Review: Salt of the Earth

Brandon Fisher is the latest chef behind Salt of the Earth’s modern-American dishes.

photos by Laura Petrilla


Brandon Fisher is the third chef to run the kitchen at Salt of the Earth in Garfield. I first became acquainted with Fisher during the glory days of the late-night menu at Salt, where after 10 p.m. he ran the line. Tuesday nights were oysters and cocktails. Other nights you’d pop in for Korean fried chicken, the glass-crackle skin painted with hot sauce. 

Unfortunately for those of us who like to dine in the wee hours, late-night is gone, but the most popular item from that menu, “Burger,” now is a fixture on the regular menu. Remember your childhood favorite fast-food hamburger? Salt’s version is the child’s memory made for adults. It’s tender beef, housemade American cheese, pickles and special sauce on a toasted brioche roll. You want this burger.

When Salt first opened in Garfield a little more than four years ago, former owner and executive chef Kevin Sousa’s tattooed and T-shirt-wearing, chefs-on-display restaurant marked a turning point in Pittsburgh cuisine. Following Sousa’s departure last February, longtime Chef de Cuisine Chad Townsend was promoted to executive chef. Townsend tilted the kitchen’s style away from Sousa’s modernist cuisine (and put his chefs in jackets).

After a few months, Townsend decided to pursue ambitions outside of the restaurant. Fisher, who started working at Salt two years ago, was promoted to chef de cuisine. Fisher’s menu, which is refreshed often, is a largely successful collection of modern American with global influences. To that end, Fisher is at his best when his dishes are propelled by modern comfort cuisine and the modernist influences linger in the background. They’re present, often noticeable, but more seasoning than substance.

“Soup” is a perfect example: A seemingly straightforward late-season tomato soup continued to develop depth as the orange and buttered crouton enhancements lingered on the palate. “It changes flavors in your mouth in a sort of magical way,” said a friend. (On that note, nearly all of Salt’s food could use a touch more acidity. Too often, zest is the only acidic component, and it doesn’t speak loudly enough.)

In the previously offered “Carrot,” the root was given a treatment worthy of its lofty status as hot vegetable of the moment. Poached with cardamom, caraway and clove until al dente, it was served with chewy barley and embellished with raisins and mint, the richness cut by spice-laced Vadouvan yogurt.

Those carrots came from Garfield Community Farm, which is just up the hill from the restaurant. Salt started partnering with the permaculture-focused urban farm in March 2011 and sources much of its produce from it.

The only real flop on any of my visits was “Seitan.” “This looks like somebody threw tiny slices of pumpernickel on top of a bowl of gloopy noodles,” said a friend on one visit. Pumpernickel might have been an improvement over the chewy seitan, which felt as if it was tossed on as an afterthought to make vegans happy.

Desserts are a mixed bag. Our iteration of “Cheese” was a soaring success. Honey, marmalade and brioche buoy and balance shaved planks of Comte. Others, such as “Coconut,” are apparent failures unless a customer figures out how to crack the combination to the dish; in this case, it involved mashing the disparate elements (coconut flan, buckwheat, banana, butternut squash sorbet, lime gel) into a singular mess. Do that, and it’s delightful. But I’d rather not decode a flavor cipher at the end of the evening.

Salt’s Mix-and-Match menu has advantages: You can snack, have a mid-sized meal or feast. If you like to share, and I do, order by committee and experience a number of dishes. The choose-your-own-adventure menu also can be frustrating, however, as it’s possible to order a series of dishes that clash. This could be avoided by a prompt from the waitstaff, who overall handle tasks professionally and with just the right amount of personality.

Solo diners and non-sharers should order an appetizer and then choose between a “Mid” or a “Main.” “Mid” might suggest “smallish dish” or “palate cleanser,” but you’re better to think “indulgent.” Some, such as the pork terrine, demand sharing; four hunks of fat-laced swine are too much for anyone, no matter how tasty they are. Other dishes, including the out-of-this-world duck confit, work perfectly as a standalone.  

Salt of the Earth is one of those restaurants to which I love to take my “I-only-go-to-places-that-offer-BYOB” friends to remind them of the advantages of an outstanding bar program. Jeremy Bustamante now runs the bar, which also has maintained continuity of quality through several leadership changes. The curated and budget-conscious wine list is terrific, as is the rotating selection of beer.

Salt of the Earth has been through quite a few changes in the last two years. One thing is constant: It remains one of the most relevant, and at times the best, restaurants in Pittsburgh.

5523 Penn Ave., Garfield; 412/441-7258,; closed Dec. 21-28 & Jan. 1; BYOB wine with $15 corkage fee.


Brandon Fisher, Chef de Cuisine

What’s your professional background?
I was a sous chef at the Rolling Rock club for seven years before coming to Salt, but I also started my career there. Between that I did a couple of seasonal things in Florida; the last one was working as the sous chef at Donald Trump’s private club in Palm Beach.

What’s your ideal type of meal?
Balanced. A meal for me should be satisfying, but you shouldn’t feel like you need to unbutton your pants after eating it.

What are you looking for when you go out to eat?
I go out to eat to spend time with my wife, Megan. I go out for comfort food. I rarely have time to go out and be wowed by a long meal experience.

Where do you like to go?
We really enjoy Eleven, Dish [and] Grit & Grace. We like small, intimate settings so we can spend some time talking to each other.
Do you cook at home? I do.

How does a home-cooked meal compare to what you’re doing here at Salt?
I ask my wife what she wants to eat that night; she’ll pick the protein, and I’ll develop something from that.

What’s your thought process when you’re developing new dishes for Salt?
It depends day to day. Each dish is inspired in a different fashion. Sometimes it’s the standard chef thing — “We have this stuff. Let’s think about what to do with it.” Other times I might see something that someone else is doing and wonder if I could put my own spin on it. Other times these guys [his kitchen staff] have ideas and maybe we can develop something from there. I love that. We’ll try something and it might not be exactly what it needs to be to go on the menu, so we’ll tighten some things, loosen some things, until it’s a fit.

How does it feel for you to have started here as a line cook and after two years be where you are now?
How have you changed as a chef and how has the restaurant evolved? It’s a parallel process. I started when Kevin [Sousa] was still here. When Chad [Townsend] took over, he spun things more to his style. So I’ve seen all sides of the spectrum here. I’m trying to mesh the two together but also make the restaurant more approachable for new diners.


Categories: Hot Reads, Restaurant Reviews