We don’t often do restaurant reviews here at IPTB. In fact, the only booze-serving establishments we’ve ever reviewed were bars. (Pittsburgh Bars 2011 edition) But after enjoying an early dinner at Salt of the Earth in the Garfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh, we knew we had to write about them. And sure, we sat at the bar and chatted with the super-friendly and knowledgeable bartenders during our meal, and sure, the cocktail, beer, and wine lists comprise about half of the menu which covers an entire wall, but the emphasis is still on the food, which makes Salt of the Earth (or NACL for short, clever) one of the best places in Pittsburgh to get dinner and a drink.
The décor is hard and minimal, but not uninviting. The floor is hardwood and aside from the bar, all the seating is (potentially) communal at three long wooden tables. Opposite the kitchen bar (another cool feature), the menu is written in chalk on a slate grey wall displayed to the whole establishment. But as I said, we sat at the bar and thus had our backs to all this for most of the night.
Allow me a moment to gush about the food before I get to the cocktails, which are the real meat of this article. Shanna ordered a miso-based risotto with prosciutto, cantaloupe, and masterfully seasoned octopus. Now I’d never tried octopus before so I don’t have much basis for comparison, but I can say that I’ve rarely experienced anything that was this tender and flavorful. The only thing I could compare it to is a perfectly cooked fresh scallop, the way it melted in my mouth. I’m almost inclined to let that remain as my only experience with octopus, as any other seems unlikely to match it.
For my entree I ordered the mushroom dish. I would guess that the dish contained porcini and shiitake which were cooked in a sauce that was the very definition of savory. These were complimented by green beans and Brussels sprouts on top of cooked barley. The entire dish was absolutely delicious.
We also split a beet salad, which was about as tasty as a beet salad can get. Golden and red beets with toasted pumpkin seeds and truffle shavings, topped with a poached egg – really not enough can be said about this salad. For dessert we tried a deconstructed s’more. Also excellent, this consisted of two roasted, “locally made” marshmallows laid alongside bricks of fudge (with just a hint of mint) and what I believe were bits of smashed Golden Graham cereal. Very tasty, and certainly unexpected.
But on to the booze. NACL is unique in that their cocktail menu consists entirely of original concoctions which aren’t named, but identified by the base spirit they’re built around. I’ve really got to hand it to resident mixologists Summer and Maggie for not only being super friendly and knowledgeable, but also creating a whole menu of just fantastic cocktails. Too often, once a spirit is mixed into a cocktail, scent and mouth feel are overlooked, but the cocktails at NACL are a full five-senses experience. Also, I’d like to award additional props because none of their original cocktails were based on flavored vodkas, my opinion of which has been well documented.
I started the evening with a drink based around Shine XXX white whiskey. We’ve written previously about this spirit and mentioned that it’s tricky to match flavors with. However, this cocktail’s main modifier was apple cider, a fantastic choice, and featured grated pecan floating on top, which gave the drink an almost spicy, nutty aroma.
Shanna had a cocktail based on Bluecoat Gin – the concord grape blended so well with the gin and Vieux Carre absinthe that it was gone in about the same amount of time it took to make it. There were more complex flavor notes, but all Shanna kept thinking about was how great grape and gin go together.
I followed with a mezcal cocktail. The smokiness of the Ilegal Joven mezcal went wonderfully with the tangerine-y scent and flavors of the drink.
And to finish up the meal we were each presented with a glass of Amaro as a digestif. Perhaps this is because we had mentioned the blog and they were hoping for a good review (heavyweights of culinary criticism that we are, not that they actually need another rave review), but if that is the case, then I intend to have t-shirts made. A glass of Amaro after a dinner like that – on the house, no less – is one of those beautiful moments of sheer contentment.
That, I think, is what good bartending is about. It’s not just about serving drinks, but it’s about being knowledgeable and friendly enough to guide your guests to a state of profound contentment, which may include, but is not limited to, a mild comfortable state of drunkeness.
And to wrap up this review I would like to interject a single criticism, so as to avoid the suspicion that I’m letting them off easy. Whoever updates the Salt of the Earth blog needs to get on their game. Seriously, nothing since March? Come on guys, all that delicious food and drink can’t be taking up all your time.