When it launched, Salt of the Earth paved the way for a new approach to Pittsburgh fine dining with its open kitchen, communal tables, industrial design and grittier neighborhood location. Recently, founding Chef Kevin Sousa passed the torch to then Sous-Chef, Chad Townsend, and though many of the core elements remain, Townsend is reshaping the restaurant to reflect his influences and goals.
Event/Floral Designer Thommy Conroy was the mastermind behind the beautiful transformation of the space.
As a means for showcasing this new guard and to highlight the local, seasonal menu, the restaurant launched a new Sunday dinner series called #SaltSundays. As a kickoff, Salt whet the appetite of foodies at Pittsburgh Magazine’s Best Restaurants 2014 event by distributing cards inviting guests to a new dining experience. Through invites and a twitter contest, Townsend and crew filled the seats for the inaugural Sunday, and I was lucky enough to attend.
If you’ve ever strolled a streetside Parisian antique/flea market at lunchtime, you have observed the inspiration for this #saltsundays menu. At that hour, the vendors ignore the folk browsing their wares, procure their portable tables and set them with the most lovely of picnics. Their slow meals of roasted chicken, potatoes, fresh bread (of course!) and perhaps some wine and cheeses are a testament to their rich culinary history and slow approach to meals (and to drinking at lunch!). Being the Francophile that he is, Townsend channeled the French style picnic indoors.
Pork Terrine with Mustard & Cornichon
A to Z Rosé
Chilled Asparagus with Gribiche
Ukulele entertainment by the talented Jody Perigo.
Roast Chicken with Veloute, Roasted Potatoes & herbs, Braised Radish & Chives (not shown but delicious!)
Kouign Amann & Buttermilk Ice Cream
The menu was refined in a way that exudes skill and thoughtfulness. The decor was bright, fresh, and transformational, making this meal a unique experience. The chef was happy and humble, graciously presenting and thanking all the hands involved in the meal. It was the perfect representation of what’s to come for Chad and his team, and it’s worth following, so stay tuned to #saltsundays!
In the foodie world, a chef’s name can carry the weight of a Hollywood celebrity. There’s an awe, mystique and fascination with those who are changing food scenes, tweeting their menus, gracing magazine spreads and most importantly, feeding us their finest. When one of those innovative and highly regarded chefs takes to the road, partners with farms and offers some of the most beautiful and authentic farm-to-table meals possible, the fan following escalates to that of a touring band.
After I first learned about Outstanding in the Field (through this beautiful blog post on Roost), I became one of the adoring groupies, routinely checking the tour dates and locations. I nearly flew myself to Florida, so great was my obsession. However, fate and luck and a chef named Justin Severino intervened, and I finally had the long awaited opportunity to attend an event close to my Pittsburgh home.
[Outstanding in the Field’s] mission is to re-connect diners to the land and the origins of their food, and to honor the local farmers and food artisans who cultivate it.
Outstanding in the Field is a roving culinary adventure – literally a restaurant without walls. Since 1999 we have set the long table at farms or gardens, on mountain tops or in sea caves, on islands or at ranches. Occasionally the table is set indoors: a beautiful refurbished barn, a cool greenhouse or a stately museum. Wherever the location, the consistent theme of each dinner is to honor the people whose good work brings nourishment to the table.
Ingredients for the meal are almost all local (sometimes sourced within inches of your seat at the table!) and generally prepared by a celebrated chef of the region. After a tour of the site, we all settle in: farmers, producers, culinary artisans, and diners sharing the long table.
The site of the magical meal was Blackberry Meadows Farm, a real work of love by farmers Jen Montgomery and Greg Boulos (and wee little farmerette Evelyn). The couple’s introduction and tour of the farm was truly moving. They are committed to community and future generations, as exhibited by their communal, brick oven and the trees they planted that will reach their real grandeur long past their children’s time.
Ella the cow under her umbrella…ella…ella…
The Plate Tradition
OITF added a personal touch to the meal through this tradition. Participants were encouraged to bring a plate and add it to the pile. The plates then appeared at the field where the seemingly, never-ending tables were located. Diners could pick any plate from the burlap pile, adding a more communal element to the dining experience as textures and patterns rekindled memories of our own kitchens or other dining tables of note.
I wish my childhood had been filled with this version of “dirt” rather than that gummy worm and chocolate pudding version (sorry to spoil your childhood memories if you hold “dirt” near and dear, but after prepping a batch with a bunch of grubby, VBS kids and their dirty, grubby fingers dipping into the bowl, my memories of that dessert still feel funny and are less than fond…tangential rant concluded). Chef David Racicot, of Notion, really embraced the farm dinner theme with this playful hors d’oeuvre of roasted and dehydrated baby carrots emerging from edible “dirt.”
Ceramic bowls and fresh blackberries would later appear as the clafoutis to close out the meal. Oddly enough, even though the blackberries were locally sourced, they were not sourced from the namesake farm. Apparently, the farm was named (several owners ago) for the wild blackberries that grow in the fields, which require more sugar than its worth to counter their tart flavor.
