ÖOn the last day of February 2020, Trevett and Sarah Hooper Legume are closed. The Hoopers were in the process of merging their beloved Oakland restaurant and adjoining bar, The Butterjoint, into a leaner operation called Butterjoint All Day. Trevett Hooper, Csilla Thackray, head chef at Legume, and Jessica George, head chef at Good Faith Restaurant Group, worked on a new menu that combines the best of both establishments. They even held a couple of meal services in early March to see how things would end up.
And then the coronavirus pandemic struck and everything came to a standstill.
For more than a year, a skeleton crew offered ready meals and frozen meals, weekly meals, desserts, and pantry staples such as locally grown grains and homemade yogurt. As the pandemic continued, many key employees, including Thackray and George, moved to positions in other facilities. During this time, the Hoopers also turned their neighboring restaurant, Pie For Breakfast, into a daily pastry and bakery called Butterjoint Bakery.
When the restaurant finally opened for limited on-site service in May 2021, it had greatly reduced hours and a menu that consisted mostly of Butterjoint’s biggest hits like its always-great pierogi plates and hearty salads. The most significant change was the swap of a Smashburger for Butterjoints long-standing tavern-style burger.
I will miss the tavern burger. It was consistently one of my favorites in Pittsburgh, and when the place hired a full-time butcher for a whole animal meat program, it was the most sublime burger ever. Don’t sweat, hamburger fans – I’m sweet on the new burger too. It has a beefy meatiness that isn’t always found in a smashburger, which is often dominated by Maillard reaction umami. The burger’s equipment turns; When I had it a few weeks ago, the combination of Gruyere, butterjoint sauce, lettuce and sour dill pickles hit a well-rounded palette.
Finally arrived earlier this month with a revitalized Butterjoint (the “All Day” part of the name is gone) with extended hours – including a Monday night, rare dinner for Pittsburgh – and an evolving menu that is more in line with the vision so many months ago first established. The front dining room is also being modernized. The imaginative, inviting work of designer Thommy Conroy combines a lighter color palette and works of art, including an original mural in a once dreary area of the restaurant. A Gen-X-heavy soundtrack with artists like The Ramones, INXS and The Pixies also supports the more relaxed atmosphere.
What is still in the works is the merging of the culinary elements of the former Legume’s Gravitas with the more relaxed Butterjoint to create something cohesive.
“We have these two rivers: the Butterjoint River meets the old Legume River. But they are completely different rivers. And we had to figure out how to make that one, ”says Hooper.
One way to do this is with a new head chef, George Austin. For the next several weeks, Austin, a chef with over 20 years experience in kitchens around Pittsburgh, is working with Hooper to introduce new dishes to help bridge these rivers.
A dish like Sarah’s Vegetarian Delight indicates where the menu might end up. When I ordered it on a recent visit, I loved the little picnic with flavors and textures in the piles of ajvar, fried cucumber, marinated lima beans, aubergine sotto aecto, and herb cheese. Each component worked on its own (in fact, they’re listed individually on this week’s menu), and I loved how you could mix and match them into more complex bites too. For example, the gentle herbalism of the farmer’s cheese and the spicy ajvar made for a spicy combination on the crispy crackers with which it was served. It’s a nice common product to start a meal with – as is another potentially popular dish, a large pot of plump and tender clams in white wine, tomato and fennel broth, served with a piece of focaccia – but also works as a stand-alone light one Enjoy the meal.
Sauerkraut balls have been on and off the butterjoint menu for years, but should now be a keeper. The golf ball-sized bites, served with honey-mustard sauce, mixes creamy, spicy, crispy and just a little funky. My first thought as I ate one was to wonder why this German Mennonite snack wasn’t on more bar menus around town. But when my pals and I were talking about the dish, we got the idea that what’s special about Butterjoint is that the bar snack, while seemingly simple, gets better with the kitchen’s fermentation program (the sauerkraut is like it has always been homemade) and how it is prepared with attention to detail at every step.
Hooper and Austin are still trying to figure out what the large-format dishes look like and how they fit into a menu that ranges from fish and chips to fried swordfish with lemon caper butter and pureed white beans.
“Are we going to an upscale restaurant or a bar? Right now it’s a mix of both. We want to take a little time to see what will happen, but we have to find a middle ground, ”says Hooper.
A newly introduced roast chicken dish – a remarkably tender and herbaceous half chicken with a crispy skin that pops with taste – served with tender, crunchy broccoli and corn semolina felt like the right balance for a not too fussy but nonetheless prepared at -carefully bistro- Eat as well as classics like the pierogi plate, which is now served with homemade sausage.
As Butterjoint transforms into its newest form, you can feel the nearly 15 year old shared ethos, knowledge, and energy that cement an unbroken line as one of Pittsburgh’s premier restaurants. The version that emerges now is a reflection of the era. It’s more restrained in ambition than previous iterations, but an equally rewarding goal.
214 N. Craig St., Oakland; 412 / 621-2700, butterjoint.com