Lori Lucas

Mark Bitterman is crazy about salt. Bitterman is the proprietor of The Meadow, a boutique specializing in wine, chocolate, and that little crystal most of us consider only as a culinary afterthought: salt.

"It's ironic that people will spend money on the finest meat at the farmer's market, and then finish it with factory-refined sodium chloride," he says.

That's right, he said, "sodium chloride," and it's a turn of phrase indicative of the lengths Bitterman has traveled to learn about his obsession.

The American palate has always been keener on sugar than salt—ask anyone new to the country (and by that, I mean "ask me," who gained 10 pounds in six months without even trying. You people put sugar in your bread, for crying out loud). But that preference might be changing: If you believe serious chefs, food writers (many of whom are already "peppering" their prose with a hefty "pinch" of salt puns), and Bitterman, the American palate is ready to switch allegiance. And it's not just a savory thing: Sahagún proprietor Elizabeth Montes gained honorable mention in The New York Times this month for her chocolate salted caramel thimbles, while Seattle chocolatier Fran Bigelow now ships 75 percent of her caramels with salt added.

So you'd better get yourself some salt. Bitterman will take you on a free "salt flight," skimming the eaves of his "Cathedral of Salt" as you taste the stuff proffered straight from his palm. Don't worry—he seems very clean, and the gesture's intimacy loses its weirdness fairly quickly (one senses he'll go over well with Portland's middle-aged ladies).

"Be careful, that one is really salty," he says, of the feisty Turkish Cypriano Black Lava. Big surprise, you might think—but contrast its sharp flavor with the subtle taste of the 800-year old oak tree used to smoke the Welsh Halen Mon salt that his customers keep coming back for, and the scales will fall from your eyes. And if you're a fan of salt's darker sister, Bitterman also sells two kinds of pepper.

Of course, gourmet salt is a status thing (Peugeot grinders start at $40), but with small pots of the stuff at just $5, you can dip your toe in without plunging into overdraft.

The Meadow is located at 3731 N Mississippi. Call 288-4633 for info.