Saturday, December 3, 2011

Salt of the Earth - Part Deux

It's rare, if ever, that I have posted about a restaurant a second time. But DB~ and I had a gift certificate to use up by the end of the year at Salt of the Earth. We asked our closest friends to join us for dinner last night (Friday). The first time we were there was in June.

My friend and his wife are casual readers of the blog (meaning that they read it once) and he had one request during dinner -- he wanted a nickname, too. He even provided his own suggestion -- Mickey Mantle's Liver.

So last night, the four of us (DBS, DB~, MML, and MML*) got to Salt of the Earth at 6:30 pm. It was packed and we were told it might be a 1 hour wait. So we had a cocktail. None of us anticipated it would be that long and it wasn't. After about 20 to 30 minutes, we were asked if we would like the kitchen-side seats. I practically blurted out "absolutely!", even as MML sort of made a face, not realizing what a great opportunity this would be to watch the artful masterpieces be created in front of us.

We strategically laid out the seating order to maximize conversation potential. It went MML*, DB~, DBS, and MML from left to right (I guess if you've been married for 9 years, you don't need to talk with each other all the time!).

As soon as we sat down, I noticed the grill master had a sleeve of tattoos on each arm, a buzz crop of blond hair, and a placid look on his face. He sure looked like Kevin Sousa, but he was not wearing his thick framed black glasses that I was familiar with. But sure enough, DB~ confirmed via her iPhone that he did not always wear his glasses.

It was fascinating to watch the kitchen staff of Salt of the Earth work together in harmony during the night. It is said, and I believe it to be true, that the demeanor of any operation starts at the top. This was true last night...Salt was very busy, yet Sousa calmly and coolly tended to the great quantities of duck and hangar steak on the grill in front of him. Each cut of meat was salted and seasoned in the same exact manner -- his hand was held at mid-chest height, with his wrist cocked, and the salt was released and gently sprinkled. Coming off the grill, each cut was plated and sliced with calm and detached efficiency.

We started our dining experience off with two appetizers. The first were Vegetable Lettuce Wraps for the girls. The chicken was a spicy Korean type of chicken with excellent flavors. Check out the great camera work by Squiggle to get Kevin Sousa in the background of the wraps picture.

The second appetizer was for the carnivores of the group. We got Gnocchi, but it was primarily a meat appetizer. The dish was tiny cubes of beef cheek, with spots of persimmon puree, small bites of sweet potato gnocchi, all served on cow tongue. Our server called it Tongue and Cheek when he presented it to us.

It goes without saying that both were excellent. Even the girls tried the paper thin tongue and liked it well enough. The beef cheek was perhaps the most tender piece of red meat we have ever had. It disintegrated in my mouth upon touching my tongue. The tongue itself was pretty neutral. It absorbed the flavors of the cooking liquids that it was braised in, plus it blowtorched for a few seconds upon plating.

For dinner, all four of us ordered something different.

MML* ordered the Mushroom. I didn't really get a good luck at it, but it had farro for the starch, some pear, and "root". Not sure what type of root that entailed.

DB~ ordered the Trout. The skin was well seasoned and slightly crispy, but tender on the inside. It was sitting in a broth known as Birch Dhani, that DB~ asked me to reverse-engineer. I'm not sure I can. There were also udon noodles, turnips, and in the words of DB~ "a nice little touch with some peeled grapes".

MML had the Duck. It was served on a puree of parsnip and served with apple butter, pomegranate, and brussel sprouts. The duck was a shade less than medium rare, but MML liked it that way. MML stated that the Duck was easily one of the top 5 dishes he has ever had in his life. Judging by the amount of duck dishes we saw being prepared at our kitchen-side seats, there were a lot of people that might be saying that today.

I had the Hangar Steak. It was served on a bed of rice porridge, a kimchi and broccoli mix, with toasted ginger on top of the steak. Kevin Sousa fermented his own kimchi for this dish. It was a new kimchi...only fermented for 4 days, instead of 3 months. My steak was done medium and it was perfectly tender. The toasted garlic was fantastic, the kimchi spicy, and the porridge gave a different texture that otherwise may have been missing.

Kevin Sousa leaned over to talk to us after our meal. I asked him how his new place, Union Pig and Chicken, was coming along in the construction. He said he hoped to be open by the end of February. I asked him when he was going to go on Iron Chef and show them how it was done. He responded by saying he hadn't been invited yet (things to do -- submit Kevin Sousa to Food Network), but if he did he wanted to take on Morimoto before he was shuffled out of the Iron Chef show. Morimoto is basically a machine that never loses, so it's commendable that Sousa would want to challenge himself like that.

It was yet another fantastic meal at the best restaurant in Pittsburgh. It was only heightened by the fact that we got to interact with the chef, see the process in action, and spend the night with our great friends.

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