Salt of the Earth - Garfield Neighborhood
Behind Mad Men, NBA basketball and America’s Next Top Model, cooking competitions are my favorite shows to watch. My top three programs are Top Chef, Iron Chef and Chopped, with the last one being a ten o’clock staple of my nighttime viewing habits. The food prepared on all of these shows is way beyond my typical simplistic gastronomical endeavors but they have helped embolden me to be brave when the opportunity presents itself to try something unusual. Unfortunately these chances are few and far between since my wife does not possess the same daring pallet and normally shoots down my suggestions when the proposed restaurant’s menu lacks a straightforward steak, hamburger or pizza option.
Luckily for me, we have friends that are also courageous enough to take a bite out of entrees containing uncommon ingredients such as octopus and salmon roe and we recently corralled my wife into going to the innovative restaurant Salt. I’ve wanted to dine at Salt for quite awhile since it’s one of the few local kitchens that has offerings reminiscent of something served on Iron Chef. Our fiends live close-by so we usually carpool and on this evening it was their turn to drive. They picked us up and we headed towards the city, but since none of us had been to Salt before we only had a general sense of the restaurants location. Consequently our trip took a convoluted path through the Strip District, then Bloomfield, before curling back around East Liberty to Penn Avenue in Garfield. This neighborhood was quite sketchy when I was a kid but just like nearby East Liberty it is in the midst of a revival and the haute cuisine of Salt serves as further evidence.
We arrived at 7:30 and without a reservation we were directed to a small table near the front windows to wait for a spot to open. The dining area at Salt has an open floor plan with additional mezzanine seating on the far end above the bar. The left side of the restaurant is the open kitchen area lined with countertop seating. The right wall is covered by a huge chalkboard which is where the dynamic drink and dining menus are kept current. Salt specializes in craft cocktails and my wife was brave enough to try their bourbon concoction*. I was less adventurous and perused the draft list before deciding on an East End’s Fat Gary’s Nut Brown Ale (3.6% ABV – English Brown Ale). It had a nice roasted nut and malted flavor, but the hoppy aftertaste left a slightly bitter feel that I didn’t love.
I got halfway through my beer before we were seated at one of the long, narrow tables in the middle of the restaurant. The lacquered natural wood gave a rustic yet modern motif to the space although the lack of support provided by the backless seats eventually became rather uncomfortable**. The crowd consisted of a mix of young and old and black and white. The East Pittsburgh hipsters were well represented among the patrons, as well as a grandmother keeping it real in a red Christmas sweater worn unironically over a white turtleneck.
I decided to let my culinary curiously run wild and ordered the snail appetizer. I had never tried escargot before and found the umami savoriness reminiscent of mushrooms. The snails came along with fried sweetbreads, watercress and fennel. I was a sweetbread virgin*** as well and tentative with my first bite but soon found them to be enjoyable. Even with my taste buds nodding with approval, the back of my mind was still a bit wary since I know that sweetbreads are a hodgepodge of animal glands. I don’t think I could ever chow down on them like a box of Chick-fil-A nuggets, but a few every now and then should be fine.
The dinner selections weren’t as eccentric as the appetizer options and I passed up the fish and steak for pork. The thick slices were prepared to a tender medium and served atop an earthy mixture of farro, mushrooms and cranberries that provided a good balance of course textures to the soft pork. The dish overall was okay but failed to make much of an impression. This is probably not as much a condemnation of the food but more due to the transcendent snail starter being a tough act to follow. We still had room for dessert and finished our night with a platter that was an updated take on S’mores. Quite often the end course served by foo-foo restaurants disappoints but Salt was able to serve a dish that was as refined as it was decadent.
Final Call: Salt (NaCl) combines a trendy locale and progressive seasonal menu with hip cocktails and adroit service to create a unique experience for the gastronomically adventurous. They also have enough safe options for those who prefer not to dine on fried calf pancreas.
* My wife’s cocktail was quite ambrosial and easy to drink despite being mostly hard liquor. I was a little turned off by its high price of ten dollars, but at least its extravagance reminded me of Vincent Vega’s famous quote:
That’s a pretty f*cking good milkshake. I don’t know if it’s worth five dollars, but it’s pretty f*cking good.
** I have a herniated disk in my back that fortunately rarely causes me any issues but sitting in Salt’s unsupportive chair for a few hours aggravated it greatly. It’s also possible that my discomfort could stem from the fact that I’m a big whiner.
*** “Sweetbread Virgin” sounds like the title of a Jane Green book.