Salt of the Earth
5523 Penn Ave., Garfield
412-441-7258 or www.saltpgh.com
The kitchen at Salt of the Earth keeps no secrets. Every inch of its gleaming, stainless-steel surface is prominently displayed as soon as you enter the restaurant. And head chef Kevin Sousa -- whom City Paper readers have also honored as this year's best chef -- is usually somewhere in the middle of it, working with a look of ardent concentration. If you like, you can even take a seat at the counter and watch, from inches away, as he masterminds another busy night of preparing modern cuisine.
The open kitchen is just one element of Salt of the Earth's larger concept -- which is to provide, in Sousa's words, "stripped-down, unpretentious fine dining." Long wooden tables span the main dining area, and diners eat family-style, sharing a table with whoever happens to come along. An upper floor features more conventional small tables, but watching your fellow diners is half the fun, especially as they delve into some of Salt's more unusual offerings.
Sweetbreads (which aren't bread at all, but thymus glands from calves or lambs) are a popular item; first-time Salt diners Elaina Vitale and Sara Blumenstein decided to sample them at a recent meal. Blumenstein looked downright frightened by the thought, but Vitale convinced her to give it a try -- and Sousa's recipe, which includes fenugreek and bleu cheese, converted her. They were, in a word, "comforting," said Vitale.
"Just really, really good," added Blumenstein.
"People have been almost thanking us for having [those] on the menu," says general manager Robert Sare. "And not necessarily the crowd you would think -- young, foodie online bloggers. A lot of [older] people grew up eating that kind of stuff, and you don't see [it] around as much as you used to."
As the night progresses, the room fills with warmth, energy and sound. The bartenders aren't just shaking the cocktails, they're practically dancing with them, and the chatter of ice blends pleasantly with soft music and the hum of conversation. Periodically Sousa can be heard calling out an order, and seconds after your dish is completed you can watch it make its journey to your table.
Sousa's résumé reads like a roll call of Pittsburgh fine dining; prior to opening Salt, his most notable achievement was perhaps his Alchemy dinner series at the Bigelow Grille, a menu of numerous small courses that showcased the avant-garde food preparation known as molecular gastronomy. (Though Sousa hates that description: "Everything is made of molecules," he says).
He's brought some of those cutting-edge techniques to Salt of the Earth, but the dishes here "aren't wacky or kooky," he stresses. Instead, they're based on perfectly balanced flavors, presented with an artist's flair. If you're one of those vegetarians who still carries a torch for meat, the vegetarian eggplant moussaka with braised soy protein will satisfy your craving; Sousa creates a complexity of flavor that most chefs manage only with meat dishes, and he pairs it with cubes of perfectly fried eggplant on the side. If you're a carnivore, meanwhile, you can take your pick of octopus with chorizo, tilefish, duck breast and several other options.
Sousa started work on Salt of the Earth two years ago, but the recession and other problems delayed the opening until this September. A team of loyal staffers stuck with him, finding what work they could in the meantime. Now that the anticipation is over for Salt's employees, it's everyone else's turn. Just before 5 p.m. on a recent Saturday night, a line of people stood chatting on Penn Avenue -- just waiting for the doors to open.