First movement: The Salad. Slices of new potatoes lurked under the heirloom tomatoes and haricot verts, waiting to add the final timpani roll to the salad symphony. Dubbed a High Summer Vegetable Salad with Riverview Diary Chèvre and Bistro Vinaigrette, the salad was indeed a symphony playing across tastebuds, with staccato notes of local, Real Food philosophy fluttering throughout. One simple salad, composed of ingredients so commonplace in the farmers’ market stalls as to be almost mistaken as mundane, came to serve as a metaphor for the culinary excellence being plated at Legume Bistro.
It’s no secret that Legume Bistro is a rave success in Pittsburgh. I’ve read review after review that’s practically dripping with the author’s saliva as he/she sings rhapsodies of praise to the high quality of ingredients and masterful arrangements of what in my kitchen would be called food but coming from Legume’s kitchen can only be titled masterpieces. So let’s just say when I made my reservation for dinner, my expectations for Legume were high. My expectations were breathing ozone. A recipe for disappointment, right?
Wrong. It took exactly one bite of the watermelon-buttermilk soup sprinkled with zippy shreds of mint for reality to rocket past my expectations into the unimaginable stratosphere. I expected good food. Great food even. What I found was magical food. And I don’t mean the trick kind of magic where some slight of hand pulls the ol’ bait and switch. There was nothing tricky about the menu at Legume. Indeed, it was almost off-putting to find nothing but ingredients lodged in my own fridge and pantry put to such poetic use. I wanted to find the strings to these marionettes so that I too could prompt such wonder from my edibles. No strings attached. The food was simply magic.
And it just got better following the soup. Our main course was fresh ricotta ravioli ladled with dollops of grass-fed beef Bolognese and a carmelized ratatouille. The ravioli slipped across our tongues like silk sheets. A course of Tomme cheese brought the perfect accompanist to the recital: Pickled Sour Cherries. At dessert, the Goat Milk Panna Cotta with Spiced Plum sauce demanded my resignation. I simply gave up trying to understand and allowed belief to bloom brilliantine in my heart: Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny does lay eggs, the Tooth Fairy is a reliable dental ATM, and simple food can outdo all the magic of Disney.
Despite my disbelieving tastebuds, no alchemy was required to turn simple, high-quality ingredients into culinary gold. The success of Chef Trevett’s creation is due in large part to his food philosophy: buy fresh, buy local. Along with many home cooks and chefs who are re-realizing the potential of traditional food preparation and preservation methods, Trevett has made the choice to eschew cheap and sub-par (which also usually means quick and convenient) for authentic, homemade, and local. For example, the sour cherries of the cheese course were brought home fresh from the market in the spring, preserved in pickling baths, and tucked away in a cool basement corner until they arrived, after a few months’ gestation, on my dinner plate for my worshipful digestion. It is exactly this commitment to traditional food preservation methods that makes Legume Bistro stand out from its not un-noteworthy competition in the Pittsburgh dining scene.
The applause goes to Owner/Chef Trevett Hooper. Coaxed from his kitchen for a brief address to the crowd, a surprisingly humble Hooper began speaking with the shyness of a sixth grade boy at the first middle school dance of the year. However, as he turned his remarks to the subject of his favorite farms in the area, speaking with particular reverence about some raw-milk Amish butters, he could not contain the spark of passion he holds for finding (and subsequently composing) great food. He urged his rapt audience to support organizations such as Slow Food Pittsburgh and the Pennsylvania Association of Sustainable Agriculture (PASA). When his brief commentary finished, the dining room broke out in spontaneous applause. Had he not ducked quickly back into the kitchen to oversee the drenching of the Panna Cotta with the Plum Sauce, I believe a standing ovation and encore would have ensued. Apparently, he had us all at the first bite of watermelon soup.
Legume Bistro is a restaurant with a complete lack of artifice. With well-earned bragging rights to its name, Legume Bistro certainly couldn’t be faulted if it flirted a bit with culinary frippery or dabbled with snobbish complexity in ingredients. Yet somehow, the Hoopers keep to the wings, allowing the basic food its moment (brief though it may be before being stabbed by eager forks) to hog the spotlight. The wait staff provides excellent supporting roles, able to talk at length and with refreshing intelligence about the menu. Sitting in the dining room decorated with tasteful simplicity, enjoying the chair-scrapes, chatter, and clinking wine glasses of other diners, it was possible to forget for moments at a time that I wasn’t simply enjoying an exquisitely prepared meal in a friend’s kitchen.
Then I remembered the magic of that High Summer Salad. New potatoes, tender haricots verts, heirloom tomatoes. All are residents in my fridge as I type. What I don’t have in my home kitchen is the magic fairy dust I am convinced must be sprinkled as the secret ingredient over each plate passing through Legume’s kitchen. For authentic gustatory magic, one need look no further than the menu at Legume Bistro.