Restaurant Review: Legume Bistro Is Soaring

With a slight philosophical shift and a new chef de cuisine, the 12-year-old restaurant is the best it has ever been.

A bowl of sour cherry soup in August was an indication that Legume’s chef de cuisine Csilla Thackray was hitting her stride. The chilled soup leaned savory, a sleight-of-hand that worked to highlight the tart fruitiness of the cherries. Seeded crumble added textural interest and depth, olive relish a leathery bass note and creme fraiche a tangy smoothness.

Thackray, who joined the Oakland restaurant in February, began her career at Bar Marco working with Legume alum Jamilka Borges. There, she developed a romantic style of dish composition and plating that she carried over to The Vandal, where she was executive chef from its opening in 2015. It takes a commendable degree of self-awareness for a person to realize that, even if you’re earning praise for your work, sometimes the way forward is to step back from the helm and find mentoring. That’s what Thackray did, and who better to make it happen than Trevett Hooper, the sourcing and preservation guru who owns The Good Faith Restaurant Group (Legume, The Butterjoint, Pie For Breakfast) with his wife, Sarah? After all, he already has helped develop the careers of a cadre of Pittsburgh’s top chefs. Plus, the two share a captivation for Eastern European cuisine.

The soup was the opening salvo in what would be the best meal I’ve had in Pittsburgh in several years, exciting in a way that satisfied my lust for gastronomical curiosity as well as my groggy, jet-lagged desire to be taken care of on the night that I went. Served alongside it were a few slices of warm, Five Points Artisan Bakeshop sourdough bread. It’s the kind of bread that makes a strong case for why restaurants should charge for bread service. It was a nice touch that Legume offers it as a gift alongside cultured butter served at room temperature.

Later, rice crepe with chickpea wot, labneh, Roma beans, haricot vert and fermented carrots and cabbage surprised with its complexity. The crepe was light yet felt substantial, its accouterment a blend that drew from Indian flavors while pulling from Legume ethos with the western Pennsylvania carrot and cabbage slaw. The cookery on show with another dish — black cod with a trio of fresh summer beans and preserved tomato — was textbook perfect. I appreciated the balance of preparation that pushed beyond minimalist while at the same time exhibiting maturity of restraint; it’s something that has become less frequent in the modern, throw-another-thing-on-here restaurant world.

The setting for the meal was delightful, too. With the assistance of local designer extraordinaire Thommy Conroy, Legume has in the past months morphed from what felt a bit like a nursing home into an enchanted and comfortable oasis that feels as if you’re in the dining room of a lovely, classy house. Conroy is in the process of sprinkling his nature-meets-fever-dream aesthetic all over the place — it’s easy, for example, to get lost in the wallpaper. With its flattering hues of orange and red, it seems unobtrusive at first, and then you start seeing things: Is that a cabbage? Peppers? Are there birds or flowers? Look for Conroy to transform the front room, now festooned with paper lanterns, in the forthcoming months.

I jotted down a note prior to walking home: “This is why restaurants are important to me. Legume is matured Pittsburgh’s brightest light.”

I was wondering if perhaps it was the jet lag that influenced the giddiness I felt after eating that meal (it certainly did the dreamy “brightest light”). Two weeks later, another meal, perhaps even more satisfying, confirmed what I was thinking: the 12-year-old restaurant is the best I’ve ever known it to be, and that’s saying something as Legume has sat on the peak of restaurants in Pittsburgh for a very long time.

The Hoopers opened Legume as a 14-table spot in Regent Square in 2007. “It is a romantic little place, Legume … run by two Oberlin College grads who have lived in California and get the picture,” said then-Pittsburgh Magazine dining critic Deborah McDonald. The Hoopers moved the restaurant to a larger location in Oakland in 2011, and, with a significantly bigger kitchen and a luxurious amount of basement space, proceeded to dive deeper into their goal of creating a hub for cuisine rooted in our region.

Legume remains driven by lean-forward curiosity, which Hooper guides with gentle and deliberate evolution. The Legume you’re eating at today is not the Legume of Regent Square or the Legume of 2013 (when whole-animal-butchery, all-food-served-is-local ruled the roost), yet elements of those philosophical phases inform what it is today.

