After a lot of work by Kevin Sousa and his gang, Salt of the Earth is finally open. They’re an unusual restaurant so I’m not going to do the usual sort of review.
First off, I’m not going to tell you much about what we had for dinner other than we really liked it, the service was great, and the price was right.
What I am going to tell you about is Salt’s process and the dining experience.
Several years ago I met local chef Bill Fuller at a party and he said something that really got me to thinking, that he considered cooking a process. I was in design school at the time so it sounded good to me because design is all about process, but our first dinner at Salt really made the case for cooking as a process.
At its foundation, Salt is not your typical Pittsburgh restaurant. Their menu is seasonal, regionally sourced, and is so subject to last minute change it’s not even printed on paper it’s just written on a huge chalkboard on one side of the restaurant. (Bring your glasses, I should have…) What’s on their website is a good example of the sort of thing that they are serving, but it’s probably not exactly the same as what’s written on the wall.
It’s also a different sort of menu in that it’s effectively a very large chef’s tasting menu. There’s a selection of cocktails, wine, beer, starters, large plates, and last plates that are designed to work together and support one another. There’s the typical tasting menu rule of “no substitutions” and while they have a bar, they only have the ingredients for the drinks that are on the menu.
Normally I find this sort of thing a bit, well, stuffy to be honest. I grew up with the dinner rule at home of “this isn’t a restaurant, you eat what’s in front of you” and to some degree tasting menus strike me that way. “I don’t care if you hate tomatoes, I’m going to serve them to you anyway!”. I go to a restaurant to be waited on and have a choice bigger than “what leftovers do we have in the fridge?” and “What strange thing did someone come up with based on the overstock in the restaurant freezer?”. I don’t want to be told what to eat, I want to pick and choose from a vast range of choices.
This is where Kevin and his crew have really nailed the menu. It’s a tasting menu but with enough variety and creativity that you don’t feel like you’re choosing from only a handful of dishes. The dishes are simply listed by primary ingredients and flavors so it’s easy for pretty much anyone to find something that they will like. It’s also in plain english, so you don’t need to speak a foreign language or have a huge foodie vocabulary to understand items like “Hanger Steak: potato, shiitake, cherry barley”. Should you have a question — “cherry barley?” — the servers know the menu cold and can explain exactly what it is you are ordering.
When our cocktails and first plates arrived I discovered that my spicy (chili!) cocktail matched the spiciness of my first plate, but a sip of my partner’s very sweet cocktail matched my first plate in a completely different way. For my large plate I ordered a more “earthy” that also complemented the dish just as well, but differently, than my partner’s drink. Obviously I can’t try every combination of cocktail and dish, but thinking back on the menu it’s hard to see where I could screw up without trying. Each drink and dish had nice complementary flavors both within the dish itself and when combined with other things on the table.
Ok, so where’s the process that I think Bill Fuller was talking about?
I say it’s in the continual evolution of dishes based on feedback from customers, availability of ingredients, and the Salt team’s creative energy.
Normally I order a cocktail without much thought of how well it will go with my first course, often before I even look at the menu. Salt’s menu is well designed so your choices are limited to things that work well together. Many places have a list of “signature drinks” without much regard to the food menu, but at Salt each of the base spirits is represented with a cocktail tailored to match the ingredients of the dishes.
The same is true for first plates and large plates. I didn’t realize until later that even with a number of first and large plates that it was hard for me to pick dishes that would conflict with one another. The spiciness of my first plate did not overwhelm the earthiness of my large plate, and my last plate wasn’t a sugar flavor carbo bomb that made me forget what I was eating 10 minutes earlier.
Without going into the specifics of my meal, I feel good saying that if you go in with an open mind, talk to the water, and trust that Kevin and his staff have put together an excellent menu, you will not be disappointed. Yes, we really enjoyed our dinners, but it’s ok that what we ordered might never be on the menu again. Whatever replaces it will be as well thought out and planned as what we had on our first visit.
As for the physical space at Salt, it also benefits from well-thought design and architectural work. The first floor is a communal eating area with an open kitchen, the second floor is a reservation only-mezzanine. In the communal area you can sit at the kitchen “bar” or at one of the huge tables shared by different parties. Instead of feeling like a dorm cafeteria it feels like a large family get together where you just don’t recognize all of your relatives.
Too many times I’ve been to a restaurant with great food but diner-unfriendly atmosphere: harsh lighting, not enough lighting, too much noise, tables too close together, not enough room for the waitstaff to move, you get the idea. The architects behind Salt’s new building have done a truly amazing job of putting together a friendly, homey, comfortable space.
Salt is the result of a lot of creativity, imagination, design work, and hard labor. In my opinion, the effort has paid off and Salt is going to become a major player in the Pittsburgh restaurant scene.