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Legume changes locations but sticks to winning formula

Background

The best restaurants often present a moving target. For them, it's a crime to get comfortable, soft, set in your ways. Even when they find something that works, they're just as likely to discard it and try something new.

On the surface, few restaurants in Pittsburgh seem to embody that ethos more than Legume in Oakland. This restaurant has been quite literally on the move, leaving its first incarnation as an intimate bistro in Regent Square, for a much bigger space with a bar, in a quiet part of North Oakland where good places to eat are few and far between.

"We needed to have a bigger kitchen to do the kind of food we want to make," explains chef/owner Trevett Hooper, who runs Legume with his wife, Sarah. "We're still a relatively small restaurant, but to really do the 'whole animal cooking' that we want to do, and to recommit ourselves to using the best product possible, we needed to be doing it on a certain scale that we couldn't do in a 34-seat restaurant."

Legume's menu also changes nightly.

"It doesn't change radically every day," Hooper says. "I don't call my fish (suppliers) looking for a specific variety -- I ask them what's fresh. That's why the menu changes. What can we get that's really exceptional today?"

Embracing movement and change, though, isn't an end in itself. There's actually a traditionalist streak running through Legume, reflected in everything from the decor in the dining room, to the service, to the techniques used in the kitchen. The emphasis is more on quality of ingredients, and getting the most possible out of local farmers. Usually, this means following the seasons closely, choosing from the ever-increasing bounty of local farms.

"We're always trying to put the best-quality food on the plate," Hooper says. "We're trying to cook with animals that we know what their diet was, that haven't been pumped up with hormones or antibiotics, that ate well and were treated properly. Whether you think antibiotics or hormones are bad for your health or not, animals that eat a good diet, and live a good life, taste better."

Winter is particularly challenging, since Pennsylvania doesn't have the year-round growing season of, say, California.

"We're still getting a lot of root vegetables locally," Hooper says. "Also, in the winter ,we're less produce-driven. In the summer, over half our menu is vegetarian. But this time of year, it's more meat-based. ... We have local dried legumes that we use. It is a challenge, but we get by."

Atmosphere

Despite the formal white tablecloths and sharply dressed servers, Legume is a more laidback place than it first appears.

The new space in North Oakland was occupied by the restaurant More for decades, facing busy North Craig Street, at the bottom of a large apartment building. A dignified, intimate barroom, to the right of the main entrance, is somewhat disconnected from the dining rooms.

The look Legume is going for is one of spare, understated sophistication, with dim lighting and tasteful art on the walls. It's not entirely modern, not overtly retro -- just a classic look, the kind of place they'd use to shoot a "date night" scene in a movie. It's not a terribly distinctive space, but it's a big improvement on the old location in just about every respect.

Service wasn't perfect -- a request for more bread was lost during a mid-evening rush -- but otherwise quite friendly and accommodating.

Menu

Legume's constantly changing menu is posted online at www.legumebistro.com by 5 p.m. each day.

Along with a list of well-chosen beers and French wines, the place to start is dubbed "Nice Things to Share." Charcuterie, in general, seems to be a strength of Legume, and the Pork, Duck and Pistachio Pate ($8) doesn't disappoint -- a rich, rustic balance of meat, fat and spice, speckled with bits of pistachio. It's served with toasted bread and whole-grain mustard.

The Swiss Raclette with Cornichons ($10) is another strong starter. It's a gooey, simple plate of melted cheese -- sharp, yet not overpowering -- served with fresh baguette and gherkins on the side.

The Vegetarian Barley Risotto with Mushrooms ($17) is another delicate balance of flavors and textures. Barley requires some delicate coaxing to get along with creamy risotto, but it's pulled off perfectly here. The whole dish is surprisingly light, considering how filling winter vegetables can be.

The Pork Shoulder Braised in Applejack ($23) was flawlessly cooked, and the sweet applejack braise reduction transformed the bed of polenta with sauteed endive from accompaniment into highlight. The slight bitterness of the endive was a nice counterpoint to the richness of the rest of the dish. Painted Hills Hanger Steak with Tallow Fries ($21) was another triumph, augmented simply by a chimichurri and red wine sauce.

The unenviable task of following these dishes fell to the dessert menu, which included Rice Pudding with Caramel and Whipped Cream ($6), and a Pecan Ball with Caramel and Chocolate Sauce ($6), a long-time Pittsburgh favorite. The Rice Pudding was the clear standout, served in a cup with a mild and buttery caramel lining the inside, so you get a little bit with every bite. However, the Pecan Ball -- vanilla ice cream rolled in crushed pecans -- seemed a little under-sized. Tiny flecks of caramel and chocolate sauce seemed more concerned with creating an attractive plate than adding flavor.

Additional Information:

Legume

Cuisine: Seasonal farm-to-table American food

Hours: 5-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 5-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; bar is open 4 p.m.-midnight daily

Entree Price Range: $17-$30

Notes: Accepts all major credit cards; reservations accepted

Location: 214 N. Craig St., Oakland

Details: 412-621-2700 or website

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