In its new space in Oakland, Legume still is a restaurant to fall in love with
January 5, 2012 3:00 PM
Flat Iron Steak and Red Wine sauce with Barley-Mushroom Risotto and Carrot Puree, from Legume Bistro in Oakland.
Grilled radicchio and spelt salad with blue cheese, apples and walnuts.
Kitchen staff at work in Legume Bistro in Oakland.
Lake Fong/Post-GazetteAndrew Sluk, left, and Justin Lewis of Legume Bistro in Oakland make pepperoni on Thursday, December 29, 2011. Magazine. China Millman. PUBLISHED CAPTION: Lake Fong/Post-GazetteAndrew Sluk, left, and Justin Lewis of Legume Bistro in Oakland make pepperoni.
Kohlrabi and cauliflower salad with four swiss maiden cheese.
Escarole salad with poached egg and pickled veggies.
Sous chef Jamilka Borges prepares a dish at Legume Bistro in Oakland.
By China Millman Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In June of 2007, Trevett and Sarah Hooper took a risk and opened a restaurant, Legume Bistro in Regent Square. He ran the minuscule kitchen, while she oversaw the petite dining room. The flavorful dishes were inspired by seasonal ingredients but grounded in traditional French culinary techniques, such as duck confit with lentils and beets, chilled tomato and watermelon soup and the best chocolate cake I've tasted to this day.
Over four years, many of us fell in love with that little restaurant, with its turquoise rimmed plates, clean flavors and convivial atmosphere. Even its imperfections inspired loyalty. A few drafty tables, a noisy dining room, a menu that sometimes got perilously short as the night wore on -- all small prices to pay for the genuine warmth of the atmosphere and the delicious, comforting, unexpectedly exciting cooking.
Summary: Seasonally inspired American food grounded in traditional culinary techniques, with a special regard for charcuterie and food preservation.
Don't miss: : Smoked bluefish pate, beef cheek borscht, duck confit, mushroom-barley risotto with flat-iron steak, lobster ravioli, carrots and turnips with miso and butter, tallow fries, chocolate truffle cake, gingerbread with poached quince, cajeta ice cream.
Prices: Things to share, $8-$9; appetizers, $7-$14; entrees, $17-$29; sides, $4-$5; desserts, $5-$6.
Drink: The cheekily named Full Service Bar within Legume Bistro supplies well-made cocktails, with a classic bent, including a nice selection of aperitifs ($4-$9). A dozen draft beers include local and imported options ($4-$7). The wine list is organized by style and leans French, but also includes bottles from a number of other old world and new world producers, showing impressive breadth for a menu that fits on one page. Half a dozen whites and nine reds are available for $40 or less. Wines by the glass start at $8.
Useful information: Wheelchair accessible; parking available in garage across the street, $2 with validation; credit cards accepted; reservations strongly recommended for peak hours and weekends; corkage, $15 a bottle.
Noise level: Medium-loud to loud.
Then, in the spring of 2011, Mr. Hooper made a surprising announcement: Legume would close that summer to move to a larger space on North Craig Street in Oakland, previously occupied by More Restaurant for about 30 years. Like many, I wondered how this new restaurant would compare to the one I knew and loved.
The space is markedly different, vintage charm replaced by sleek elegance. An original terrazzo floor, unexpectedly discovered beneath layers of carpeting, inspired the restaurants sleek, elegant design. Joy Deborah Robison repeated the floor's cool blues and greens and diamond patterns throughout the space, particularly with blue-slatted partitions that divide the large main room into manageable nooks. Jewel-toned Tiffany-style lamps add a hint of sparkle. At the moment it's a little too bare, but Mr. Hooper promises that art is on the way.
The new restaurant came with a liquor license and a separate bar, located just off the main entrance. This room combines original elements, such as high-backed chairs that swivel out for comfort, with beautiful new woodwork hand-crafted by Miki Szabo. The Hoopers also hired a sommelier, Caroline Matys, who is relatively new to her job (she received her sommelier certification from the French Culinary Institute just over a year ago) but has something many more seasoned professionals lack: A point of view. Ms. Matys' love of French wine got her hired and resulted in a wine list that is both manageable and fun and pairs beautifully with Mr. Hooper's food.
There are cocktails, too, such as the Papa Doble, the mix of rum, maraschino liqueur, grapefruit and lime conjuring up warm breezes ($8) and a medium-sized beer list with lots of interesting choices. After-dinner drink options include press-pot coffee from La Prima ($3), a trio of Madeiras and a couple of delicious late-harvest wines. Many appreciated Legume Bistro's BYOB status for the value it added, but the new drink list allows for a far more celebratory meal, at prices that remain impressively reasonable.
Service also has grown more elaborate in the new space, in part because there's simply more room for hosts and servers to work. Hosts, servers and bartenders, old and new, are well-trained and knowledgeable, and possess that quality that cannot be imitated -- they seemed to genuinely enjoy working at Legume.
And then there is the food. Those looking hard for changes can likely spot them. The menu is a little longer, perhaps a little more polished. There are a few new techniques, and plenty of new dishes. But mostly, it is delightfully, reassuringly the same: Delicious, heartfelt cooking, which shines a bit brighter in its new setting.
