Vegging Out at Legume
"July is For Vegetarians" is the theme this month at the North Oakland restaurant.
photos by hal b. klein
For many Pittsburgh diners, thinking about Legume restaurant in Oakland conjures images of vegetable-forward menus that speak to the kitchen’s ethos of culinary sustainability. The reality, however, is that Legume long has been at the forefront of meat cookery in Pittsburgh — especially in the sourcing of ethically raised animals — and the kitchen historically has offered significantly limited choices for vegetarian diners.
“We’ve definitely disappointed a lot of people who come in and expect a bunch of vegetarian stuff,” says Trevett Hooper, the restaurant’s executive chef and co-owner.
That’s not to say that Legume isn’t thoughtful about vegetables. Hooper and his team have long-established relationships with regional farmers. His kitchen started preserving the harvest through fermentation, pickling and dehydration, and using seconds — the ugly, often-unwanted vegetables and fruits not pretty enough for the produce stand — in their recipes, long before it was trendy to do so.
Still, most of that work translated into accompaniments to non-vegetarian dishes rather than as standalone plates.
Until now. Hooper has declared, “July is for Vegetarians” at Legume.
“Something that’s been on my mind lately is that we do a really good job of sourcing meat that has a minimal impact when compared to factory-farmed meat’s impact. But no matter how good your meat is sourced, most of the time vegetarian food is going to be more sustainable,” he says.
Plus, he adds, “We eat vegetarian at home most of the time, so we figured we ought to do it here, too.”
To that end, the restaurant has introduced a $28, three-course vegetarian tasting menu that will run through the end of July, and it also has expanded the number of a-la-carte vegetarian appetizers and entrees on the daily menu. It’s a big shift: Legume’s menu was nearly 50 percent vegetarian when I visited on Tuesday night. I ate my way through both the tasting menu and a few of the a-la-carte dishes.
Course one of the tasting menu was chilled borscht with horseradish creme fraiche and dill. The dish could have used a bit more beety earthiness, but I loved the herbaceousness of the dill and the lingering tang of the horseradish. Borscht is one of my favorite soups; if you’re one of those holdout haters, this (or the fabulous hot borscht on the menu at Apteka) ought to bring you into the fold.
Grilled escarole was a lesson in the virtuosity of simplicity and seasonality. Charred greens paired with pickled vegetables and mustard vinaigrette is exactly the kind of thing I want to be eating in early July. The crispy poached egg with its tangerine-orange, runny yolk added substance to a solid second course.
Hooper served ricotta ravioli with a light basil pesto for course three. I’d come back to Legume to eat this again. I especially enjoyed the yin-yang harmony of the bracingly bitter greens that topped the dish balancing the sweet creaminess of the ravioli filling.
Hooper says that chickpea stew, plated on my visit as a beautiful deconstruction, will evolve over the month as farm crops shift from early- to high-summer. In its current iteration, the Who Cooks For You? Farm snap peas and pea shoots that topped the dish were so verdantly flavorful they made me temporarily forget that I’m ready to move on from peas and greens to plates of tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. The stew itself had a Middle Eastern spin, which also was tasty, though the combination of the two flavor profiles was a bit discordant.
“We’re going to change the menu at least once a week to make sure that people can come back and try something new,” Hooper says.
Hooper says that he’s working on a tempeh-based veggie burger that will join the much-celebrated beef burger as a fixture at Butterjoint next door; he’s also added Legume’s hearty dinner salad to the adjoining bar’s menu. I hope he’ll also keep expanding the vegetarian and vegetable-forward options at Legume beyond July and perhaps consider keeping the vegetarian tasting menu as an option for the remainder of the growing season. It’s certainly something that I’d come back for.