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Salt of the Earth

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Went Monday night - the first "public" night. It was everything we expected and more.

Having been to a couple of the guerilla dinners in the empty space last summer, the physical transformation is stunning. A lot of high concept stuff going on (communal tables, seats with no backs, no paper menu, full kitchen theatre, reservations for balcony seating only). There are photos on the site (saltpgh.com) along with narrative on how Kevin and Robert arrived at their decisions.

(In disclosure, I'm a vendor, having provided the coffee service training and the coffee. I'd met the entire staff last week when doing training, so they all knew who I was by name. Still, the fact that every single one of the staff remembered my name after only a hour of training was pretty freaking impressive.)

We reserved a balcony seat. Surprisingly the restaurant was not busy, maybe 1/3 full. I didn't ask the guys if that was a good thing (much more manageable as service/kitchen line ramps up for the hopefully inevitable packed houses this weekend) or a bad thing (below expectations for an opening night?) but everyone seemed extremely upbeat during and after dinner service.

There is a short list of house cocktails. I had the "Springdale" to start - Boyd & Blair vodka, ginger, bacon infusion. Wife had a glass of a NZ Sauv. There are perhaps 20 wines, reasonably priced, by bottle or glass. Water is filter conditioned and quite good (sparkling water also available).

Based on the online menu I had talked myself into trying a chicken app that featured liver, heart and combs. Alas, that wasn't on the menu when we arrived, so I went with the beef tartare, where marrow was used to really amp up the texture to an amazing creaminess, with miso in the background to amp up the "umami-ness" of the dish. Wife had the blue crab brioche and was loving it. Then she got to the poached egg and wanted to marry it. As amazing as the flavor was, the textural interplay was even moreso.

To us, the thing that's set Kevin's dishes apart from everyone else in town is his understanding and appreciation of texture. You can find delicious dishes and excellent plating elsewhere, covering sight and smell and taste. But only Kevin does "touch" full justice. Your taste buds aren't the only one invited to the party. Your entire mouth is invited.

The other thing that's even more noticeable at Salt than it was at the guerilla dinners was the continuing wonderment of "how the hell did he do that?" You go to other good restaurants, break down the ingredients and prep in your head and tell yourself given time and attention, you might be able to do a reasonable facsimile of that dish. Not so at Salt. Not only didn't we have a clue as to how he physically executed the dishes, for the most part we wouldn't even have thought of putting these things together, nor could conceive the type of brain that would.

Onto the main course... we both went fish. She had the arctic char, I had the walleye (always a sucker for walleye, which had replaced halibut from the web menu). In between oohing and aahing over what was going on in her mouth, my wife was pointing to things on her plate and referring back to the listed ingredients, trying to figure out if what was listed was actually on her plate, because she'd never had those things prepared that way.

As for me, there was no missing the brussel sprouts in the brussels sprouts kimchi. But by far, the most interesting thing on the plate was the one thing you'd think would be the most boring: the "rice cake". I identified it as such only after process of elimination. It was like an amazingly dense gnocchi. And I could easily see devouring an entire bowl of just that.

And yes, needless to say, both fish were cooked perfectly (the char is cooked medium, so if you have sensitivity to such, be forewarned).

The servings were right-sized. We were perfectly sated after the apps and entree and opted for dessert only because of where we were and who was in the kitchen.

Dessert is where Kevin's falls back on his Alchemy "fun with chemistry" experience . There was only one dessert we were offered as an alternative to the cheese plate (which I had). My wife ordered it - can't recall what it was, other than being billed as some kind of parfait with a long list of ingredients. A small steel bowl arrived with what looked like two small scoops of ice cream tied together with a white foam and some colored flecks. It honestly didn't look like much. But it was something right out of Willy Wonka. With each bite, my wife proclaimed she was tasting something different and came to the conclusion that there were at least a dozen different desserts in that little bowl.

The cheese plate featured a hard goat cheese (shaved like parmesan but creamier) that was exceptionally good. There was also a mild bleu, quince and bacon powder. In what was the only misstep of the evening (other than my knocking over a water glass, perhaps becoming the first customer to spill anything there), there was a bit too much bacon powder on the plate.

