6-6-16 / Pittsburgh Magazine’s Best Restaurant Party / Pittsburgh, PA

Tonight I had the opportunity (and pleasure) to attend Pittsburgh Magazine’s annual Best Restaurant Party at Heinz Field. 45 restaurants set up booths throughout the East Club and West Club on their 2nd Level. It was a beautiful event, with elegantly composed bites or small plates set up at each booth. I have to apologize in advance, however, as I was in such a whirlwind to try to hit every booth and try every item (I failed, ultimately) that I have forgotten many dishes that I sampled or where I sampled them from. I remembered to take a few pictures, however and would like to share them and my thoughts on the overall experience below. I doubly apologize, as trying to describe 30+ dishes may leave this post quite long.

I started with the squid ink risotto from Stagioni. More well-known for their homemade pastas, this dish was nonetheless excellent. Al dente and toothsome risotto covered in a pitch-black alkaline-y squid ink sauce, beautifully mixed with some kind of sharp cow’s milk cheese (probably a parmesano reggiano). I was impressed at the skill in which the risotto was cooked, especially in such large batches. We were very impressed with the pastas when we visited Stagioni a few years ago, it was just the proteins that left us wanting more. We’ll have to make the trip back.

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The second dish I grabbed (which was the first dish I took a picture of) was from the Twisted Frenchman. A highly complex grouping of beef tartare (the pink around the outside), foie gras and chestnut pate (the grey in the middle), escargot caviar (the white pearls on top), cut grass (the cut grass), and a homemade potato chip. The whole thing was a mad dash of luxury. The beef tartare was melty, citrusy, beefy, and smooth, blending wonderfully into the fatty and buttery mousses, the caviar bursting with salty ocean notes, all combining into some madman’s take on surf and turf. The potato and greens added a nice vegetal crunch and helped bring it all back down to earth. An incredible cup of food, from a restaurant I very much enjoyed when we celebrated our anniversary there in March.

Next up was Legume, with a Potato and Cheese Pierogi, cold cabbage slaw, and a goat kielbasa. The pierogi was elegant, fried crisp around the edges but still pillowy-soft in the center, under-filled more like a ravioli than a pierogi, but tasty nonetheless. The kielbasa was the stand-out. Dense like a rough-ground sausage, the smoke was incredible, and the goat flavor soared above providing that lovely earthy meatiness that comes from goats/lambs. The slaw was standard, fresh, vinegary, crunchy, and nicely cut through the heavy pierogi and powerful kielbasa.

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I took this picture while waiting in line for Legume. Pretty much the entire floor was laid out like this, with flags indicating which restaurant was featured at that table, and their star chefs handing out their dishes. I was a little star-struck meeting all of my local heroes (Justin Severino of Cure, Chris Bonfilio of Avenue B, Kristin Butterworth of Lautrec, etc) and it was an amazing experience being served their food, directly from them.

 

One of the themes of the night was “chilled soup”. Is this the new thing? Apparently, it’s a thing. Take note, folks. If the gourmet cupcake and the gourmet burger going the way of the dodo are of any sign, tonight was the night of at least 5-10 “chilled soups with stuff in them”. The best by far was from Justin Severino and Cure. It was a light gazpacho, with a generous portion of crunchy caviar, toast bits, and creme fraiche. It was excellent when enjoyed together or in individual elements. Also from the Cure table was a piece of baguette smeared liberally with lardo (whipped pork fat) and topped with radish. It was a nice, fatty bite, especially when paired with the refreshing and vibrant soup.

Morcilla was next, a spoonful of beef tartare in a cup. It was tasty, vibrant, with strong citrus notes, but was retreading ground already covered by the Twisted Frenchman.

I can’t recall what specifically Spoon or e2 had, which is disappointing, because those restaurants are great. I’m pretty sure at least one, if not both of them, had a chilled soup. One of them was definitely a chilled asparagus soup with potato and leek. The potato left the soup very grainy and unappealing, especially since most of the cold soups of the night were smooth and velvety.

