On the Table: Area restaurants now look to capture the flavors of fall

In the past 10 years, more and more restaurants have jumped on the eating local, farm-to-table bandwagon. This movement has had an incredible influence on modern American dining, and its benefits are numerous, but as a restaurant philosophy it's going stale.

Not only is it hard to tell which restaurants actually source a substantial portion of their ingredients locally or simply talk to a farmer on the phone and then call themselves farm-to-table, it is also clear that too many restaurants seem to believe that a local provenance makes up for an inferior product.

Restaurants mentioned:

• Isabela on Grandview, 1318 Grandview Ave., Mount Washington; www.isabelaongrandview.com, 412-431-5882

• Habitat, Fairmont Pittsburgh Hotel, 510 Market St., Downtown; www.habitatrestaurant.com, 412-773-8848

• Kaya, 2000 Smallman St., Strip District; www.bigburrito.com/kaya, 412-261-6565

• Salt of the Earth, 5523 Penn Ave., Garfield; www.saltpgh.com, 412-441-7258

• Eleven Contemporary Kitchen, 1150 Smallman St.; www.bigburrito.com/eleven, 412-201-5656

• Dinette, 5996 Penn Circle South, East Liberty; www.dinette-pgh.com, 412-362-0202

Legume Bistro, 1113 S. Braddock Ave., Regent Square; www.legumebistro.com, 412-371-1815

Instead, restaurants should focus on cooking seasonally. Seasonality is a more flexible principle, one that allows restaurants to take the best of what they have available, but still consider ingredients from outside their immediate food shed when it makes sense. They won't serve tomatoes in January, but they also won't rely solely on cellared or over-wintered produce, because restaurant diners rightly expect greater variety and top quality.

Seasonal cooking allows chefs and diners to think of each new season as an opportunity to experience the flavors and textures best suited to that particular time of year, rather than lamenting Pennsylvania's limited growing season.

Happily, more restaurants in Pittsburgh seem to be following the principle of seasonality, whether or not they give lip service to it. Pittsburgh chefs are embracing the changes of the season with a new enthusiasm, readily relinquishing the fruits of summer for the heartier flavors of fall.

A slew of restaurants already have introduced their fall menus. At Isabela on Grandview in Mount Washington, summer tomatoes and corn linger in a couple of dishes, but many dishes hint at Thanksgiving, such as patty pan squash gratin with Taleggio and a hazelnut gremolata and honey-glazed shrimp in a butternut squash and bacon broth, garnished with crispy sage.

At the Fairmont's Habitat, Downtown, the new menu overflows with greens, squash, root vegetables and fall fruit, such as pumpkin risotto with roasted pumpkin and duck confit; roast organic chicken with bacon and swiss chard and mashed Yukon Golds; and sweet and sour duck breast with baby carrots, butternut squash and spinach. Pastry chef Naomi Gallego's menu includes a pumpkin croissant bread pudding with maple sabayon and whiskey cherries, and apple confit with warm cinnamon foam, wheat pecan sable breton and rum date gel.

Sean Ehland, executive chef of Kaya in the Strip District, has added some fall desserts to his menu. Apple fritters come with apple compote, dulce de leche and vanilla ice cream, while pear clafoutis comes with cinnamon ice cream and glazed almonds.

Restaurants could easily get away with summer menus for at least a few more weeks, but those with substantial ambition seem unwilling to do so. Kevin Sousa opened Salt of the Earth in Garfield on Sept. 13. The next day he tweeted (@SaltPgh) "Well, we made it before summer ended ... barely. already time to start bringing the chilly weather flavors, new dishes in progress."

Salt of the Earth served its last tomato salad on Sept. 18, then on Monday Mr. Sousa replaced it with salad of Gingergold apples, figs, fennel, bourbon, cocoa nibs and feta cheese.

Of course, a willingness to embrace the new season doesn't mean that chefs love summer any less.

"I'm still struggling to hold on to summer before I give in and get into all the squashes," said Derek Stevens, executive chef of Eleven Contemporary Kitchen in the Strip District.

This week, Mr. Stevens created special, expanded tasting menus at Eleven to celebrate the end of summer and the beginning of fall, signaled by tonight's harvest moon. Both the chef and the vegetarian tastings begin with a late harvest tomato sashimi -- restaurant-speak for sliced tomatoes -- on a pumpkin masa cake, enriched respectively by smoked lamb or edamame hummus and chanterelles. Smoked corn was an ingredient on Mr. Stevens' summer menu, but in this context it suggests summer bonfires, the corn harvest long over. The chef's tasting ends with a peach-thyme sorbet, a bit of menu poetry. Alongside these summer flavors in decline, autumnal apples, turnips, squash and beets seem fresh and exciting.

Eleven's daily menu will soon see the shift as well. Duck will return to the menu, and heritage farm chickens will stay on it, available year-round for the first time.

"People are already asking for the beet salad," Mr. Stevens said. "Parsnips you'll be seeing plentiful amounts of and I'll be sick of them by December."

Sonja Finn, chef and owner of Dinette in East Liberty, seconded this feeling. Right now, she's excited by the return of fall ingredients. After all the sweet flavors of summer, she's especially excited about the bitter vegetables that come in the colder months.

"Chicories, like endive and radicchio, all those things are super exciting to me," she said. "Just about everybody is asking for the Brussels sprouts pizza, that's kind of a late fall, early winter [dish]."

But by February, she'll be dreaming of fresh tomatoes and basil, corn and zucchini. She saved a little of summer's bright flavors this year by freezing extra batches of pesto (without the cheese), made from the basil on Dinette's roof garden.

Preserving flavors in different forms is one of the best tricks of the seasonal cook. At Legume Bistro in Regent Square, arguably Pittsburgh's most seasonally driven restaurant, chef and co-owner Trevett Hooper pickles, preserves and puts up produce throughout the year. Recently, he put pork belly back on the menu, a sure sign of colder nights.

"We're just going to roast it with a little bit of this rhubarb sauce that we make in the spring and that's going to be the gist of it," he said.

The weather "really affects the way we cook," Mr. Hooper said. "I want to do a lot more whole animals, [such as] whole pigs, whole goats and my basement kitchen prep area is too hot in the summer so in the fall we can start doing that again. ... I like to have at least one thing on our menu that's coming from a whole animal other than chicken."

Legume diners should look for whey-fed pigs on the menu this fall and winter as well as new goat dishes. (Pigs whose diet includes whey, a by-product of cheesemaking, are said to have particularly tender flesh and an especially creamy flavor).

Just a few weeks ago, Mr. Hooper prepared the tomato conserve that he'll use in cassoulet come winter. Legume's cassoulet is reason enough to look forward to January. And by the time we've had enough, spring will be just around the corner.

China Millman: 412-263-1198 or cmillman@post-gazette.com . Follow her at http://twitter.com/chinamillman .


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