Another Look At PGH: Salt of the Earth

October 2011

NaCl

The rusted, circular sign with the Periodic Table Elements appeals to my dorkier sensibilities.  I did, after all, devote about two years of my life to an art project revolving around a wordplay on pi.  This is Salt of the Earth, and it’s the restaurant creating the biggest buzz amongst Pittsburgh foodies.  I had joined Salt’s communal tables only once before.  It was a flawed first visit, by no fault of the restaurant.  I was meeting friends of a friend, who were visiting from various metropolises.  By the time I arrived, they had already placed an order, and the drink menu overwhelmed me as I tried simultaneously to match faces to names.  I was more concerned with the social purpose of the outing, so while I enjoyed what I ate, my mind was less engaged than it normally would be for such an important food experience.

Take Two:  The Heather & Jess Weekend

In planning the Heather and Jess visit to Pittsburgh, I asked them if they had any major goals for the city.  “Good food,” Heather replied.  Jess added a few thoughts on the Warhol but also chimed in some food goals.  I planned accordingly, and I planned in a way that offered a mix of my trusted spots and places I experience on a less frequent basis.  Salt was the kickoff for the weekend for a few reasons:  they actually keep their kitchen open until a decent hour (I cannot praise that factor enough); the accolades of trusted palates in my life; lastly, I had been wanting to give Salt another shot.  


NaCl/Salt of the Earth

5523 Penn Avenue
Pittsburgh Pennsylvania 15206
Neighborhood:  Garfield

Bourbon
Buffalo Trace, Cointreau, Cardamaro, lemon

I began craving this drink days after this dining experience.  It offered the bold and warming flavors of bourbon in a smooth combination that made it sip like wine.  I’d go as far as to say this was my best decision of the evening.

Beef Tartare
marrow, quail egg, sansho, peanut

The quail egg really made a noticeable flavor and texture difference in this dish, as if transforming the tartare to a delicious meatball in your mouth without the loss of flavor through cooking.  The peanuts added a strong contrast of flavor, but I would suggest chopping them finer and using less of them, as that peanut flavor came to overpower the dish.  A linguistic lesson/exchange proved to be the real, honest evaluation of this dish.

Heather:  I don’t know how to describe this in English.  How would you translate tanh [from Vietnamese]?

Jess:  Fishy?

Heather:  But for meat?

Moi:  Rancid?  Rank?

Heather:  Yeah.

Linguistics explorations can make for rather harsh food critiques, but I stand behind the intention of constructive criticism and honesty.  Heather’s Vietnamese lexicon sought to pinpoint in one word what in English might sound something like this [wordy]:  The meat had a certain pungency which the overpowering garnishes failed either to hide or enhance in a more flavorful way.  Instead, the dish broke into disparate flavors.

That being said in not one but two languages, the plate was still enticing enough, and we made a significant dent in the supply.  Clearly.

Snails
pasta, miso, sweetbreads, fennel, watercress

My first ever snails!  This fact is pretty shameful considering the extensive time I have spent in France, but I wasn’t exactly whipping up escargot for the little one during my nanny stint.  My Philly friends, steeped in the heritage of the fish-faring nation of Vietnam, were all too eager to dive into this bowl, poke a chopstick past the sweet breads and pluck out a snail.  I had some hesitation before the momentous event, and then I sank my teeth into my very first ever snail.

Aside from the obvious reasons of a national diet and a cultural exchange, I deeply wish my first snail had been un escargot français for the sake of really understanding the flavor of a snail through the simple preparation method of butter and garlic.  However, here I was chopsticking my way through complexity.  My perception of the snail was that of a mushroom, perhaps a shiitake?  The texture was a bit chewy and slimy, and the flavor culled from the rest of the bowl.  Luckily, the rest of the bowl had a lot of flavor to offer.  When I say the sweetbreads tasted like a gourmet version of Kentucky Fried Chicken, I mean that in the best possible way.  The flavors of watercress and fennel really magnified when combined to form the pasta sauce.  My other hesitation was the fried chicken skin garnish.  I’m just not there yet.

Sashimi
salmon, prickly pear, wasabi, roe

I’m not going to go into great detail here.  If you are at Salt, order the sashimi.  We all agreed.

Wagyu Skirt Steak
celeriac, beets, sweet potato, squash, blue cheese

We were all feeling these fall flavors as we sat swathed in scarves and sweaters.  This was a dish and food lesson wrapped in one.  How much do you know about wagyu beef and celeriac?  Did you know celeriac is considered an aphrodisiac in Hungary?  I didn’t learn that tidbit at the restaurant, but I do enjoy when a menu inspires me to do further research.  There was no Veitnamese-English debate on this beef.  It was flavorful and tender and paired well with the bold colors swirling around the plate.

Scallops
mussels, sunchoke, artichoke, olive, potato

Sunchoke?  Do you know that one?  We didn’t, but our informative waiter did!  Unfortunately, it was difficult to distinguish the sunchoke from the artichoke, so I’ll have to explore this tuber more in the future, but again, I appreciate Salt for planting the seed for more food investigations.  Overall, the scallops plate is a solid choice but not overwhelmingly memorable.  It’s a safe order.

S’More
chocolate, elderflower, golden graham

I didn’t choose the name With the Grains on a whim.  I truly believe in whole grains and whole ingredients, so it hurt my puritanical side to receive golden grahams on an upscale s’mores platter.  Full disclosure?  I tried the combination to be fair to the dessert, and the combination worked.  BUT why wouldn’t the chefs make their own version or really push their kitchen creativity for the carb portion of the s’more and come up with something brand new?!?  That’s my gripe and challenge, but other than that, I was content with the sweet finale of this food adventure.

Overall Conclusion?

Elements of industrial design, a menu that literally takes center stage, communal tables, adventurous pairings, a focus on food presentation and a bourbon cocktail that sips ever so smoothly like a fine wine… Salt clearly deserves a lot of the hype and buzz.  However, a sentiment from my first experience remained.  After hearing positive review after positive review, I was expecting to have several of those bites that burst from the fork, cause your face to freeze then turn away from dining companions, so as to say, “please do not interrupt me right now.  I need every ounce of my concentration to focus on how orgasmically good this bite of food is.”

I have had those moments, but I have yet to have one at Salt.  It’s not a climax, but it is a worthwhile adventure and learning experience, as most of the menu items not only deliver on presentation and overall taste merits, but the wait staff will helpfully offer a lesson on “what is cardamaro?” or “what is a sunchoke?” if you take the time to question the somewhat foreign aspects of the descriptions.

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