Ambience, Garfield, Ingredients, Neighborhoods, Nontraditional, Presentation, Seasonal, Service

Salt of the Earth, Part II.

Pork baguette. Doesn’t sound like much, maybe just menu filler or something to get along a fancy takeout pizza someplace, a pimped-out hoagie.

But no.

This take on Vietnamese bahn mi the best thing I’ve put in my mouth at Salt of the Earth, which is saying something. The bread has to be good. That’s a given. Crusty on the outside, light and soft on the inside, but still dense enough that it doesn’t get soggy. Never soggy. A thin smear of pate made from chicken livers sourced nearby. Pork. Glorious pork. A lumberjack’s fistful of it cooked once then roasted under the salamander just long enough. Pickled carrot, pickled daikon, jalapeno – briny, tart, crunchy, a whisper of heat. And then cilantro, leafy and clean. Each ingredient works separately, but these simple soloists join in harmony to become something greater.

Of course, I think it’s off the menu now.

In a year, the place no one ever calls by its whole name — unless you’re being proper and writing it out on first reference — has gotten itself a reputation as the best restaurant in Pittsburgh. Yeah, yeah, right? You know that. Ain’t no thang.

Its opening coincided roughly with my arrival in town. In some ways, it’s been the joint to compare other restaurants to since I started eating my way around this city trying to learn it from the streets up. First time I went was New Year’s, when they tossed out their whole menu and served only pork and sauerkraut.

Been a handful of times since. Always been good. Often been far better than that.

Not always the most amazingest thing ever, but I can’t see ever turning down a trip there. It can be a weird place. The green gazpacho and short ribs leap immediately to mind as things that were delicious but didn’t blow me away. Which is not a criticism, just a tiny explanation. I mean weird in the sense that it’s built to give you the best meal of your life every night. And that’s an impossibly high bar.

Not just good. Not only wonderful. The best, most creative food possible that masses of people in this town will trade money for. I’m in awe of ambition like that. I don’t know Kevin Sousa in the least but I find it fascinating that someone with what clearly are his standards cannot allow himself to meet them, except perhaps fleetingly.

At the same time, one of my first impressions of the place was a lack of pretension. Sitting on stools watching the line cooks is the best spot in the place. When it slows down toward the end of the night, they’ll happily answer questions directly or make time to chat a little as they get ready for prep for the next night.

And that extends to the bar, too. There as much care put into every drink as there is to each plate. A rare and delightful thing, that. But have a question about a specific ingredient, an obscure kind of alcohol or technique, and they’re accessible.

This is a place to not just consume but to appreciate and to learn. Which might be why they could charge a lot more for what they do and yet don’t. Price shouldn’t be the main barrier to getting you in the door. Ain’t cheap, but it hasn’t yet meant I can’t make rent.

And you can find a good chunk of the staff on Twitter where they’ll often engage in conversation outside the physical restaurant — something else that makes Salt approachable even when they serve weeds that perplex my wife because they grow wild in our garden. (Purslane, I’m looking at you.) Go find @Chad687 or @BaconBra or any of the others. Good folks.

All of which is to say its reputation is earned. Keep churning, keep improvising, keep surprising. Keep working. I’m grateful for it.

Ambience, Beer, Garfield, Ingredients, Neighborhoods, Presentation, Service, Traditional

Salt of the Earth.

This is probably a little backward.

The first time I went to the one Pittsburgh restaurant everyone — everyone — is talking about and it’s on a night it’s not serving any of its regular menu. It’s on a night the place won’t even serve wine.

Pork. Sauerkraut. Mashed potatoes. Gravy. Little garnish of red-cabbage sprouts. Water, coffee, Penn Brewery’s St. Nikolaus Bock, maybe a couple drinks I didn’t see. But basically, c’est tout.

This is a place I wanted to go for a while. I kept driving by or looking at photos of the food prep the staff put on Twitter — and then procrastinating.

Doing it this way meant I got to see a laid-back and specialized version of the restaurant. One menu item, made in the quantities and with the care they thought best. One beer, the decent and drinkable if thin and watery St. Nikolaus Bock from this year. Still went nicely with the food, but the beer’s flaws were noticeable on a stage like that.

The staff seemed relaxed and service smooth. Have a question, get an answer. No pretense.

This is where I can add my voice to the growing hagiography. It was wonderful. Kitchen cooked the pork sous vide before searing it and made the sauerkraut from scratch. Everything on the plate worked together or alone.

I’ll say this: I’m glad I like butter. The gravy was damn near a pool of it, silky and deep, but I never lost the pork flavor. The kraut came pretty close to overpowering the delicate, soft pork when I put the two on the same fork. But add in a little of the gravy or cut back on the amount of the sauerkraut and it was all good. Even the sprouts worked. Their flavor disappeared on me in a muddle of everything else, but the texture by itself added something.

All that at $15 a plate. More please.

Now, take this for what you will. My wife liked the sauerkraut. She hates sauerkraut and refuses to eat it, having grown up on the nasty bagged stuff that tastes mostly like ammonia and vinegar.

We went in knowing there would be sauerkraut. They were up front about it. She agreed to try it based solely on the place’s reputation.

Which reminded me. A few weeks ago, the restaurant asked on Twitter how seriously to take a customer complaint when the person ordered something against the protestations of his/her own palate. I replied then that a restaurant can’t be responsible for knowing everyone’s likes and dislikes — that’s on the person ordering. And if anything, it’s flattering that someone would try something not expecting to like it just because of who prepared it.

So. My wife. Staring down sauerkraut. (It didn’t stare back. Thank the gods.)

I knew something was different when she took a picture of her food before eating it. This doesn’t happen. She’s hungry, she orders or makes food, she eats food. That’s how it works. I’m the idiot taking pictures of stuff.

Then she got on Twitter and Facebook midmeal. This also doesn’t happen. And I quote. Please click. Please chuckle. I know I did.