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The Vandal had a green curry with tofu and “beef”. A really nice, creamy, earthy (cold) curry sauce/soup with tofu discs and topped with two chewy pieces of seitan(?) and finished with chili oil. It was a nice take on the standard hot thai dish, very inventive and different. But yet another cold soup.

Piccolo forno had a pistachio pot de creme with a citrus glaze and ground pistachio nuts along the bottom, with coarsely-ground nuts on top. It was a nice, buttery dessert while not being too sweet due to the generous nuts throughout.

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The most inventive and creative dish of the night was the offering of “chicken and waffles” from Kristin Butterworth at Lautrec. The savory waffle cone balanced the magnificent punch of the chicken liver mousse, intermixed with a strawberry jam and fresh blueberries. The meaty, creamy, chicken mousse, like the best parts of fresh fried chicken flavor, distilled, and rocketed into the sun, invaded and took over my entire palate, until that savory waffle and sweet compote came and created a harmonious living space, where in which I want to sleep forever. It was exquisite and inventive and NEW AND DIFFERENT. These are not common words used in describing a small tasting plate. I have learned to expect this caliber of food and dish composition from the master herself and I was not disappointed in the slightest.

Unfortunately, I was still in a haze after that and don’t remember what Cafe Zinho was offering.This is especially a shame because we really enjoyed our meal there a few years back. We’re definitely due for a return some night soon.

Senti offered was a parmesan crisp with dried fruit. The cracker fell limp and felt amateurish. I was severely unimpressed with both meals we tried at Senti, both when they first opened and then when we returned after the urging of reviews indicating they’d changed and come to their senses. While the second visit was far better than the first, 98th place is still not that much better than 105th.

Umi was next with a nice salmon tartare. Sushi-grade salmon, with a light citrus soy and scallions. Well-composed, tight in execution, simple and tasty.

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Soba was offered a pork banh mi and crunchy asian noodle salad. The combination of both pressed pork and pork loin with the crispy, pickled vegetables, made for a nice sandwich, but I would have much preferred a crusty hoagie roll to provide some counter-balance of textures with the soft porks. The crunchy noodle salad was super bright, peanuts intermixed with cabbage, noodles, pickled carrots, and more peanuts in a thai-inspired peanut sauce. Pretty much a perfect summer picnic food, I could’ve eaten about 3 more platefuls of the “salad”.

Casbah offered a very basic, tiny veal meatball with polenta and a tomato sauce. It was very strange and far more Italian in execution than I expected. It wasn’t bad, just lacked any stand-out qualities.

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My favorite bite of the entire night was from Eleven. They offered a brioche topped with a liver mousse, pickled white onion, and strawberry jam. The buttery brioche tasted of the finest creams and worked together with the savory mousse, the slightest hint of bitter acidity from the onion, and the sweetness of the jam to create one of my favorite bites in a long long time. Sweet and smooth, crunchy and creamy, salty and sweet, buttery and acidic, toast and jam. It was some next level shit. In addition to that, they had a lemon white chocolate and pop rocks truffle. A beautiful lemon curd, dipped in white chocolate, served on a cake of pop rocks. It literally exploded and popped and danced throughout my mouth even after I’d thought I’d finished it. The best booth of the night. I had a beautiful conversation with the (new) Executive Chef at Eleven who I now have every confidence in the world will take what they’ve built and elevate their menu beautifully. He was at Casbah for 9 years (of their 20 year stead) as sous chef and eventually head chef. I consistently had incredible meals there, even while Eleven was faltering in the early-to-late 2000’s. I look forward to going back to Eleven to see what’s he done with it in the coming months.

Dinette was next, but instead of their iconic flat bread pizza, they had their iconic breadsticks served with a chilled zucchini soup. It was less-than memorable.

