Charming Laurel Highlands eatery serves flavorful comfort food in pleasant setting
June 27, 2013 4:00 AM
Brunch items from The Kitchen on Main in Ligonier include, clockwise from top left: Kitchen salad, pan-seared jumbo sea scallops, sweet potato curry soup and Kitchen tacos.
Melissa McCart Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Some restaurants transport diners to a stylized world in an opulent dining room, where plates mimic art and service is choreographed like a play. Others are the hub of a community, an informal meeting place where servers and patrons learn each other's names and entrees riff on family meals. The Kitchen on Main in Ligonier is a soulful example of the latter.
The chef sets the tone. Joshua Fryer is the son of Jeffrey Fryer, restaurateur of the popular Out of the Fire Cafe, a rustic lodge on Route 31 with a huge dining room and a patio with a view of the ridge. After a stint in New Jersey restaurants, he returned to the area in 2009 to help his father.
Housed among whitewashed buildings at the center of town, The Kitchen on Main, which opened last June, displays sidewalk dining at wrought-iron tables and 45 seats in a sunlit dining room. Booths, tabletops and a lunch counter are oversized but not alienating. They invite diners to spread out, but they're not too wide to lean in to hear a juicy tidbit.
"Life is [very] short and there's no time for fussing and fighting, my friend," reads a sign quoting a Beatles lyric in the back of the restaurant. Elsewhere, bright panels of geometric fabrics enliven clay-colored walls. Cooks plate in the open kitchen.
The Kitchen on Main displays Mr. Fryer's fine-dining skills through an accessible menu. No meat comas here: Like at its sibling restaurant, the chef allows vegetables and fruits to co-star with proteins.
A sweet potato curry soup is surprisingly elegant, garnished with a half-swirl of fine olive oil and speckled with thyme. The kitchen salad ($8) is an attractive composition of baby field greens layered with blueberries, spiced almonds and matchsticks of Fuji apples, while a quartet of sliced brie fans the bowl. Ingredients have been dressed and seasoned separately, a technique that's not practiced enough in Pittsburgh restaurants. Such attention to detail brings out the flavors of each item and ensures even dressing. It elevates a salad from requisite greens for a health-conscious diner to a resonant plate.
Sandwiches are mainstays on the daytime breakfast and lunch menus. Crab cakes on a croissant ($12) are a balance of fresh lump meat and bread crumbs, seared golden and seasoned with Thai chili aioli. Sweet potato fries are crisp batons.
Casual dining does not mean careless. The deep red tomato and stacked seasoned greens on a sandwich, coarse sea salt on fries: Detail pays off with enhanced flavor.
Such is nearly the case with the shaved country ham and brie sandwich ($9). Apples are mandolined for crispness and paired with an apple cider reduction on multigrain bread.
Here's the rub. Touted as "shaved country ham" on the menu, the meat is not from Benton's of Tennessee or Newsom's of Kentucky. It's actually from a national purveyor Boar's Head brand or a mass-market variation, confirmed a server.
Sure, a food aficionado would prefer artisan meats, heirloom vegetables or craft condiments. Kitchen on Main isn't that kind of place, but imagine if it were. Consider how the food here would be elevated if local artisans and farmers in this farm-rich region were showcased in every menu item. How would a dish transform if a salad were truly local and seasonal, if blueberries swapped with cherries and radishes replaced the apples?
Dinner displays traditional American cuisine, simply prepared. Crispy corn fritters laden with shrimp ($9) are savory donuts, with a cool slaw contrast. Crispy goat cheese cakes ($10) are deliciously tart atop a succotash of artichokes, tomatoes, corn and peppers.
Entrees are substantive servings, such as a hearty pork tenderloin with sweet potato risotto, asparagus, apple slaw and a rum demi-glaze ($20). Coriander tuna ($27) displays the chef's most formal training, as a rare filet is flanked by lobster ravioli with basil creme fraiche, then detours to summer corn relish in a chipotle puree.
A concern here are the large dinner prices for such a modest space, with entrees ranging between $22 and $32. Although portions are larger, the mark-up between lunch and dinner is substantive.
Like the food on plates, service is genuine. On one visit, waitstaff encouraged latecomers to linger. Iced tea and water glasses are refilled promptly. A server demonstrates intricate knowledge of the menu. Another offered Ligonier sights for out-of-towners. Pacing between courses shows they're neither hovering nor ignoring customers, but rather watching each table's cues.
While this restaurant may not offer the theater of stylized dining, pioneering techniques or esoteric purveyors, The Kitchen on Main feeds a craving for honest cooking among the company of neighbors.