Five years ago McKees Rocks native Kevin Sousa was a promising but unproven chef serving his experimental food to no more than a dozen diners a night in a restaurant within a restaurant at the Doubletree Hotel, Downtown.
Today, he is executive chef and owner of Salt of the Earth in Garfield, a casually elegant restaurant with a modern approach and refined sensibility, where he has seated (and sated) about 10,000 customers in the restaurant's first 60 days.
It was not an easy journey. Between his time at the Doubletree's Bigelow Grille and the opening of his own restaurant, Mr. Sousa struggled to find a place where he could serve his kind of food: local ingredients, modern flavors, a mix of cutting edge and classical techniques.
3 stars = Excellent
5523 Penn Ave.
- Hours: Monday-Saturday 5 p.m.-1 a.m.; kitchen closes at midnight.
- Basics: Committed to fine dining without pretense or unnecessary frills, Salt of the Earth has several different styles of seating, but all diners order from the same chalkboard menu of interesting, food-friendly drinks and creative, occasionally challenging, modern American cuisine.
- Recommended: Octopus, beef tartare, beets, striped bass with pine needle dashi, short ribs with sweet potatoes and brussels sprouts, lamb loin with celeriac and pumpkin, eggplant with tomato braised soy protein, pudding.
- Prices: Starters, $8-$13; entrees, $12-$24; desserts, $8
- Drink: Cocktails, $10; four microbrews, $5; a dozen bottles of white and a dozen more of red, all available by the glass; glasses start at $6; bottles, $24; five whites for $35 or less; eight reds for $40 or less.
- Summary: First floor and restrooms wheelchair-accessible; credit cards accepted; 12 spaces available in adjacent parking lot as well as plentiful street parking; first-floor communal tables and counter seating, walk-in only; mezzanine tables, reservations only; corkage, $15.
- Noise level: Low to loud.
The recession, renovations and inevitable obstacles delayed the opening of his restaurant for nearly two years, and as more and more time passed, expectations grew.
Mr. Sousa and the rest of his staff are undoubtably talented, but they are also human. Could any restaurant live up to so much anticipation?
The answer is a resounding yes.
It's a beautiful restaurant, designed by architects and co-owners Liza and Doug Cruze. Clean lines of glass, wood and granite frame the atmosphere rather than create it. All light and space, the room is an empty stage that springs to life at the start of service.
Seated at one of the long communal tables, I looked toward the windows, where the reflected images of diners from the mezzanine above were like a shadow play, an elegant contrast to the whirl of activity in the open kitchen to my right.
Some of the most coveted seats in the house are high stools along a granite counter, facing that kitchen. You'll have to crane your neck a little to read the menu, written large in chalk on the wall behind you, but you'll also have the best possible view of the food -- so long a mystery; now suddenly, deliciously, real.
Purple and gold beets, toasted pistachios and neat fringes of bitter frisee were topped with a glimmering egg. The delicate white and custard-like yolk swirled into a creamy dressing that just coated each bite, while the truffle oil's fine perfume lingered in the air ($8).
An octopus appetizer was a Spanish food fantasy. The tendrils, cooked sous vide, were fluffy and creamy, with crisp, almost caramelized edges, mixed with cubes of twice-cooked potatoes, thick slices of bright green and red olives and whole marcona almonds, all layered on a pool of smoky-sweet sauce, a puree of piquillo peppers, sweet red peppers and smoked Spanish paprika, evoking a deconstructed romesco ($11).
Boneless short ribs also relied on the miraculous precision of sous-vide cooking, each slice tender yet still pink in the middle after 48 hours of low, slow cooking in the water bath of an immersion circulator. This decadent cut of meat was well matched by a profusion of accompaniments, including a smooth sweet potato puree, a sweet, complex sauce of sour cherry pits and barley, and a heap of charred brussels sprouts, their charcoal edge picking up on the nutty, slightly bitter flavors of black sesame and chicory sprinkled across the meat ($21).
Organic Irish farmed salmon, in honest beige guise (farmed salmon must be dyed pink), sat atop a cauliflower puree, a silky contrast to chewy buckwheat grains delicately flavored with chamomile, and tender leaves of Swiss chard sauteed simply with olive oil, salt and pepper ($22).
Mr. Sousa's food, always surprising and delicious, has become even more sure-footed, each dish a masterful combination of skillful technique, bold flavors and voluptuous textures.
