich cuisine. (4/8/04)

Catch Solid starSolid star 1/2 34 Church St., Winchester. 781-729-1040. A lively ambience and appealing food make this little spot a big draw for this suburban town. Chris Parsons' cuisine is good enough to draw eaters from everywhere. (4/1/04) L Solid starSolid starSolid star 234 Berkeley St., Boston. 617-266-4680. Cafe Louis morphs into L, with a stylish minimalist look. Chef Pino Maffeo's cuisine is modern, and as delicious as it is cutting edge. (3/25/04)

Rani Solid starSolid star 1353 Beacon St., Brookline. 617-734-0400. Indian cuisine branches out into Hyderabadi dishes, a straddling of the rich foods of the north and the spicier tones of the south. The cuisine is an appealing adventure; the service is sometimes an adventure of another kind. (3/18/04)

Blackfin Chop House & Raw Bar Solid starSolid star 1/2 116 Huntington Ave., Boston. 617-247-2400. Anthony Ambrose has reinvented Ambrosia on Huntington into a steak and seafood place. With a nifty raw bar and sparklingly fresh fish, it's a great comeback. (3/11/04)

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