Legume a charming restaurant where you'll find dishes both familiar and obscure

Tongue rarely inspires lust -- when it comes to food, anyway. It does, however, in the case of Legume's reuben, a sandwich that swaps brisket with cured heart and tongue.

This is the sandwich of Dagwood's fantasies. Paper-thin meats stack between toasted rye with a Thousand Island sheen. Housemade kraut layers sour on gruyere. Each bite is sublime, even as meat slides out the side and dressing oozes onto the plate. 

Legume Bistro and Butterjoint
214 N. Craig St. Oakland


  • Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. lunch Monday through Friday; 5 to 9 p.m. dinner Monday through Thursday; 5 to 10 p.m. dinner Friday and Saturday. Butterjoint open until midnight.
  • Basics: Legume is a soulful restaurant with terrific seasonal cuisine, compelling wine and among the city’s best classic cocktails.
  • Dishes: Beef tongue salad, beignets and escarole, smoked bluefish pate, bistro steak, tenderloin, chicken under a skillet, the Butterjoint burger, pierogies and greens, strawberry rhubarb crumble.
  • Prices: Lunch: soup, salads and small plates $4 to $6; bigger plates $10 to $14; sides $1 to $4; dessert $6. Dinner: nice things to share $5 to $12; small plates $9 to $10; medium plates $17 to $35; sides $4 to $6; desserts $8.
  • Summary: Wheelchair-accessible, parking lot, street parking, credit cards, reservations.

It has been my favorite dish at the Oakland restaurant. I wanted to break off to a corner to finish it by myself.

A food writer and editor who lives in New York, Francis Lam, was also impressed when he tried it with me during a Pittsburgh visit last fall.

"The tongue reuben was the best I've ever had," he tweeted to his 50,000 followers. "A tender make out ... with corned beef."

Here's the hitch. It was on the lunch menu for about two weeks.

This seemed insane until the chef told me why.

"It's a lot of work for a sandwich people have been afraid to order," Trevett Hooper said.

Just about every city has a charming neighborhood restaurant that cooks dishes both familiar and obscure. It caters to first-timers and regulars, picky-eaters and jaded diners.

Legume is this kind of place.

The restaurant, which started in Regent Square and moved to Oakland three years ago, has continued to evolve. Butterjoint in the front bar was christened in November 2012, while lunch debuted earlier this year, along with a dining room makeover from white tablecloths to wood-slab tables.

Unlike concept-driven restaurants inspired by an owner's visit to San Sebastian and a weeklong dining tour of New York, Legume is a marriage of competence and sincerity.

Curiosity can fuel the kitchen, which leads to creations such as the heart and tongue reuben.

The great thing is that these dishes exist. The disappointment is they can be as esoteric as elderflower and gone as quick as the arrival.

I was reminded of this during my visit to Legume last week, when pickled beef tongue made an appearance on the menu with puntarelle, a salad of young chicory ($10). My heart leapt.

I met friends for dinner at that golden hour before sunset when the light through the window was just so. The dining room buzzed with anticipation. A bottle of Cava seemed appropriate. Pittsburgh summer had arrived.

That salad delivered some of that earthy savoriness I've been missing, topped with a poached egg with glossy yolk that coated the greens like a second-dressing.

Other dishes please with a straightforward approach. Pillowy beignets and pickled turnips ($10) rested like buoys across grilled escarole. Smoked bluefish pate ($8) paid homage to a South Florida staple, served in a mound seasoned with lemon, parsley and onion.

Some plates are muddled. And it could be because the casualness of the Butterjoint bar menu has been overlapping with Legume's. Nori vinaigrette doesn't do anything for sugar snap peas ($5). A spaghetti with spring onion pesto, turnips, spinach and a fried egg ($17) is a spring looker that did not deliver. Chicken under a skillet ($24) was as delicious as it could ever be during one visit, dry with desiccated skin another.

Then there was the side of turnip and radish pickles ($5) that wafted the scent of wet dog, which sometimes happens with lacto-fermentation. The process is also used in making kimchi and sauerkraut, both especially odiferous. It's not necessarily a kitchen flaw, although we wished an order came with a warning.

Even with that evening's pungent delivery, pickles are one of Legume's strengths; they're part of Mr. Hooper's adherence to hyper-localism. He's so into them he had a guy in for a demo from Cultured Organic Pickle in Berkeley, Calif. And he's been known to attend weekend fermentation workshops in Tennessee.

Mr. Hooper loosened up about local sourcing this winter by adding Oregon steaks to the menu. (The tenderloin, by the way, is pretty wonderful, served with quinoa glazed with jus.)

He also more ruthlessly nixed items that might fly in other markets but were getting too weird for Pittsburgh diners. (Beyond the reuben, the goat burger with rhubarb chutney that was better than the standard did not make the Butterjoint menu this year.)

These decisions point to a philosophical shift at the restaurant.

"I hadn't anticipated before taking this concept to such an extreme the many ways in which it would disconnect us from people," he wrote in his January newsletter.

The shift also marked the staff taking ownership of kitchen projects, he added. "In order to be a vibrant, inspired restaurant, I needed to listen to the young people who work for me."

You can see it in his encouragement of DIY scrappiness. Look to manager Neil Blazin's work with naturally leavened, Tartine-style bread, inspired by cookbooks from the San Francisco bakery. If you're wondering why the bread service has been memorable, he's the reason.

Creativity is also a feature of the bar, where manager Will Groves makes some of the city's most elegant cocktails. I stick to classics like his perfect aviation or a low-octane cocktail like a shim.

Here's how on target Mr. Groves can be. Some visitors ordered a round of mercy, a request which translates to bartender's choice. Without knowing the table, he made a Toronto for the guy from Toronto. From David Embry's 1940s bible, "The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks," it's an assertive concoction of Canadian whiskey, Fernet and simple syrup. It was a brilliant move.

The desserts can be very good, if conservative. If it's ever on the menu again, order the strawberry rhubarb crumble ($8); served in a cast-iron dish, it wears caramelized bits near-black and sugary. A simple panna cotta ($8) is made luxurious with seasonal fruit or fig preserves. Banana and chocolate chunk cake ($8) is less frumpy with salted caramel ice cream.

There are a few points I don't love at Legume, such as the drop ceilings, the lack of air conditioning in the bar and service that's sometimes too casual.

But here's the thing. In an era when many restaurants sell the theater of dining, Legume offers substance. There's a soul, a center, thoughtfulness, movement. This is not a static place.

And even though the heart and tongue reuben is long gone, there's always the possibility of a dish that's beyond delicious. It's this potential that draws me back.


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