Meat is a strong component of the Underground Food Collective, whose Underground Meats takes salami-making very seriously and cures its own meats. So you’d think carnivores would be particularly pleased by the collective’s Forequarter restaurant, named in part for the front quarter of an animal.
But I’d posit to say vegetarians will have the better outcome at the collective’s new restaurant that opened on East Johnson Street in June, a year after a fire destroyed the group’s highly acclaimed restaurant, Underground Kitchen, on East Mifflin Street.
Forequarter is a worthy successor to Kitchen, which the collective recently announced it will revive on Williamson Street next spring under a different name. In the meantime, it is preparing to open a butcher shop next door on Willy.
But back to those vegetable dishes — those are the ones that really spoke to me on a recent visit to Forequarter, a restaurant where you really ought to make a night of it, to sit and savor your food, discuss the meal, order an aperitif or a digestif, or both.
All of the dishes we tried were inventive and unique, leading my companion at one point to comment, “This is a restaurant with a learning curve.”
Still, most everything succeeded and what didn’t was merely a function of my own personal taste and no fault of the kitchen.
The standout was the wild roasted mushrooms ($12) with a hint of Pleasant Ridge Reserve artisanal cheese, and cooked kale. The green and purple kale complemented the meaty shiitake and oyster mushrooms and it was nicely dressed with a sherry vinaigrette. There was a bit of overkill with the croutons, euphemistically called “roasted bread” on the menu.
The pickled golden beets with roasted red beets ($9) were also jaw-droppingly good. The golden beets were dusted with ground hazelnuts, but jarringly salty. The plate was garnished with hazelnuts and sunflower shoots. Preserved grapefruit and that same excellent sherry vinaigrette hit just the right notes.
I wasn’t as excited about the veal meatballs ($17), light and pillowy but with a stronger-than-expected, off-putting flavor. I did appreciate the accompanying tomato-braised lima beans, wilted escarole and SarVecchio cheese. My companion coveted this dish, deeming it her favorite, and I was more than happy to let her finish it.
Same with the potted pork rillette ($9), which came in a glass jar. Our waitress explained that the heavily salted meat was cooked slowly, separated from its fat, shredded, and then served with the gloppy fat on top. I’m someone who routinely cuts fat off meat, and the idea of spreading this fat on crostini was unappealing. The rillette was served on a board with thick slices of Hook’s two-year-old Cheddar and some delicious buttery crostini.
For dessert, a slice of raspberry Bundt cake ($7) with whipped cream was fine if ordinary.
Everything we ordered was attractively presented. The other thing it all had in common was that it was aggressively seasoned with salt and/or pepper.
If the seasonings were a tad overstated, the small dining room is relatively understated. The seven tables are close together, making it a little too tempting to gawk at your neighbor’s food. Often it’s the same thing you’re eating, since the menu has only 11 offerings.
Menu items aren’t divided into categories. The top ones seem more like starters or first courses, salads get blended in, and I would say only the last three items could be considered entrees.
One waitress handled the whole room, which was filled before 6 on a recent weeknight. She was quite knowledgeable about the menu and remained polite even in the face of my companion’s umpteenth question or concern.
The menu may have a bit of a learning curve, but mastering it is a worthwhile goal.