From the field plate to the table plate…
Heirloom tomatoes atop red and yellow gazpacho with parmesan foam and fresh herbs.
When heirloom tomatoes are the source of a gazpacho’s flavor, one cannot let said gazpacho go to waste, even when in the company of new acquaintances. I call this one “And God Shined Upon The Gazpacho..,” which is to say, Cavan Patterson, of Wild Purveyors, made the right decision. He was a real champ!
cucumber, garden flowers, red miso, coconut, mint, basil, jalapeño, nori
Chef Kevin Sousa (Salt of the Earth, Union Pig & Chicken, Station Street Hot Dogs) used liquid nitrogen to freeze the melons in this salad, which added a crisp, refreshing, textural contrast to the light greens and flowers, whereas a regular piece of fruit would have added too much water or mushiness on a hot, farm day.
As one would expect, Chef Justin Severino (Cure) prepared quite the impressive salumi spread garnished with violet, saffron and dijon mustards.
Though it’s easy to envy founder Jim Denevan’s role, it was clear this labor of love required a lot of persistance and passion to launch and grow to the whirlwind tour it is today. We Pittsburghers are quite lucky to live in the same city as Chef Justin Severino, who was instrumental in putting Blackberry Meadows Farm on the event schedule. Jim also declared Justin to be his favorite chef. Coming from a man who travels and eats the best the country has to offer for a living, that is not a praise to be taken lightly.
chanterelles, bacon, tallegio
* roasted in the farmers’ communal brick oven!
Lamb Belly & Sweetbreads
green beans, potato, black garlic
The plates cleared, the candles appeared, the lights flickered, and the laughter grew in volume until finally, we applauded all efforts tremendously and meandered into the night. My work here will have been done should you read this and become one of the OITF groupies! Perhaps we shall meet in a field soon?
This might be old news, but this little tidbit bears repeating just in case it’s new to you. If you live in Pittsburgh, there’s a monthly opportunity to eat some of the city’s finest foods for a good cause:
Let Us Eat is a dinner series that takes place on the second Thursday of each month at a different local restaurant. The owners and chefs that participate in [Grow Pittsburgh’s] series support locally grown food and Grow Pittsburgh‘s mission to demonstrate, teach and promote responsible urban food production by donating 10% of the evening’s sales to [Grow Pittsburgh].
The site selection for February 9th gave me a really good reason to dine at Salt of the Earth, not to mention my trusty dining companion had yet to eat there.
Salt of the Earth
5523 Penn Ave, Pittsburgh, PA 15206
I’ve mentioned Salt on here once before when I took my out-of-towners there. Though the lamb shank on this Let Us Eat night did leave me with a more lasting impression, I stand by my initial conclusions:
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 more unique aspects of the descriptions.
Having made a reservation, we were seated on the second floor, meaning a private table (versus the main floor communal dining style) and a variant on the menu display, which takes up an entire wall on the first floor.
Buffalo Trace, Green Chartreuse, Meyer Lemon, Hickory
While the fella above pondered why any bourbon cocktail would ever be served in a glass so strongly associated with martinis (is there a bartending rule we are missing?), I pondered whether or not “Green chartreuse” was a redundant title. As it turns out, it’s not. The mix definitely had merit as a thought provoker, but more importantly, it was a smooth sipper. It made me strongly resent the slight cold from which I was recovering because I would have loved to have partaken in a drink of my own.
My inaugural trip to Cure taught me a very important fact about myself: I like beef cheeks, or at least, I liked the very first beef cheeks I had ever eaten. Thus, it seemed appropriate to challenge this recent assertion by eating round two of beef cheeks. Safe to say, I do like beef cheeks. If not done correctly, I tend to find gnocchi to be a soggy little pile of carbohydrate, but these gnocchi had a crisp texture around an inner burst of meaty flavor. Bravo!
Main: Lamb Shank
Polenta, chard, gremolata
Perhaps the one caveat to my aforementioned repeated conclusion was the lamb shank. I won’t go as far to say I was closing my eyes and savoring every morsel as if it was the last I would ever experience, but the way that tender meat fell of the bone into the gravy doused greens and polenta was indeed something to savor!
Kudos for the use of purple potatoes for extra presentation merits. The mussels were especially noteworthy in this mix.
Dessert: Fruit Cake
Chestnut, pistachio, orange, amaretto, egg nog
This fruit cake was definitely a far and distant cry from those holiday versions with the bad reputation. The amaretto and orange packed in moisture and flavor akin to the delicious attributes of an almond croissant (without reaching the pedestal that is the truly authentic almond croissant).
I would be remiss not to add this concluding critique. If there were local foods being featured, their presence was unclear. As an organization who promotes the local, it seems you should work more closely with the restaurants to highlight their ingredients and the significance to the local economy, their nutritional merits and their environmental benefits, especially on a night promoting your mission. I know Salt lists local/seasonal foods as one of its values, but I only know this from reading the restaurant website. Had I dined there without knowing it was a benefit night, my only clue would have been the lettuce token of thanks (which I do appreciate). I want to support your cause because it is one in which I firmly believe, but this is the second time I have put money toward the organization with little educational return.