NaCl (Salt of the Earth)
5523 Penn Ave
M-Sat: 5pm – 1am (kitchen closes at midnight); Closed Sunday
Yay for new restaurants! Salt, NaCl, Salt of the Earth, whatever you want to call it, has been getting tons of press, and as a result, tons of play. I’ve been twice now, both for birthdays oddly enough, and I’ve eaten enough to say that it is worth spending your money on. Of course, I am not without reservations (when am I ever), but NaCl is verifiably good. It is as if someone took a restaurant from Philadelphia and planted it here. Why Philly? Because when a restaurant in Philly looks like it’ll be good, it usually is (unlike here, as I harped on in my Quality-Expectation Probability graph). Salt has the look of a pleasant place, and turns out it is. Note that I do not pick New York. Now, a chef could get mad about that — seems like everyone wants be compared to NYC like it is the gold standard, the solid silver cloud to strive for, the sour cream topped cheesecake in the sky paired with a flute of Krug Clos du Mesnil after which everyone gets in the roof top penthouse hot tub and parties till that one lonely coyote in Central Park howls at the moon. But WHY would we want that? Well, I can see wanting it (at least the hot tub part, and maybe the lonely coyote part too), but it is foolish to covet a scene so anathema to our own. Leads only to frustration. Pittsburghers hate hoity toity, and the whole vibe of the city eschews anything too superficially beautiful. Nope, we like it raw here, a gritty sort of beauty that parallels the phoenix-like life cycle the city may be experiencing. You know – it is soooo cool how the downtown buildings are all old styles, because we didn’t have enough money in the 80′s to tear them down and replace them with the gaudy architecture popular at the time. Nope, we have risen from the ashes with a downtown full of beautiful recycled buildings, varied in their stylings from decades past. It makes our city really unique in an awesome and nearly impossible to plan way. I like how the architecture of the city accepts itself, for the most part, rather than trying really hard to be something it is not. And I seriously think the restaurant, and bar scenes especially, need to follow suit. Salt of the Earth is accomplishing this delicate balance quite well, as it is excellent in a haute cuisine kind of way while maintaining a strong Steel City identity. The perfect mixture of elegant and down&dirty, acidic and basic, sour, bitter, sweet, and … salty! Oh, and don’t forget umami, that meaty tongue-coating flavor. Yup – Welcome to Pittsburgh, NaCl — you can coat my tongue any day!
NaCl is as good at pulling off a mixture of unassumingness with high-end fare as it is at pulling off mixtures of flavors. The first thing you will notice about the menu will surely be that each dish is a composition of complementary yet sometimes unexpected properties. The current menu, for example, has an appetizer of shrimp with green apple, chocolate, jalepeno, and citrus. And an entree consisting of striped bass with couscous, pomegranate, coconut, and cheddar. Innovative combos; pulling it off. I see a lot of places try to do this type of thing, but completely fail. So often the end result is simply the sum of its parts, never attaining that ethereal level of individual tastes annealing to a whole new all-encompassing plane of flavor. Yah, this guy tries to put together some pretty interesting things and almost always succeeds. It is a gift.
And just who is ‘this guy’? ‘This guy’ is named Kevin Sousa, and I first heard of him when he worked at Bigelow Grille downtown. At the time, Bigelow Grille offered Molecular Gastronomy — you know that kind of thing where you get a hard bubble of thin, brittle caramel filled with a gaseous form of clove oil that condenses when you burst it in your mouth, followed by Jameson lamb that has been turned into a foam-like substance that you eat with a spoon that smells like caradamom. Or something. Weird-ass shit that I am DYING TO TRY! But sadly have yet to get to do. It is a form of culinary adventure hardly offered anywhere in the world, let alone Pittsburgh. I am amazed that it was here at all, however briefly, and am so so sad that I missed it. And I don’t know exactly why it disappeared, though I could take a random stab at it and suggest that it probably has something to do with patron timidness to try foamed meats… But who can know for sure? In fact, I don’t even know if the results were successful, but I do know that any chef who has spent a good chunk of time even attempting to hone skills in the alchemy of food must have come to a new level of understanding with regard to putting flavors and textures together. At the very least, he must have some pretty interesting and unusual ideas.
Then Kevin went on to do the brunches at Yo Rita, which I did have the pleasure to partake of and which were delicious. The things he put together for Yo Rita were kind of a prelude of what was to come at Salt. Kind of unsual things put together with a fancy sheen over the top. Although at Yo Rita, the concoctions were crafted in a predominantly Mexican-ish fashion, as per the theme of the restaurant. Then, he started putting together his own eatery, NaCl, somewhere’s abouts in there. A place where he could stretch his culinary legs and be innovative without censorship from a boss-man. And he started building this place what seemed like forever ago. Ages and ages! I used to live down the street and watch it come together bit by bit. He had occasional dinners that would be super cheap (in comparison) in the unfinished space to preview the whole shebang, all of which I found out about too late of course. Dagnabbit. And I’d read his blog, and wonder, and go to Yo Rita, and check the blog and wonder, and go to Yo Rita, and check the blog again and wonder some more…. And then I moved a bit further away and forgot alllll about it, until one day I got invited to a birthday dinner there. SCORE! It was a great surprise!
OK well yet again I have waited 4 paragraphs to actually mention food! So let me just mention it, just for a sec, real quick. First of all, the appetizers are almost always scrumptious. AND they are not too small. You could eat one by yourself for dinner, if you are on the cheap. Or you can easily split them two or three ways. Or your group of 6 or 8 could order alllll the appetizers and pass the dutchie on the left hand side. All of these things are desirable. I do not recommend completely skipping the appetizers. They are each special, well thought out, and delightful. In fact, even though I usually do not appreciate how the tapas style is implemented in American restaurants, Salt could easily go the tapas route and I would not at all be disappointed.