Sarah Hooper set the standards for the front of house early on, with empathetic warmth wrapped around proper points of service; Duane Gilleylen, the restaurant’s general manager, continues that tradition. The Hoopers’ commitment to maintaining a healthy work environment means that the staff primarily is made up of people who have worked at the restaurant for several years. This means they are well versed in the menu and philosophy behind it — and comfortable enough to make you feel like you’re eating at a beloved friend’s house. It’s not casual, however. So when a fumble-fisted dining critic drops a few of the perfectly toasted hickory nuts that accompanied the sweet, smoky, spicy, luscious, silky and sensual smoked maple-glazed carrots with berbere spices and cashew yogurt, the table quickly is wiped clean.

Credit the Hoopers for progressive hiring, too. Since its earliest days, the couple has been committed to promoting women in the kitchen in a way that goes well beyond lip service. The long history of the restaurant has created a platform for women in leadership roles both within its kitchen and beyond it — witness, for example, Borges, who started as a novice chef while Legume was in Regent Square and rose to become the restaurant’s chef de cuisine prior to earning national acclaim (and a 2018 Pittsburgh Magazine Chef of the Year nod) for her work at Spoon and with the Independent Restaurant Group (Independent Brewing Company, Hidden Harbor, Lorelei). Jessica George changed careers in her 30s; at 35 she worked as a line cook at Legume, went on to run its outstanding (and very much missed) lunch service and now serves as Good Faith’s head chef, overseeing operations at all three of its restaurants.

The restaurant’s prices, while not stratospheric, reflect the fair wages paid to people who grow quality ingredients as well as the people that prepare and serve them. The Hoopers do make opportunities to allow for the space to be a bit more accessible. A quarterly “cheap date night” is a three-course meal for two for $50 and there are occasional special menus; the annual August “Vegetarian Month” tasting menu is $35 for three courses, for example.

Legume’s one-page menu changes fairly frequently, so it’s a good idea not to grow too attached to any one dish, although some, especially the soups, do make their way around with seasonal regularity. I like this because it means I’m always craving a return visit. I also like that, in an era when small plates often steal the show, Legume’s main courses are equally, if not more, thrilling than the rest of the menu. With only five or six of them on any given evening, they’re thought out and well-tested — and sometimes even a bit subversive.

In August, braised lamb with couscous, sweet and sour eggplant, shishito, crispy chickpeas and chermoula had me thinking: “Hey this is an autumn dish. I’m not ready for autumn. What’s up with this, Legume?” And then the bright flavors from the eggplant and peppy herbaceousness of chermoula perked me up. “Hey, pal this is the end of summer. Let’s transition you to autumn in a way that won’t make you sad.” Another dish, Mangalitsa pork flat-iron steak with Carolina Gold rice grits, blistered shishitos, smoked onion and peach mostarda was a demonstration of Thackray’s evolution from a young chef who showed all her cards to one capable of sly nuance. We all thought this one was a tad dull in comparison to the other dishes but then circled around to what we thought was a pretty smart move — put a dish on the menu for the less adventurous eaters and nudge them to be more adventurous with a recipe that is full of less common ingredients and layered cooking elements. Also, the onions were damn tasty. I wish there had been a little more of the fat that is so prized with this breed of hog, however.

I sometimes miss the peak-idealism Legume of the mid-2010s, but the Hoopers have found a way to deliver their vision in a labor pool spread thin by so many restaurant openings. Legume still is defined by its honest and refined cookery that is deeply rooted in seasonality, where dishes get what they need and seldom get more than that, and they’re not trying to be too clever.

Adding Thackray to the mix makes it even better. What this means for me, is that “Legume” is the answer to one of the questions that I am often asked: “If you had to take someone to one Pittsburgh restaurant, which would it be?”

208 N. Craig St., Oakland; 412/621-2700, legumebistro.com
In an earlier draft of this story we identified Driftwood Oven as the baker of the bread. We regret this error.

Categories: Eat + Drink Features, Hot Reads, Restaurant Reviews