When food writer Hal B. Klein sat down to review the Oakland restaurant Legume in August, he hoped that chef de cuisine Csilla Thackray would provide a juicy respite from the jet lag of a half-day flight.
Klein just had returned from a 10-day family trip in Israel, his first visit to the country and one he savored as he toured Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the Golan Heights. He was greeted at Legume with a chilled, sour-cherry soup — its olive relish provided “a leathery bass note,” he later wrote — and a rice crepe with chickpea wot, among other adornments. It not only reinforced his faith in Thackray and Legume; the meal moved him.
It was not the first time food had left its fingerprints on Klein.
“I have this wonderful life where I get paid to eat in great restaurants,” said Klein, 44, of Bloomfield, who took a full-time gig as Pittsburgh Magazine’s dining critic and associate editor about five years ago. “I think the idea is to try to get a sense for what a restaurant is and go from there. I don’t want to impose my biases or anything. I’m going to meet you where you’re putting out everything, instead of demanding how you’re supposed to be.”
Since 2015, Klein has become a fixture in Pittsburgh’s ever-growing foodie scene — one of the many critics who has worked to unravel the story of the region’s cuisine, food systems and habits. He has provided readers of several publications with valuable context about food and the stories behind their meals as readily as he has interpreted menus.
And, yes, he’s quick to admit Jewish life colors his palate and influences his views of Western hospitality.
Raised in New York, Klein emigrated to Los Angeles as a young man to chase his acting dreams. After the economy bottomed out, he moved to Pittsburgh in 2010 to pursue a master’s degree in food studies, which was then a groundbreaking, new program at Chatham University. Klein started freelancing, writing about drinking for Pittsburgh City Paper and landing a piece at Pittsburgh Magazine about the former Garfield hot-spot Salt of the Earth.
“I began in an era where there’s a lot of information out there — there’s social media, there’s influencers, there’s Yelp. My job is to be more of a trusted guide,” Klein said. “I have a broader overall understanding of the context of a restaurant in Pittsburgh, more than, you know, ‘The hamburger is good.’”
Brian Hyslop took Pittsburgh Magazine’s top editorial post in 2017 after working as an editor at newspapers like the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Print.
Hyslop said Klein’s passion for Western Pennsylvania’s food and beverage scenes leaves a strong impression.
“He’s not just interested in fine dining, but in the way food connects us as a community,” Hyslop said.
A good portion of that, Klein said, has to do with cultural context. Klein grew up in what he called “a very Reform family” that self-identified mostly as “culturally Jewish.”
“Like a lot of people, my grandparents were more observant,” Klein said. “But we’re very much proud and part of the cultural heritage.”
Klein attended Hebrew school on the weekends and became a bar mitzvah at Temple Beth Sholom in New York. Alongside his brother Scott, three years his junior, Klein went to eight-week-long “traditional” sleep-away camp at Camp Kennybrook in the Catskill Mountains, 90 minutes north of Manhattan. And he fondly looks back on growing up surrounded by “comfort food and Ashkenazi flavors.”
“The Jewish kitchen is a kitchen of hospitality,” Klein said. “‘Have some honeydew, have some cantaloupe.’ It’s a thing we do. As Jewish people, we share a lot of hospitality and comfort through food. The cultural history of that is my cultural history — and it’s something I’ve really embraced.”
Those sentiments are reflected in the restaurant Klein calls one of his all-time favorites — Zahav, in Philadelphia, which serves, among other things, Israeli, Lebanese and Sephardic cuisine. Zahav is owned by Chef Michael Solomonov who grew up in Pittsburgh.
“The hospitality they run that place with is something that’s so special,” Klein said. “It reminds me of all the great cultural generosity of the Jewish kitchen. You feel it there.”
“I grew up in the ’80s, in the worst age of industrial food production,” Klein said. “[I ate] pasta with butter on it, chicken breast. I didn’t eat a lot of vegetables.”
That changed when Klein was at a Shakespeare festival in Santa Cruz, California, in 2003. All it took was a single strawberry.
“Having a strawberry grown in strawberry season, it tasted like acidic candy,” Klein recalled. “Having grown up on strawberries that didn’t taste like anything, it was like, ‘Whoa! What else is here?’ That opened the door to everything.”
Klein, who continues to open doors for his readers, is happy to applaud the work of others cataloging the intricacies of Pittsburgh food, be it specialized southeast Asian cuisine or the Lenten fish sandwich.
“If it’s a way to get people engaged,” he said, “I think that’s really exciting.” pjc
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.