But I’d never want the entrees to disappear! Nosiree! The first time I went I had a most delectable concoction. Pork belly (YUM!) on a pretzel polenta (interesting…) with some other stuff (can’t remember) and a sassafrass sauce (ohwowthiswassogoodmyheadnearly’sploded). This was a great example of a set of somewhat unusual ingredients coming together to not only be complementary but transcendant as a whole. I loved it! (obviously) Another time I was there I got the hanger steak, which was served with an assortment of japanese-y/asian-y flavors (dashi, soba noodles, peanuts, chili). There were also some red jalepenos thrown in for good measure, well balanced by the earthy fire-reducing shiitake and crimini mushrooms also floating in the broth at the bottom of the bowl. This was really good – perfectly cooked steak (the rare end of medium rare – by the way they did not ask how I wanted it cooked, if it matters to you that it be more well done) with a set of flavors that came together to form a whole. Yet somehow it was not like ohwowthiswassogoodmyheadnearly’sploded, which continues to puzzle me. It is like all the pieces fell into place but the picture they created was just a couple of kittens rather than some kind of intricate three dimensional statue of liberty jigsaw. It was still totally awesome though (think really really really cute kittens), and TOTES worth the cash I spent on it.
Sorry I am not being super specific about the dishes themselves. You see, NaCl has a revolving menu. Maybe every month or something? Every couple of weeks? I’m not really sure. On the static-dynamic menu dimension defined from a place like Tessaro’s, which has a tried-and-true ages-old menu with an additional rotating special list, to a place like Vivo, who’s menu changes on a daily basis to incorporate whatever random thing the chef found in the Strip that day, I place Salt towards the dynamic Vivo end. But not all the way at it, since you can rely on Salt to have the same dishes for at least a couple weeks. But also, NaCl is definitely closer to that dynamic end than a place like Girasole, who has 4 menus it rotates between, relatively fixed, and tied to the season. It is pretty smart actually. There is such a buzz about Salt of the Earth that a mysteriously rotating menu gives it that “Ohhhh, you haven’t had the pork loin with celeriac yet?? it is to DIE for… you might want to go there this week just in case it falls off the end of the menu” factor. It is almost a keeping-up-with-the-Jones’ attitude towards whether or not you’ve had the star dishes of the current menu. Kinda weird, but brilliant for business. Also probably not intentional. But whatever, it works!
So I can’t really tell you to try this or try that. All I can do is give you guidelines. For example, everyone who has ever had pork of any kind has uber-loved it, so obviously this restaurant has a special way with pigs. Also, the chef very cleverly uses poached eggs. I’m not particularly a poached egg lover, but I definitely like every dish I have had this incorporated in here. And also it is not a commonly offered ingredient outside of Eggs Bennie, so that is kind of cool. As I mentioned, the appetizers are almost universally good so you should never fear ordering those. Also, the whole restaurant, though it has a meat heavy menu, is actually very veggie friendly. There is always one specifically veggie dish, but also you can get a veggie version of some (maybe all?) of their otherwise meat dishes (substituting tempeh for meat or something). And finally, their wine list is awesome, AND they have amazing cocktails because they have a couple of inventive mixologists on staff. Like, you could just go there to drink (and I know some people who do). Hang out at the bar, drink the cocktails, maybe have an app. It is semi-affordable that way.
And of course, not really all that affordable otherwise, unless you are bank. Yet, it still draws the pocketbooks of less financially stable individuals, grad students and the like. It just really is that good that people who normally could never fit it in their budget will make room. And you know that is a testament because if it was a big disappointment, it would be all you hear about. Instead, it is the kind of place you could bring your parents, if you are younger and want a nice meal on their tab. Or, if you make near to or over 6 figures you could eat there frequently, putting it on your list of regular spots alongside Point Brugge, Le Pommier, Casbah, and Umi. But no matter what your income you should at least try to go there once. It is warm and intimate and adventurous and delicious, and even though it comes at a price, it is worth every penny.
Anything with Pork
I’m not really sure what to say for once. Definitely sometimes things don’t come out as awesome as you expect, but I haven’t figured out a rhyme or reason to give a guideline with. I’ll update this if I come up with one I guess.
Seating is interesting here. There is the bar, which is awesome b/c it is right up against the kitchen, like it IS the kitchen, just on the opposite side of the work area. That is awesome with just two people, because you can watch all the inner workings of the process and maybe talk to the people doing to cooking too. And Kevin, ever the rock star chef, is usually right there prepping stuff right in front of you. There is also a main area where the seating is first-come first-serve and there are long tables that you share with whoever else happens to be there, and I mean strangers share your table. Kind of family style. The chairs are just little blocks, almost like a bench for one. This area fills up rather quickly since the hype for Salt is still sooooo high, so get there early if you do not want to wait. Finally, if you want the reassurance of a reservation, they do make them, however the reservations ALL get sat upstairs, where there are more intimate tables just for your group. It is a bit like you are in the elite section up there. You might like this, or you might prefer to be in the heat and action of the downstairs setting, which is always abuzz. And finally again (this time for real), if you have a big group and make a reservation, there is a little room at the top of the stairs which is open, but is also somehow private, where they can create a giant square table. Sitting in there is gangsta! Like you feel like you could be a mob boss b/c you have the sweet awesome back room all to yourself with very special service from the staff. It is kinda goofy, but that can be fun sometimes. Though honestly, I think I like the spot at the bar best, right next to all the delicious food.