Legume: It Means Vegetable

Rebecca Russell

Don’t be fooled though.  Legume is home to some of the most non-vegetarian friendly dishes you’ll ever meet. Examples include duck liver and quince mousse, braised veal breast and duck confit; each one devilishly decadent, sumptuously scrumptious and well worth not only the calories but the cash you’ll drop to dine here.

Sarah and Trevett Hooper opened Legume Bistro in June 2007 in the Regent Square neighborhood of our most-livable city of Pittsburgh.  The original location had an admittedly small dining room that sat less than 40 customers at one time.   And the only thing smaller than the dining room was the teeny tiny kitchen (seriously, it was ridiculously small). It was BYOB, cozy and simply perfect.

But Legume has moved.  After a long hiatus starting with the ‘Last Supper’ in the Regent Square location in late May, the Oakland spot has been open and operating since late September.   The new restaurant boasts closer to 90 seats, plus there’s a separate bar that offers the same dining room menu (rumors of a bar menu as well as a Sunday brunch option abound…).  The blues and greys of the refurbished, original Terrazzo tile floors serve as an inspiration for the color palette of the dining room as well as harkens back to the vibe of the original location.  While the walls are still a little bare, staff and owners alike promise artwork to follow in the coming months.  Original woodworking decorates the bar and can also be seen on the hostess stand and server stations in the main dining rooms.

Hooper prides himself on sourcing locally whenever possible, curing meats and cheeses in-house and generally providing a meal that meets the standards you’d expect from not only a four-star restaurant, but also your grandmother’s kitchen.  The food and techniques are decidedly French (both classical and countryside), but there are elements of various other cuisines present as well.  They make sauerkraut in house with the help of a newly hired fermenter, cure pig cheeks to make the bacon-y wonder called guanciale, and preserve a variety of the locally sourced summer fruits and vegetables for use throughout the winter months.

And now for the food.  The daily menu is posted by 5PM each evening.  If you’re looking for something specific, ask when you make your reservation if they know whether a certain item will be on the menu for the day you’re planning to go in.  They are happy to accommodate whenever possible.  Also, feel free to mention any gluten allergy or vegetarian needs.  There is usually at least one vegetarian dish on the menu, but the winter months naturally limit the choices of all vegetarian meals.  Oh, and in case it was too subtle above: I highly recommend that you make a reservation.  This place can get packed and yes, it does occasionally, run out of certain menu items as the night wears on.

As implied, the menu rotates and can change on a daily basis.  These are just a few of the yummiest dishes I have had here this winter.  The pork pâté is out of this world ($8).  It comes as a thick slice of toothsome porky goodness, often studded with pale green and yellow pistachios and served with toasted baguette, whole grain mustard and house made pickles.  If you’re really lucky, it also has duck in it.  Another of the “Things to Share” is the Swiss raclette ($10).  Whenever there is a cheese on Legume’s menu, I have learned to order it.  Raclette is a both a technique and a cheese; they warm the soft, stinky cheese until it gets melty, and then they scrape it off onto the plate.  It sounds horrific, but alongside sweet little cornichons, it’s perfection.  The bluefish pâté was shockingly good; smoky and creamy with the right amount of seasonings and served with toasted baguette ($10).  I wasn’t thrilled at the idea of scarfing down on mashed up fish, but the flavor was less ‘fish’ and more just a complex umami quality.  An always favorite is the duck confit ($14).  Confit is a classic French technique of imbedding flavor while also preserving food by submerging it in a liquid.  That liquid, when making a confit of various animals, is generally fat.  Duck legs are cooked slowly in their own fat then broiled up to order so the skin comes out crispy and crackling.  The resulting flavor is something that you have to taste to understand.  The lush little leg is often paired with a house made sweet and slightly spicy chutney of various mixtures.  It is a must.  Soups and salads have never missed for me, but the mushroom soup in particular can make a non-believer (me) eat something fully mushroom-y and ask for a piece of bread to scour the bowl of any last bits ($8).  And we haven’t even talked about dinner yet…

