Cooking Class: Grit & Grace's Asparagus Salad With Bulgur Wheat and Tarragon Dijon Dressing

| Saturday, May 24, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Executive chef Curtis Gamble was in the process of moving back to Pittsburgh when he saw an ad for an executive chef at a suburban restaurant. When he interviewed for the job, however, the owner told Gamble another restaurant he was developing Downtown with business partner Brian Pekarcik might be an even better fit.

That restaurant was Grit & Grace, which opened in late December on Liberty Avenue. There, Gamble prepares a variety of small and large plates for the Cultural District crowd, as well as salads, sandwiches and noodles for business types looking to lunch.

“We try to make sure things are crafted and thoughtful, yet accessible,” says Gamble, 32, of Edgewood. “We're just trying to make really delicious foods. We use modern techniques, but accessible foods. It's not super-technique-driven or super-modern.”

According to the menu, “everything needs an opposite in order to exist … to achieve balance.” Co-owner Pekarcik, of Fox Chapel, who owns Grit & Grace with Rick Stern, says the dishes are a mix of ethnic, casual foods and some refined items. Pekarcik and Stern also own Spoon and BRGR locations.

Small and large plates at Grit & Grace include Braised Daikon with crispy tofu, baby bok choy, mushrooms, green onion and hot and sour mushroom essence, for $14; Braised Goat with appams (a type of South Indian pancake), garlic and ginger mashed potatoes, curry, creme freche and lime, for $20; and Seared Hanger Steak with roasted asparagus and buttermilk fried onion rings, the most expensive menu item, for $22.

“Most items on the menu are $20 and below,” Pekarcik says.

Other dishes include Corned Duck Breast Ramen, with confit leg, noodles, 1-hour egg, kohlrabi and pickled mustard seeds, for $14; and Smoked Brisket with kohlrabi kraut, Thousand Island sabayon, pickled red onions and corned beef tongue, for $10.

Grit & Grace is one of those narrow, modern restaurant spaces reminiscent of a modern Manhattan eatery. Upholstered banquettes cozy up booths. Wavy wooden slats sinuously curve overhead and up the wall to niches containing vases and other accents. Recycled, pressed cardboard light fixtures illuminate the bar area.

“We're trying to capture the atmosphere of a big-city, urban restaurant,” Pekarcik says, “something very lively and energetic in nature and social in atmosphere.”

He says patrons have embraced the concept. The owners originally thought younger customers would patronize Grit & Grace, “but we were pleasantly surprised at how diverse the demographic is,” Pekarcik says.

Gamble is a native of Tiffin, Ohio, south of Toledo. His return to Pittsburgh is a homecoming of sorts. He came to the city at 17 to attend the former Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts. After he finished the program, he found he “really liked Pittsburgh,” so he cooked for three years on the South Side.

His wife, Valerie Blake, is a University of Pittsburgh law school graduate. The two moved to Cleveland. Gamble then worked at the Black River Cafe in Oberlin, where he started butchering whole animals.

The couple eventually settled in Chicago, where Gamble helped open Bread & Wine there, but “we thought we had to get back to Pittsburgh with everything exciting going on,” he says. His wife obtained a job teaching law at Duquesne University.

“I'm cooking the same things I did in Chicago. I really haven't had to change that, coming back to Pittsburgh,” Gamble says. Younger diners, in particular, “are very adventurous with what we do.”

Gamble is excited that Pittsburgh has “officially arrived on the national� scene,” with the city receiving national recognition for its lively culinary activity.

“I'm excited to be back,” Gamble says.

Sandra Fischione Donovan is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

Asparagus Salad With Bulgur Wheat and Tarragon Dijon Dressing

Curtis Gamble, executive chef at Grit & Grace, enjoys juxtaposing varied ingredients, particularly if they are fresh, local and a bit unexpected. With asparagus available in the spring, and green-meat radishes available at local farmer's markets, he created an asparagus salad that uses both.

Gamble combines the fresh vegetables, bulgur wheat and pickled eggs with a tarragon Dijon dressing that makes for a fresh-tasting, zesty salad.

For the asparagus:

1 large bunch asparagus

Olive oil

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Heat an oven to 400 degrees. Remove the woody stems from the asparagus and toss them in olive oil (see photo 1). Season them with salt and pepper. Roast for 6 minutes and chill.

For the wheat:

1 12 quarts water

1 quart bulgur wheat

Bring the water to a boil and pour it over the bulgur wheat in a bowl. Wrap the bowl with plastic wrap. Let it stand for 5 minutes, then fluff it with a fork. Cool.

For the pickled eggs:

4 hard-boiled eggs

1 quart red-wine vinegar

1 cup sugar

Combine all the ingredients and chill.

For the tarragon dressing:

2 tablespoons Dijon mustard

2 ounces white balsamic vinegar

1 ounce water

6 ounces canola oil

1 tablespoon tarragon

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Combine the mustard, vinegar and water in a food processor or blender (photo 2). With the motor running, slowly drizzle in the oil, then fold in the tarragon. Season with salt and pepper.

For the salad:

1 small bunch French breakfast radishes or one green-meat radish, available at farmers markets, sliced thinly (photo 3)

Pinch salt

Pinch freshly ground black pepper

2 or 3 leaves Bibb or Boston lettuce, torn in small pieces

Toss the asparagus with enough salad dressing to coat; set the asparagus on each of four plates. Top each with a dollop of bulgur wheat. Chop each pickled egg and add one to each dish.

In a small bowl, combine the sliced radishes with a pinch of salt and a pinch of pepper. Add 1 tablespoon of the dressing to the radishes.

Divide the radish slices by four. Place each of the four servings of radishes around the bulgur wheat.

Toss the lettuce in a separate bowl with 1 tablespoon of the dressing and use it to garnish the bulgur wheat on each of the four plates (photo 4).

Makes 4 servings.

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