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Thelma on Clinton Returns to Its Culinary Roots on the Lower East Side

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Melissa O'Donnell at Thelma on Clinton. Photo by Katie Foster.
Melissa O’Donnell at Thelma on Clinton. Photo by Katie Foster.

The following story was first published in the February 2014 edition of The Lo-Down’s print magazine.

In an era of large, multi-level, million dollar restaurant projects, there’s something comforting about Thelma on Clinton. Any night of the week, you’ll find chef/owner Melissa O’Donnell working away in her compact open kitchen, consisting of two burners and a convection oven. In between serving up portions of braised monkfish and beef wellington, she’ll wave to regulars walking into the intimate dining room and greet newcomers with a smile.

But O’Donnell is not afraid to change things up. In December, she did just that, rebranding her 10-year-old Clinton Street spot, Salt Bar, to adapt to the times. Her fresh take on a New American cuisine is, in part, a tribute to O’Donnell’s grandmother, Thelma, a first-generation Lebanese American who embodied the eclectic immigrant culture that has defined the Lower East Side.

O’Donnell knows more than most the challenges involved in operating a restaurant on Clinton Street, which has been “emerging” as a culinary destination since the early ’90s. Salt Bar opened on New Year’s Eve 2003, a satellite to O’Donnell’s now-closed Soho restaurant. The modest space debuted at about the same time as Wylie Dufresne’s celebrated wd50, located a block to the north. In the past decade, she’s seen restaurants come and go. Places like Punch & Judy, aka Cafe, Falai and Alias have given way to newcomers such as Yunnan Kitchen, Pig & Khao and Black Crescent. “I don’t think Clinton Street has transformed as much as people thought it would.” said O’Donnell, and “in a way that’s a good thing.”

When it opened, Salt Bar was known as a casual place offering straightforward, well-prepared food, made with quality ingredients. Over the years, though, O’Donnell explained, the message got a little lost. “Locals loved it,” she said, but as the storefront became more weathered, newcomers tended to view Salt Bar as more of a tavern, not a place for a nice dinner. So it was time for a revamp. “I’m a chef,” O’Donnell added, “and I needed a new forum.”

“The inspiration for the new menu is the neighborhood,” she said. “I’m trying to incorporate the different influences around me into food that is good for sharing and good for groups.” Unlike some other LES spots, Thelma on Clinton’s version of multicultural cuisine is subtle. On the menu, there’s house-kippered salmon, pickled eggs and house-smoked duck. “I’m having lots of fun with the smoker right now,” O’Donnell said.

Last fall, the restaurant launched a Kickstarter campaign, raising $50,000 for the renovation and relaunch. “I was touched,” O’Donnell said, by the outpouring of support, especially from “people who didn’t have a lot of money but wanted to contribute something.” It’s one of the reasons she was determined to keep some of Salt Bar’s most-loved dishes, while “raising the bar in terms of the food.” At Thelma on Clinton, you can enjoy a bowl of tomato soup or order more elaborate dishes such as the rabbit terrine or chicken liver mousse with a port wine gelee.

At one point, O’Donnell considered moving to a new location with a bigger kitchen. But in the end, she said, it was too hard to leave Clinton Street, with its close-knit community, diverse customer base and laid-back atmosphere. “It’s different down here than the rest of Manhattan in a way I love,” O’Donnell said.

Thelma on Clinton, 29 Clinton St., is open Monday-Saturday from 5:30 p.m.  Reservations accepted; 212-979-8471.

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