The leaders behind Rockford’s newest fine dining establishment are on a mission to elevate the local culinary scene. They’re starting with a lifetime of experience and focus on detail.
A newcomer to Rockford has positioned itself as an oasis for those who want a dining experience beyond the ordinary. SALT, located at 6860 Spring Creek Road, is built upon nuances in a way that feels fresh.
“We’ve put so much thought into all of the tiniest touches,” says Zizi Altamore, general manager and part-owner. “From the moment you walk in, you’re greeted at the host desk by a welcoming person who checks you in, takes your coat, guides you to the table, pulls out your chair for you to sit down. Up to the moment you leave, a lot of thought was put into those little details.”
Everything inside the main dining room reflects the aesthetic of fine dining, but it accomplishes the feat in a most modern way. White quartz countertops, devoid of tablecloths, keep things simple and focused on the food, says Altamore. Dark-brown floors complement black walls while gold-and-glass light fixtures enhance the sophisticated, yet welcoming, environment.
The bar area continues the sophisticated theme with a white stone top and seating accented by plush white accents. An adjacent wine dining room features additional seating, acoustic paneling and a temperature-controlled cellar boasting an extensive wine collection organized by region.
Off to the side, private dining rooms seat up to 20 people for special events.
The vision behind SALT is born from the experiences of some of Rockford’s most recognizable dining establishments. Co-owners Altamore, Michael Turley and Greg Callahan have spent decades refining their skills and ideas on the local scene.
Altamore grew up in her family’s west-side landmark, Altamore Ristorante, before landing at GreenFire, where she met Turley and Callahan in 2015. Executive Chef Turley has spent more than 15 years at places including Abreo and The Norwegian. Beverage Director Callahan, who started in the restaurant industry at 16, comes from a family that at one time owned a liquor store and still remains passionate about fine beverages.
Altamore had other plans, outside the dining industry, when Callahan and Turley recruited her to help with a private dinner hosted by David Stern, CEO of software firm Experity in Machesney Park, Ill. Something clicked that night, and soon the trio – with financial backing from Stern – began formulating a vision for something fresh.
“I saw dining as more of a stepping stone to other things and never something I was intending to make my full focus,” says Altamore. “I sat on it for a while and said, ‘You know what? This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with two of the most talented people in Rockford.’”
The trio combined their own vision with research in other cities before opening the new restaurant on Oct. 28. What they’ve built is an elevated, unique experience that Turley hopes will redefine Rockford’s dining landscape.
“We’re looking to change the perspective that people have of Rockford’s dining scene,” says Turley. “It’s a little pedestrian sometimes, and we’re only 2 hours away from some of the best restaurants in the world. I feel like we have to put a little extra effort forth.”
The difference begins with a commitment to high-quality, locally sourced ingredients, including bread from Rockford’s Crust and Crumble Bakery and coffee beans from Rockford Roasting Co.
Those ingredients become the basis of a menu that pushes culinary boundaries and changes seasonally.
December’s menu starts with small plates like the Hamachi tiradito, a Peruvian-inspired raw fish dish that brings together leche de tigre, coriander, aji Amarillo and sweet potato chips. It’s joined by the duck terrine, a firm pate that’s served with la querica pancetta, maitake, pistachio, black currant gastrique and toast. Anchoring the entree menu are staples like the rib-eye, duroc pork tomahawk and the rack of lamb served with sunchoke, mole Amarillo, marigold and coriander.
The dessert menu boasts such items as the chocolate pots de crème, made with cinnamon semifreddo, almond crumble and chile. The pumpkin torte features cardamom, brown butter powder, pecan and ginger lemon curd.
The bar has its own menu, with simpler fare like oysters, truffle cacio e pepe and queso frito.
They’re designed to pair perfectly with a bar menu that emphasizes custom cocktails and fine wines, predominantly labels made by family growers and multi-generational operations.
Callahan infuses the cocktail menu with a twist of his own originality in drinks like the Grandmother Smith, a gin cocktail that evokes a green apple flavor. The crowd-favorite Amalfi Sunrise recalls the taste of a lemon bar and pairs with many items on the dinner menu, Callahan adds.
Callahan and Turley feed off each other while remaining true to their use of house-made ingredients instead of processed fare. In some cases, they may use fats and plant-derived thickeners to create a dairy-free or egg-free foam. And that’s on top of the other small touches that go beyond the ordinary.
“It takes you out of this unique experience if you see me reach for a Coca-Cola gun and blast it into a glass,” says Callahan. “We went through all this effort to create this unique, dialed-in experience. We can’t stop there. Those tiny details are important.”
Coming in January, the trio expect to open the Chef’s Table, a presentation of luxury ingredients and unique wine pairings in an intimate setting. The table accommodates up to 10 people for an eight-course meal with amuse-bouche (a bite-size starter) all personally crafted by Turley and Callahan.
Special events also are planned for the months ahead, including whiskey tastings and a ticketed New Year’s Eve celebration.
Add up all of the small touches and you find a radical new experience, a departure from the ordinary that’s driven as much by vision as passion.
“We want to bring you into our world, just for a moment,” says Callahan. “If it can take you out of your world and have this little secluded peaceful experience, that’s the goal.”
SALT is open Tuesday to Friday from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. The bar is open until midnight on Friday and Saturday.