Salt of the Earth impresses

Garfield may be a bit off the beaten path for most Carnegie Mellon students, but the up-and-coming neighborhood holds a hidden gem: Salt of the Earth. Opened in September 2010, this restaurant was named 2011’s Best New Restaurant by Pittsburgh Magazine. Salt of the Earth, a collaboration between chef Kevin Sousa and architects Doug and Lisa Cruze, works to “take advantage of local and seasonal product procured in its prime,” according to its website, and focuses on the quality, rather than quantity, of menu items.

The restaurant’s design is overwhelmingly hip; among the long, wooden tables for communal dining, the large chalkboard wall displaying the menu, the oddly-shaped dishes, and the water glasses that vaguely resemble test tubes, the space treads dangerously close to being over-designed. Luckily, the quality of the food and service make it easy to forgive the over-eagerness of the decor.

Salt of the Earth, which markets itself as a “creative American restaurant,” has an extraordinarily diverse menu with dishes that bring together unexpected flavors. The chalkboard menu merely lists all of the flavors for each dish — the only description provided for “Soup” is “squash, apple, chervil, argan” — but the servers will elaborate in detail about any of the dishes. Don’t be intimated by the unusual flavor pairings; the risotto with cantaloupe and octopus, for example, might not sound particularly appetizing, but together with prosciutto and miso, it makes for a surprisingly delightful and intensely flavorful dish.

The desserts provide a contemporary, gourmet twist on classic foods. The s’more is not the same dessert you roast over a campfire; rather, it’s more of a deconstructed, gourmet version of the classic favorite. Homemade marshmallow fluff flavored with elderberry is spread on a plate next to a pile of graham cracker crumbs, a cube of fudgy chocolate, and gelato, with small elderberries scattered across the plate.

In addition to the diverse food menu, Salt of the Earth offers a selection of beverages that is capable of humbling any knowledgeable cocktail, wine, or beer enthusiast. To start, the restaurant usually rotates a selection of four different beers from around the region, including Pittsburgh’s own Penn and East End breweries. The wine list is extensive and can be intimidating, but the staff is knowledgeable and willing to answer any questions or even make pairing suggestions.

The cocktail list is seemingly simple, yet subtly complex. With ingredients such as lychee, a tropical fruit tree native to southeast Asia, and rose water, Salt’s combination of ingredients creates cocktails with new tastes that just may be greater than the sum of their parts. Each cocktail is named by its base spirit, such as “Vodka” or “Rum,” and utilizes local spirits when possible, such as Boyd and Blair Vodka, which is distilled in Glenshaw, just a little over six miles from Salt of the Earth. Although the consumer may be apprehensive about trying a cocktail with unfamiliar ingredients, the bartenders and servers are available to inform customers of every beverage on the menu.

Salt of the Earth may not be your typical dining experience, but it is a delightful gastronomic adventure worth exploring.