Charcuterie has always been a strength of Legume's menu. In the future, Mr. Hooper plans to do more dry curing, but for now the steady, stately procession of pate, mousse and sausage signifies an elegant kind of kitchen economy. On recent visits, country pork pate, pale pink and studded with bright green pistachios, was rustic and toothsome, admirably porky ($8). It was as tasty eaten with knife and fork as it was pressed onto crisp toasts spread with spicy mustard. A smoked bluefish pate was soft and silky, rich with mascarpone. It was a perfect companion to a glass of wine or an aperitif, taking the edge off one's appetite, without substantially diminishing it ($9).
Broiled raclette, well browned and beautifully oozy, was as simple a dish as one could imagine, but no worse for it ($9). It would make a decadent bar snack, perfect with a pint of beer. Shared among a group, the sharp, yet sweet cheese impressed us with its flavor, without becoming too heavy.
Legume's appetizers largely consist of soups and salads, but with a creative view of what constitutes both. Tender lettuce and fresh tomatoes have been banished to warmer months, but here I didn't miss them in the slightest. Thin slices of crunchy, white-fleshed kohlrabi, cauliflower and radishes -- not exactly showy vegetables -- tasted respectively sweet and spicy against a backdrop of diced green olives, crumbles of slightly creamy Swiss Maiden cheese and a tangy-sweet sherry vinaigrette ($7).
Bright green, sturdy leaves of escarole and batons of mild turnip were dressed up with bits of house-cured guanciale, a perfect orb of a poached egg and croutons fried in pork fat -- a fantastic variation on frisee aux lardons ($8).
Lamb, shaker corn and red chile soup garnished with creme fraiche was vaguely Southwestern, smoky and rich, while purple-red borscht was thick with turnips and carrots, sauerkraut and rutabaga, some cold-cellared for winter, others fermented by Naomi Auth (Legume's house fermenter). The root vegetables brought sweetness, while the sauerkraut and fermented beets added an evocative tang, all of it balanced by a flavorful beef broth, further enriched by small chunks of tender beef cheek and shin ($7).
A new take on an old dish, eggs shirred in tripe stew was the best version Legume had served yet. Tripe added texture and a pleasurable bite to the spicy, savory tomato stew. Two small islands of eggs broke open to reveal yolks like golden pudding, perfect for spreading on garlic-rubbed toasts ($8).
In the fall and winter, meat does make up a heavier portion of the menu, a logical balance of the year. But the smaller portion of vegetables was lavished with extra attention. Batons of turnips and carrots, thoroughly roasted until caramelized and sweet, were doused in an unbelievable sauce of butter and miso paste, an effect similar to putting butter and salt on popcorn, but with an extra hit of umami flavor from the miso ($5).
Other recent vegetarian options have included beet soup, sweet potato ravioli with brown butter and, a wonderful dish that debuted last fall in the old space, crispy faro cakes layered with roasted root vegetables, dried corn and sauteed greens.
Not every vegetable dish was vegetarian, however. Thin, crispy fries were cooked in beef tallow (the secret to McDonald's addictive fries many years ago). Those fries sometimes appear paired with steak -- steak frites in everything but name -- and sometimes with roast chicken, but not on the nights I visited.
Legume still has a handful of dishes, whether classic, or unique that feel straight out of some ideal French bistro. A picture-perfect leg of duck confit, every last bite tender and rich, was served with a lightly spiced chutney of green tomato and golden raisins, sweetened with pear juice ($14).
Sauteed skate was bathed in brown butter with a scattering of golden raisins and capers, but it was served with Carolina gold rice grits, an heirloom Southern ingredient with a texture somewhat akin to couscous ($25). Perhaps my favorite dish of all was a small flat-iron steak, cooked to a medium-rare and sliced, then served over layers of mushroom-barley risotto, a smooth carrot puree and a red wine pan sauce. The nutty, earthy flavors of barley, mushroom and steak were brightened by the carrots and the hint of acidity in the sauce, a wonderful combination of flavors and textures that made each bite of meat count.
A similar combination layered parsnip puree, soft-cooked brown lentils and a sweet, strong port reduction, making a bed for roasted bluefish, which tasted delicate and sweet against the earthy pool of lentils ($21).
Legume's savory menu changes frequently, though some dishes tend to rotate in and out during each season. But the dessert menu has been more of a constant, a reminder that familiarity can be as pleasurable as novelty. I've eaten the chocolate truffle cake at least a dozen times before, but repetition did not diminish it. The panna cotta came with a winter dress of candied kumquats. Gingerbread, which appears only during the coldest months, was topped with thin slices of poached quince, its mild sweetness a good foil for the moist, heavily spiced cake. The acquisition of an ice cream maker and a new freezer has added a few new options, like a wonderful cajeta (milk-caramel) ice cream topped with toasted pecans ($5) on one visit, and pound cake with vanilla ice cream and cajeta sauce on another.
In Legume's spacious entryway, a photo of a couple sits on a butcher block table. The couple are Luciano ("Louie") and Elisa More, owners of the previous restaurant; the butcher block belonged to Mr. More, a working chef for more than 40 years.
In some ways, Legume and More could not have been more different, but they share some important similarities. Like all restaurants, Legume Bistro will continue to change, in small and large ways, until one day it closes. Until then, all we can do is enjoy every bite and hope that the end is a long way off.