Station featured their now-infamous caramel corn panna cotta, which we’ve tasted every time we’ve run into these guys. Our first introduction was during their Dinner Lab run, where they ended the meal with the panna cotta. When we dined at Station, we made sure to order the dish as dessert. It was delightful to see it offered again. It really is the best kind of dessert. Salty, sweet, slightly smoky (from the caramel and popcorn), creamy from the beautiful custard of the panna cotta, milky, soft, crunchy delicious. The best of vanilla pudding and caramel corn in one dish.

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Avenue B was another highlight with a wonderful take on the standard smoked whitefish salad. They added a crusty piece of pumpernickel rye, as well as fresh strawberries, a pea puree, and pickles. It was crazy, it was different, it was delicious. I love the combination of smokey, smooth fish with the acerbic bite of caraway seeds and pumpernickel bread. Building on that, the strawberry and pea added a nice vegetal balance, usually found in the form of a tomato or fresh bibb lettuce with a traditional deli dish. I was extremely impressed, as I consistently am with the offerings from Avenue B.

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Provision Pgh, one of the 4 restaurants currently in Smallman Galley were offering homemade popsicles, a cherry lemonade and a frozen apple pie. I went with the apple pie and it was exactly as described. Cinnamony sweet, with a nice tart and crisp finish from the apple, it was a lovely popsicle. The ice shredded instead of feeling crushed (think push ice pop vs popsicle on a stick) so it was easy to finish and enjoy without having to worry about a mess. Unfortunately, but this time, the other three restaurants currently in Smallman Galley (Carota, Aubergine, and Josephine’s Toast) had run out of food and I didn’t get to sample any. This became a running trend as the night went on.

A restaurant I hadn’t heard of, Cocothe (located in Sewickley) offered a duck confit salad. It was excellently dressed, packed tight with arugula and spring mix, dressed with a thai asian vinaigrette, and liberally mixed with a shredded, braised, confit of duck. The duck was wonderful in the salad and it all worked together to make an elevated take on standard dark-meat chicken salad. I thought it was excellent and will make a point to visit the restaurant (but not for another month or two because the head chef said they’re renovating the dining room right now and to wait). Look for the review here in the coming months.

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By the time we’d moved to the end of the first room, Smoke was out of food, leaving us with Monterey Bay and their salmon two-ways. The first dish, a seared salmon over pickled cabbage slaw and the second dish, a Copper River salmon, served sashimi style over pickled cabbage slaw were nigh-identical. The seared salmon was sad, too fishy, had sat for too long, was too big of a piece, and was overcooked. The raw salmon was great, because hey, it’s Copper River Salmon and you gotta reaaaally try to screw that up. I tried to make small-talk with the gentleman, inquiring politely, “Are you guys just at the one location?” (of course I know the Monroeville location has been closed for almost a decade and the head chef and the head pastry chef went and opened the best goddamn seafood restaurant in the whole city [Off the Hook in Warrendale]). He informed me that yes, of course, the Jonnet Plaza restaurant in Monroeville has long-since closed, but they’ve got the location on Mount Washington, and there’s a sushi bar (WHOAAAA) and the view is beautiful (yea of course) and they have a new chef, so things are going to be moving around a bit. The desperation was palpable.

From there, we began our long trek across the floor to the West Club and the other 19 restaurants. It was coming close up on 7:30 and with a closing time of 8, I knew we would be missing out on a lot. Amongst those we were unable to sample were Cioppino, Osteria 2350, Pan Asian, Buford’s Kitchen, Arpino Trattoria, Union Pig & Chicken, Silk Elephant, Bangkok Balcony, Atria’s, and Nine on Nine.

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One brand new restaurant I was extremely excited to try was Union Standard. Opening in the Fall, this more casual restaurant is by the old Executive Chef at Eleven and will be located in the old Union Trust Building on Grant Street, in a brand new development area. It was a (GASP) cold soup with stuff in it. This spicy chilled strawberry soup had big lumps of fresh Jonah crab, cucumber, mint, basil, chia seeds, and popcorn biscuit croutons throughout. The sweetness of the crab, cucumber, and popcorn biscuits hardly stood up to the powerful chili heat from the chilled soup. It was slightly off-kilter, erring on the side of overpowering heat without enough of the crunch you’d want from the croutons and cucumbers. I still look forward to seeing what Chef Derek Stevens is able to do when let off on his own.

