Why haven't you been dining at Salt? You should, because head chef Chad Townsend is coming into his own.
He took the helm of the Garfield restaurant in February after Kevin Sousa left to open Superior Motors in Braddock.
- Hours: 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. Mondays through Saturdays.
- Basics: With the direction of a new executive chef, Salt remains among Pittsburgh’s best restaurants.
- Dishes: Carrot soup, veal meatball, steak tartare, burger, moules frites, hanger steak, veal parmesan.
- Prices: Starters $9, mids $12-$15, mains $20-$31, tasting menu $45 and up.
- Summary: Parking lot and street parking, handicapped-accessible, credit cards.
- Noise level: Quiet to moderately loud.
He had been faithful to Mr. Sousa's modernist vision. But since he left, Mr. Townsend has been offering a more straightforward experience -- as clear as a punch line.
If you had been a Salt fan, you'll notice changes as you walk in the door.
Diners no longer have to stand in front of a giant chalkboard to read the menu, craning their necks as if it's a 1970s Penn Station train schedule. They get their own menus when they're seated.
Instead of T-shirts, cooks wear respectable chef whites. I love the gesture of one reversing his double-breasted jacket to hide stains before walking through the dining room.
Some chefs vehemently dislike them. But it's not like jackets are as fussy as white tablecloths. Salt is still a casual, open kitchen, with a vibe more Bob Dylan than Claude Debussy.
Most importantly, you'll see the differences in the food.
Mr. Townsend's menu shows his Pittsburgh roots as well as his experience under Mr. Sousa, Derek Stevens of Eleven and at Michelin-starred Nouvelle Maison de Marc Veyrat in Annecy, France. If he maintains this direction, his food will resonate with a range of diners, from locals in search of delicious, humble fare, to visiting gourmands.
Let's start with the soup, a good indicator of the skill of a chef.
One one hand, there's the elegant rabbit consomme ($9) served in a formal white bowl with an exaggerated lip. I love consomme for its luxuriously clear broth -- in this case, dotted with favas, peas, carrots and thyme. It sings savory, though I did not like the inclusion of pate, which was the texture of butter in broth.
On the other hand, you've got the more rustic carrot coriander soup ($9) served in a pottery bowl. Also the first of four courses on the daily vegetarian menu ($45), the soup is simple but excellent, with a hit of umami from the furikake, a Japanese condiment of dried fish, seaweed and sesame seeds.
Moving to the starters, a fava bean risotto ($14) is the proper consistency, a plus considering how often restaurant risotto is a disaster. It's creamy but not overly so, with the requisite parmesan as well as herbs and favas. It's enough to whet an appetite for spring dining.
The white asparagus ($9) with egg, chervil and anchovy is a lively medley with the same effect. Note that the asparagus is served as a savory custard, which I did not love, since I prefer white asparagus in its original form. Why obscure it in a white loaf, like a root vegetable at end of winter?
Made from ice wine from a Canadian vineyard, Minus 8 vinegar is a seductive flavor in the salad ($9) with super thin-sliced radishes, lettuce and Pennsylvania-sheep's-milk feta. The salad would be perfect without that quenelle of lemon sorbet, which is delightfully acidic, but a texture clash with greens.
On a midsized plate, the mussels are big and fresh and sweet. It's a classic white-wine broth with aromatics amped by whole garlic cloves and served with a side of frites and mayonnaise. A word of warning: Your tablemates will covet the fries. Mine texted me about their greatness well after we said our goodbyes.
This brings us to the humble fare on the menu, which is more than a pile of fries. It includes a croque madame with smoked ham, gruyere and egg ($12), slathered with bechamel and served with greens on the side.
There's also the burger, a patty so tender you may not need teeth to eat it. Served with pickles, mustard and lettuce ($10) it's a Grade-A version of a Whopper. Did I mention Mr. Townsend makes his own American cheese?
If a burger sounds too mundane even with the bespoke cheese, there's the hanger steak ($31) with Bordelaise, ramps and fava beans -- complementing flavors, though a tad undersalted.
Cooked al dente, the cavatelli is dressed with hazelnut and peppery black garlic, turnips and confit radish. It pairs well with a glass of Cabernet Franc ($14 from Chinon's Le Grand Bouqueteau), a food-friendly varietal with moderate fruit and soft tannins. Another red, the Tilia Bonarda ($9 from Mendoza's El Mirador) complements the veal parmesan ($20). Breaded, fried and layered with cheese, the veal is served atop a column of lightly dressed spaghetti. Despite this restraint, you will not go hungry. You'll be pleased to have finished a perfect version of this dish.
If you'd rather spend less for dinner, the early menu from 5 to 6 p.m. and the late-night menu from 10 p.m. to 12:45 a.m. offer cheap eats. They include the burger and a dish such as Korean fried chicken or Nashville hot chicken, both casual and interesting.
After-hours is a good time for a cocktail such as the beet gin ($10), a bright-red yet balanced drink some diners wish held a permanent spot on the menu (it does not). I also like the Old Heaven Hill bourbon ($10) with rhubarb, basil and egg white that's nearly a dessert.
Speaking of which, there are desserts. Say yes to a Troegs Java Head Stout and chocolate milkshake ($7, sold after 10 p.m.), but pass on the creme brulee ($10). Served with chocolate ice cream in a stainless-steel bowl marked up with fingerprints, it's not quite the dish you're craving.
Which brings me to the reasons why this review is three stars and not four. The kitchen occasionally is lax with details. The servers don't always know the menu. The cooks overpour soup so there's a mini tsunami when a waiter delivers it.
But do not let these things dissuade you. There's a new vitality to the restaurant, one that makes nearly every visit a compelling one.
Mr. Townsend now shows more promise than any time I've had his cooking. Though he's hungry to shape his reputation, Salt of the Earth is more true to its name than ever.
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart