1113 S. Braddock Ave., Regent Square
Tues.-Thurs., 5-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-10 p.m.
First Course: $6-$12
B.Y.O.B. ($3 corkage fee), nonsmoking, handicapped-accessible.
Reservations for six or more only.
It looked like rain, with flip-of-the-coin odds as to whether an outside perch would leave us happily dining alfresco or disastrously drenched. Being risk-adverse, we consensually opted for a romantic, interior two-top nestled in a window annex on the verge of being vacated. A table made for lovers, it is set apart and decked in white linen and complemented by two chairs upholstered in maroon velveteen, like the old mahogany ones that flanked my mother’s vanity in the 1950s.
"They serve good food at this table," said a friendly woman about to leave, taking note of our position.
Essential decisions settled, we turned our attentions to Benjamin Moore wheat tones gradually fading upward on the wall – brighter at the bottom, shadowy toward the top, augmented by golden evening sunlight entering from the west. Turquoise trim demarcations separate each tonal progression, with ambient lighting from upper valence boards gracefully accentuating the effect, which seemed like a permanent sunset. The evening twilight made the colors seem mottled, almost theatrical.
It is a romantic little place, Legume, evoking fond memories for us of a cozy Regent Square bar that was once across the street where we used to kiss and play shuffleboard bowling. The new bistro, with 18 tables (four outside), is run by two Oberlin College grads who have lived in California and get the picture. Obviously the word is out, and the bistro is in. Not only is the fine little eatery enjoying the fruits of downtown Regent Square’s rebirth, it’s also contributing to it in a charming way, born to become an "our place" kind of spot.
I love the menu, pasted on the door with an interesting tip or comment here or there. Likewise, it intrigued our friend Philip, who lives in the neighborhood, and when he looked a little closer, read "tartar sauce: ‘trust us, it’s good.’"
The idea of homemade tartar sauce stuck to his subconscious like a good melody, a classic French sauce that can be absolutely brilliant but is so often debased on razzle-dazzle fish sandwiches from coast to coast; here it’s a sensation with dill and parsley. "So delicious, you could eat it with cardboard," joked Philip, who joined us for dinner. He had been reading Legume’s copy of The Silver Spoon, an Italian cookbook. "I’m going to return my library book," he winked, hopping up to put it back. Legume is that kind of place, where you wouldn’t think twice about grabbing a book from the shelf. There is nothing pretentious, nothing twee.
Though the tartar sauce was gone that night, we raved about "Julia’s Ratatouille," cloned from Ms. Child’s famous recipe on crostini with barely stewed roasted yellow squash and zucchini, then dotted with goat cheese, making for a mix of richly harmonic flavors. A watermelon gazpacho with pickled red onions dressed with crème fraîche, wonderfully smooth and chilly, confuses your palate with a slight savory after-kick.
Owner/chef Trevett Hooper is a charming fellow with high standards. He started cooking to pay his way through Oberlin, where he was studying conservatory electronic music. One day he was talking with his advisor about that ubiquitous question, "What do you want to do when you grow up?" Hooper blurted in reply, "I want to cook." It just kind of slipped out, and he followed his dream, although he never went to culinary school. "Ever since," he recalled, "I’ve always wanted my own place." In retrospect, he had already had the good fortune to work with two superb chefs in two great little spots – Fox Grape and Main Street Mercantile, both of which are located in Oberlin, Ohio, and have since closed. Around the same time, he fell in love with his future wife, Sarah, a political- science and women’s-studies major at Oberlin, who is originally from Squirrel Hill. After living together in Boston, Philadelphia and California, the couple eventually moved to Pittsburgh and opened Legume in June 2007. Sarah’s a natural in the front of the restaurant, hustling through the crowd, checking on people, keeping things happy.
Hooper isn’t about tags, though he’ll consent to "California French" to describe a menu that is as sensuous as it is simple, evolving as seasons and markets change. "I’m curious myself," he says as if he’s in the midst of an out-of-body experience, observing his own evolution from afar. "The California thing is not a cuisine; it’s an approach. It’s not just about taste. It’s about the way one is welcomed and made to feel. And it’s not willy-nilly. A lot of care and thought went into it."
The menu is modest but rich with flavors combined in resourceful ways. Hooper uses high-quality, albeit expensive, ingredients and currently errs on the side of bigger portions. "You’ll never see puff pastry unless I roll it out myself," he promises, already thinking about his next menu, about ravioli with braised chicken leg, rabbit rillette, pork belly with homemade sauerkraut, quail with applejack and sweet potatoes.
"I was pleasantly surprised when I put sweetbreads on the menu and people loved them," Hooper reveals. Starters such as a crispy duck confit, aged and crisped to order, don’t push the accompanying peaches aside, as duck is always tasty with something sweet. A very Frenchy green-bean salad, vinegary in a way that quickens the palate, with romano and string beans, fingerlings and hard-boiled egg, is flat out wonderful.
Hooper loves French food and culture – after all, the name of his restaurant is the French word for plants with seed pods that split along the sides when ripe.
A thick-cut Black Pearl pork chop optically shrinks the sky-blue-trimmed dinner plate. It also acts as an umbrella for a naturally sweet lodi applesauce and yummy house potatoes that are riced, mashed and then browned under the broiler.
A 10- to 12-ounce hanger steak has a deep, satisfying flavor that can rival a filet for tenderness. It can be tricky to get it right, but with the proper cut and broiler time, Legume succeeds, with a light brushing of parsley butter, just enough to provide a little sauce. Philip asked for it "Pittsburgh Blue," that is: blackened on the outside, rare inside. It arrived beautifully done.
There is no conceit in a dish with a title such as "chicken cooked under a skillet with garlic and brown chicken sauce" with whole roasted garlic cloves popping up as you dig into a leg and breast, and a brown sauce that, well – there was a lot of flavor in that pan. An Italian approach, the whole dish, from start to finish, comes from that chicken.
Coho salmon with a rosy interior is lovely uncrusted and uncarmelized, not buried in sauce and not precariously perched on a tower of something. Golden pearls of barley corn and sliced mushrooms illuminate and individualize a classic.
The menu changes enough so that some of those dishes will be retired or significantly tweaked, but you can count on plates that are carefully composed and executed, enough to make you forget that on busy nights, it can get pretty noisy.
Two desserts are understated but uninhibited in their simplicity. Panna cotta with fat blueberries and hot apple (or peach) crisp with a crusty, crunchy top is wonderful. I hear rumors of a labor-intensive coming attraction, a dense chocolate torte with layers of chocolate mousse, cake, ganache and meringue in a buttery chocolate glaze.
As we left, the sun was sweeping across the sky, touching down, fluttering over the pedestrian flow in a boomlet of shops and galleries in this formidable walking community, where people exercise their sovereign prerogative to leisurely stroll the streets at sundown. Life feels better with this urbane refuge in my backyard, with friends in the neighborhood ready to call me when "Chocolate Torte Lion" is posted on the menu.
Each month, Deborah McDonald jump-starts appetites with lively restaurant reviews that scrutinize who’s cooking what and where. She works anonymously, visiting each restaurant at least twice before writing her column.
Do you know of a restaurant you’d like to have reviewed? E-mail Deborah.