Next up, was Andora with what I thought would be a throwaway shrimp risotto, but turned out to be one of my favorite dishes of the night. Succulent, sweet shrimp and lobster intermingled with sweet peas, and a heavenly creamy garlic sauce combined with the nicely cooked and slightly overdone risotto. It was like a delicious seafood chowder meets parmesan risotto. Really delicious, so maybe I’ll have to give one of their locations a try.

We got some salted caramel frozen yogurt from Piccadilly Artisan Yogurt next. It was excellent, sweet with none of that expected sour tang from frozen yogurt, tasting like vanilla gelato with caramel, but lacking in salt.

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Andrew’s (located in the River’s Casino) offered a olive bruschetta with cheese. It was fine, simple, tasty, and what I would expect a third-rate steak house to offer at a Best of Pittsburgh tasting event. In case that sarcasm was too heavily veiled, their steaks and seafood are (were at least when I was there 6-7 years ago) rough at best. This just further shows me they played their best hand and more power to them.

One Thirty One East, a new restaurant located at 131 East Main Street in Carnegie, offered a chunky gazpacho with queso fresco. It was delicious if you like salsa and cheese in a cup with a spoon. I do, I did. It was weird.

Washington County’s own Meadow’s Racetrack and Casino was also there in fine form, offering a braised short rib, cubed potatoes with bacon and cream, mashed cauliflower and apricot, and slow-roasted onions. It was delicious, with the best (and only) piece of cooked beef I was able to sample. The rib meat was tender, with the melty fat in the multiple layers of connective tissue working together to keep the meat moist and flavorful. The potatoes were the stand-out, cubes of wonderfully cooked boiled potato in a creamy, bacony, savory sauce. They were like the best part of country potatoes and the potatoes from a good clam chowder mixed together. The apricot and cauliflower mash was equally interesting, complementing the fatty beef quite nicely. It reminded me of a traditional Eastern European dish Tzimmes, which is apricots and other dried fruits slow cooked and roasted until they all melt into each other, traditionally mixed or served with a beef brisket. The tart and sweet apricots blended with the cauliflower both stood in for and elevated what could have been a boring mashed potato underneath the rib. Kudos to the Meadow’s.

Milkshake Factory offered a cute little glass of a caramel milkshake with your choice of a milk or dark chocolate caramel placed in it. That place is delightful and they employ such happy, bubbly people. It’s a lovely example of what a sweets shop can be.

Finally, there at the end were the sun-bleached bones of what must have been a gorgeous Taj Mahal spread. Golden cauldrons that I imagine were once overfilled with steaming piles of delicious food now stood picked over and pushed to the side until all that was left was some rice and the sauce of Chicken Makhani, which please do not misunderstand, was incredible. Taj Mahal is easily one of the best Indian restaurants in the entire city and it was a testament to them to be included amongst the Pittsburgh elite.

In Conclusion

It’s hard to visit an event like the one I did tonight without some regrets. I wish I would have had an attack plan, I wish I would have taken pictures at each booth, each sign detailing what the dish was, each plate of food, then ran hurriedly along to the next booth and the next one and the next one, until I’d amassed a tray of food 45 restaurants deep, full of flavor and whimsy, serious approach, and elevated magic. Then, and only then, could I truly sit back and enjoy the best of what Pittsburgh has to offer.

I doubt I will ever return, as it became more of a race against time than the opportunity to sample the finest in Pittsburgh dining, and the cost of a ticket was about how much I would pay for a meal at one of the finer-ends of the dining spectrum. However, the chance to meet and converse with some the area’s best Chefs and eat food served by them, from them, was an outstanding opportunity that I won’t soon forget.

 

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