The braised veal breast with crispy polenta was warm and comforting with just the right amount of spicy black pepper and a lovely deep and rich jus that slicked the plate and soaked into the buttery-rich polenta cakes ($25).  Pork shoulder slow cooked in Applejack and served with mashed potatoes swirled with ribbons of roasted garlic melts in your mouth ($26).  I’m not kidding; it literally melts.  Try pairing either of the two dishes with a side of roasted Brussels sprouts with mustard butter ($5).  The itty bitty cabbages turn sweet and golden brown then soak up the tangy rich sauce.  Their lobster ravioli is a real treat that you should try if given the chance ($29).  They boil down gallons of lobster stock until it’s reduced to near syrup consistency then whisk in copious amounts of butter. A house made pasta surrounds over half a pound of tender, sweet lobster meat.  Finally, they dress the chubby little purses with the rich, reduced sauce. Yeah.

I warn you to not be fooled by the unassuming dishes on the menu.  The mushroom barley risotto with carrot puree is served with a flat iron steak and a red wine reduction ($25).  It is amazingly complex and flavorsome; the risotto is deeply woodsy thanks to the mushrooms and the carrot puree is house carrots should always taste: luscious, sweet and fresh.  The steak is a reluctant second fiddle and close runner-up to the grain and veggie of the dish, but it is seasoned simply with salt and pepper and cooked to a perfect medium rare (They give you the option of temperature, but I recommend to always go with what your server suggests.  They know the proper temperature to serve various meats and fish at in order to preserve full flavor and provide the tenderest bite.).  If the tallow fries are on the menu, try them with any beef option you choose and you won’t be sorry ($4).  Tallow, you all you Little House on the Prairie folks, is rendered beef fat.  Yes, they cook French fries in beef fat; and yes, it’s delicious.  The underdog of the menu is the crispy farro, usually served with dried shaker corn, tomatoes, mushrooms, and either ricotta or goat cheese ($16).  Farro is a whole grain that comes from a variety of wheat plants and is often used in ways similar to rice or barley.  Hooper makes crispy sheets of toasted farro then layers them with a colorful, flavorful vegetable mixture dotted with cool, creamy cheese.  The illusive and wonderful chicken cooked under a skillet holds a special place in my heart and is a house specialty ($18).  Half a chicken is seasoned and left to rest for a day, after which it gets smushed between two heavy cast iron skillets and roasted for near 40 minutes.  It comes to the table screaming hot and succulent, swimming in a golden pool of chicken jus and paired with either garlic-y mashed potatoes or crispy polenta cakes.

Lastly, onto the sweet endings of the menu ($5-6).  Now, you should be informed that Hooper was a pastry chef and therefore, knows his stuff.  You want the BEST chocolate cake you’ll ever have?  It’s been hiding here all along.  Served with a simple dollop of whipped cream, the dense bittersweet chocolate yields into a soft moan…and yes, that sound just came from your lips.  In the coldest months you can get the warm gingerbread served with pears and whipped cream.  The new location also boasts an ice cream maker, so expect to see various flavor options in the months to come, but right now you can try the cajeta, a salty-sweet caramel ice cream, served simply as a scoop.  And for the love of all things food, try the panna cotta. My favorite variety is the buttermilk panna cotta with espresso-soaked figs.  The literal translation means ‘cooked cream’; the texture is similar to a Spanish flan, but the flavor is less caramel and more sweet cream.

So here’s the thing: this place is on the pricey side. Think of it as a great date night for when someone else is paying or a very special occasion.  The pricey status is only complicated by the fact that you WILL want to eat three courses.  And probably also split one of the sweetly denoted “Things to Share”.  It’s all well and good to enter the evening with the intention to split a dessert and skip the appetizer altogether; I’m just warning you ahead of time that you will want more.  But I can warmly and passionately promise you that it is worth every penny you spend.

 Legume is located at 214 North Craig Street in the neighborhood of Oakland.  They are open for dinner 5PM-10PM Monday through Saturday and closed Sunday.  The bar is open daily from 4PM until 12AM with a happy hour from 4PM till 6PM Monday through Friday.  They can be reached at 412.621.2700. Leave a message and they’ll call you back to confirm your reservation.

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