A server set down a bowl of striped bass with long beans, shiitake and enoki mushrooms and chewy grains of rosemary-scented black rice, then poured out a press-pot into the bowl, the intoxicating aroma of traditional dashi briefly steeped with Douglas Fir pine needles rising in a cloud of steam ($23).
Creamy sweetbreads with crisp edges were perfect for mopping up fenugreek gravy, its earthy aroma calling to mind finely spiced Indian curries ($10).
Making one's way through this menu can feel like a tour across the globe, but this isn't fusion or international cuisine. It's American in the very best sense, drawing on, but never hindered by, global tradition, all within a framework of local and seasonal foods.
A beef tartare cut from hanger steak was enriched with Japanese miso and unctuous marrow, studded with salty cornichons and misted with bourbon. Crisp pumpernickel toasts made a lovely base for the savory meat; I only wish there had been a few more as they inevitably ran out before the meat ($10).
While the chef's counter may give the best view of the food, for the best sense of this fascinating, lively scene, sit at one of the three communal tables, filled on any given night with guests of all ages and types, a mix of tattoos and posh updos, designer suits and thrift store creations, passionate vegans and carnivores alike.
The wooden stools are surprisingly comfortable -- no deterrence to lingering over that last glass of wine or a press-pot of coffee, Guatemalan this season and roasted by Rich Westerfield at Aldo Coffee in Mt. Lebanon ($4). Those who prefer a more traditional table and chair can opt for one of the tables in the mezzanine, which require reservations.
Vegan diners are unsurprisingly pleased with the number of options, typically including at least two appetizers and two entrees. The moussaka-inspired textured vegetable protein was light and lovely, instantly appealing. The soft curds of protein were braised in a flavorful tomato sauce and served with a delicate eggplant puree, creamy cubes of fried eggplant and a lovely fresh tahini sauce ($12).
Tempeh (which looked and tasted a bit like a crumbly, savory rice crispy treat) shares a flavor profile with the sweetbreads, filling out the plate with swiss chard and mushrooms, and more of that scrumptious fenugreek gravy ($14). As a meat eater, I found they were no competition for the sweetbreads, but I'm sure some were thrilled.
Dessert options are few, but impressive, whimsical as well as delicious. Pudding is a chocolate dessert, but like no other in Pittsburgh. Small squares of E. Guittard dark chocolate combined with carrageenan (a seaweed extract often substituted for gelatin), a little sugar and some half-and-half have a soft, almost fudgelike texture. Minimal dairy and a small sprinkle of hibiscus salt makes each bite of chocolate taste all the more rich. The squares are delicious, but even more memorable was the scoop of creamy coconut sorbet, half-hidden by an airy spoonful of orange bergamot foam, nestled into a bed of chocolate cookie crumbs mixed with yellow curry, the chocolate and tropical flavors brought together by the sweet-tart flavor of a goji berry sauce ($8).
The second dessert is a cheese plate, most recently slices of firm Midnight Moon goat cheese and savory, salty Maytag bleu, arranged around a thick stripe of caramelized white chocolate, so delicious I'd like a bowlful. Other garnishes are arranged around the plate, from a sweet sauce of cooked-down quince to small piles of bacon transfigured into white powder ($8).
Quibbles: Scallops with a crunchy quinoa garnish lacked a good sear, resulting in a wan flavor ($13), and a salad of Honeycrisp apples, figs and cocoa nibs tasted a little unfinished, as if the components hadn't quite come together. I also wish there were more than two desserts.
The mezzanine's more traditional seating is undoubtedly a good option for some diners, as it can be (actually must be) reserved and is a touch quieter, but I won't be eating there again. Some dishes had a little too much time to cool on their way up the stairs. While the service was otherwise excellent, it was just as knowledgeable and attentive downstairs, and I couldn't help but feel I was missing out on the party.
Altogether and over many visits this was a restaurant worth waiting for, whether for two years or two hours. Executive chef Sousa, sous chef Kevin Rubis, general manager Robert Sayre, head bartenders Maggie Meskey and Summer Voelker, server Jim Young, and a dozen more talented, passionate participants have pulled off a restaurant that is both daring and comforting, challenging and welcoming, and which has permanently altered the expectations for what a restaurant, and a singular chef, can accomplish in Pittsburgh.