5523 Penn Ave., Garfield 412-441-7258. www.saltpgh.org
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 5 p.m.-midnight
Prices: Starters $6-13, main dishes $12-24
Liquor: Full bar
The opening of Salt of the Earth has been the most-anticipated restaurant event of the 21st century in Pittsburgh. It's been nearly two years, by our calendars, since executive chef Kevin Sousa began work on the former Harley-Davidson motorcycle showroom on Penn Avenue in Garfield, converting it into the restaurant of his dreams. The only thing more challenging than bringing together the design, construction, personnel and menu may have been keeping people interested -- let alone excited -- about it during such a protracted wait. But Sousa, who blew all our clichés about hotel restaurants out of the water when he first burst onto the scene at Bigelow Grille in 2005, pulled it off.
In part, this was because Sousa kept his talents honed and visible, doing freelance menu consultation for other restaurants and, eventually, holding buzz-building monthly dinners in the unfinished shell of his current space. But mostly, it was Sousa's devoted, deserved following that kept us eager with anticipation.
Sousa's unique fusion of high-concept dining with unabashedly traditional dishes began with California-style attention to local, seasonal ingredients and Pittsburgh-proud references to local items, like kolbassi and pierogies, without irony or self-congratulatory deconstruction. Later, Sousa became the first local chef to explore molecular gastronomy with his occasional Alchemy dinners.
Salt of the Earth -- or Salt, or NaCl -- embodies a singular vision for not just eating, but fully experiencing food. It is not formal, but it is polished. Not simple, but streamlined. The ever-changing menu is written on a wall-sized chalk board. (The staff utilizes a modern steel library ladder to make mid-evening modifications 10 feet above the floor.) The list is short and straightforward, each dish identified by its main ingredients. It indicates a mature approach to what can be a tiresome, attention-seeking cuisine: You'll find no slices of bacon served on a wire trapeze, nor servers bearing vats of liquid nitrogen to the table. Instead, simple ingredient lists reveal what is central to the dishes, while the foams and essences -- present in many, if not all, of the offerings -- combine to create flavor and texture combinations that would be impossible without Sousa's non-traditional techniques.
The surroundings for all this are, in some ways, as surprising as the food. A second-floor mezzanine holds several tables available for reservation in fairly traditional, if minimalist, fine-dining surroundings. But downstairs, which is walk-in only, is where all the action is. A surprisingly small, utterly open kitchen sizzles right behind the host station, while a bar lining the back wall concocts original cocktails. The full menu is available at seating on stools in front of both bar and kitchen. In the center of it all are three long communal tables, lined with simple, backless stools.
The effect of such a casual, social seating arrangement could be to downplay the carefully considered food. But we found instead that, as each party's meals were served, a hush would develop as the diners took in the details that the menu had elided, and their neighbors cast apprising glances to see what they might be missing. And as couples and groups came and went at their own paces, there was ample opportunity to give and receive ordering advice. We were even offered tastes from our neighbors' plates. Because everyone was there for the food, there was a commonality of purpose that was friendly and welcoming.
This helped to temper the intimidation factor of a menu that featured such non-traditional ingredients as black garlic and Douglas fir. Most impressive was that, for all of the ambition and innovation, there were few if any stumbles. We weren't always wowed by the molecular touches; what was listed on the menu description of the sashimi appetizer as "horseradish," for instance, was actually a powdery white dust with barely any presence at all. Similarly, a smoky bacon dust may or may not have played beautifully against the droplets of quince essence to add new dimensions to the cheese course, depending on who at our table you asked. But, regardless, there were still substantial slices of two wonderful cheeses, carefully selected, to be enjoyed.
And when the alchemy really works, watch out. Quince made an appearance in the roasted rabbit loin that fairly popped with flavor. Yet because it had been distilled down to an essence, we got just enough to season each bite, not a plate of meat and jam. A drizzle of white chocolate, studded with blood orange segments, made a surprisingly sweet, creamy, juicy accompaniment to succulent venison tartare.
In some dishes, we're not certain whether any alchemy occurred at all -- or was necessary. Beet salad was a straightforward, superb combination of bittersweet red and yellow beets, frilly frisée and a perfectly poached egg whose yolk added substance to a heady truffle-mustard dressing. Grilled hanger steak was served over tender ramen noodles in a broth described as "bourbon dashi." Given that dashi is normally based on seaweed, this is probably a hint that something fancy happened back in the kitchen. But what struck us was that the broth beautifully bridged East and West, savory soy blending with sweet-sour mash, while rounds of jalapeño, translucently thin slices of persimmon and peanuts balanced one another's earthiness, brightness and heat.
Salt is a restaurant that erases distinctions -- between fine and casual dining, between familiar and exotic ingredients, between your party and the diners seated next to you. There is no place else like it in Pittsburgh. Kevin Sousa's cooking and his restaurant are a singular success.