Early last year, when I was prepping for a barista competition, Kevin showed me how to make bacon powder. It's really fluffy stuff, using tapioca powder and filtered bacon drippings. It doesn't take much more than a mild puff of air to get the stuff blowing all over the place. Sure enough, not unlike Woody Allen sneezing into a line of coke in Sleeper, my black t-shirt and the black napkin on my lap were soon flecked substantially with the white powder. I did note to Mack, our waiter, that having several loose mounds of the powder on the plate was probably a bad idea. At the least it should be tucked underneath other items so it stays put.

Service was spot on. Given it was opening night for the public and we were sitting in the balcony, it wouldn't have been all that surprising to us if staff wasn't quite as attentive or kitchen-to-table service a tad slower. Not the case. Water was refilled regularly, service was prompt yet welcomingly non-obtrusive nor overly friendly (we had plenty of questions, all of them handled expertly, with staff showing solid knowledge of what the kitchen was attempting to convey).

The two apps, two entrees, cocktail and three glasses of wine came to $126 before tip. And it made every other $126 dinner we've ever had look pretty pedestrian in comparison.

Once word gets out in the mainstream press, you have to think balcony and bar seats will be a tough reservation to get and the lines will be long for the communal tables. So do yourself a favor and go before this weekend.

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  1. this is on the top of my "go-to" list.. I can't wait - thank you for the review.

    1. Where is this place?? *ugh* just because they gave Philly their own board doesn't mean this is now the "Pittsburgh" board....

      3 Replies
      1. re: centralpadiner

        Good point. Although this place could end up notable enough that most would know where it is without needing to check. :-) But yeah, we should be noting the locations in the titles still.

        1. re: CrazyOne

          Well, not people in the eastern part of the state...

          1. re: Fjordstone

            You're ALL Philadephia to us out here in the West :-)

      2. examiner.com/pittsburgh, just posted the opening notice for SALT. I like this site, written by food writer Deborah McDonald, a former restaurant critic for In Pittsburgh and Pittsburgh Magazine. We like her style, and examiner's "Cheap Eats" is a fun ride.
        Check it out and Cheers! to Kevin Sousa. Good luck, even from fans in Philly (who used to live in the Burgh.

        1. I was invited to the soft opening last Saturday evening. My group loved the atmosphere, the decor, and the open kitchen. The menu that is displayed on the chalkboard wall is fabulous....the look and the food! We tried the lamb, arctic char, pork belly and the blue crab brioche. Each dish was excellent. I picked up cinnamon in the brioche dish. When I asked one of the chefs in the kitchen about the seonsing, he explained that a special 5 spice was sprinkled on the brioche...one of the spices was indeed cinnamon. I would love to get my hands on that spice mix! I can imagine using it in many dishes.
          We missed the drinks and desserts. The wine options were great and we enjoyed a few selections by the glass. Looking forward to going back this weekend. I am very pleased that we have Salt in our area. Kevin is a gifted chef. I wish him all the best. I am sure he will have much success!!

          1. a couple of friends and I went this past weekend. between us we tried the:

            Appetizers - tartare, brioche, octopus
            Entrees - Flat iron steak, Pork belly, Monkfish w/brussel sprouts kimchi & rice cakes, duck
            dessert - the chocolate dessert and cheeseplate
            and a few of the drinks

            Apps were top notch. I LOVED my steak tartare with a little touch of truffle oil. came with some toasted bread and endive. delicious. Brioche was very popular at the table (crabmeat, poached egg and a creamy...almost hollandaise tasting sauce). Octopus was well prepared.

            entrees were excellent. Flat iron was a tad boring..but it was for the more conservative tasters. Pork belly was my favorite. THe duck was also very good and so was the Monkfish (usually walleye but they ran out).

            Cheese plate was pretty boring. The chocolate dessert was delicious. kind of tasted like a creamy fudgesicle. a few french press coffees to go around. We each had at least 1 drink, some 2 and it came to $75 a person trying everything including coffee.