9-27-17 / Huszar / Pittsburgh, PA (North Side)

Hagymás Rostélyos

I apologize for not posting since March, but things have been quite hectic and I just honestly haven’t made the time to write up my meals. I’ve been posting pictures and quick reviews over on my Instagram, but it’s been too long since I’ve done a full write-up.

On Wednesday, we met some friends for dinner over on the North Side for some authentic Hungarian at Huszar. We were greeted by the owner Judy, who was an outstanding and patient guide to their menu and the cuisine that her husband cooks up in the kitchen. Judy opened up the restaurant after her Hungarian father (who owned the bar that was there previously) passed away and named it after the branch of the Hungarian military that her father had served in. Judy was wonderfully passionate and heartfelt about all of the elements of the restaurant and

The meal was extremely special, hearing the insight on each of the dishes and how they ended up on this very straightforward and authentic menu. This is real Hungarian cuisine, which the city is severely lacking. Do yourself a favor and make the voyage to the very corner of the North Side and get some stick-to-your-ribs comfort food.

Taste of Husvar
Taste of Husvar Cheese and Meat Sampler

As a sign it’s been far too long since I did a proper update, I only got a picture of one of the three appetizers that the table shared. The Taste of Husvar is their take on the universal meat and cheese board that’s found its way into every higher-end Pittsburgh restaurant. The meats were a selection of a soft dry-cured salami, hard scout sausage, and smokey kielbasa. Directly next to the meats, easily confused with ketchup was their homemade “special sauce”, a wonderfully salty red pepper paste that complimented the rich and fatty meats and cheeses beautifully. The cheeses were two types of standard imported and fresh sliced, nothing to write home about and clearly not the star of the dish. The hardboiled egg was perfectly cooked with that luminescent yolk and a beautiful smooth richness throughout. The challah was a unique addition, as were the grapes and grape tomatoes, and dill-seasoned fresh vegetables, but the plate worked overall as a nice shareable and knosh-able plate.

The two unpictured appetizers fared FAR better. The Fried Cheese (Rántott Sajt) was lightly coated and perfectly fried to a rich and deep golden brown, allowing the wonderful cheese within to ooze out. Served with a sweet Hungarian style tartar dressing and white rice (trust me it works), the whole dish was delicious. Salty and aged notes from the cheese, fatty oil and crunch from the fried coating, and sweet and sour from the tartar with the earthiness and root of the white rice. A really well-composed and tasty appetizer.

The must-order and stand-out of the appetizer selections are the potato pancakes (Tocsi). A plate-sized disc of finely-shredded potato, crisped to an outstanding golden brown, seasoned perfectly with salt, pepper, and garlic, topped with meted shredded cheese and sour cream. Crunchy layers gave way to smooth and earth insides which practically melted together with the cheese and sour cream. A light hand with the salt went a long way to keep us going back more and more. We had to order two, they were that good.

With the protein-heavy and deeply rich entrees that we ordered, we had to do a few sides of their house salads. The red cabbage salad (Káposztasaláta) was outstandingly fresh and crunchy, with wonderful herbs and seasonings like toasted caraway seed throughout. The sour vinegar punch worked ideally in between bites of my steak to break through the heaviness of the garlicky meat and mountain of fried onions (more on that later). The cucumber salad with sour cream (Uborkasaláta) was equally delicious with the sour cream becoming more of a dressing/sauce over the pickled and thinly sliced cucumbers. The nice light crisp of the cucumbers in the velvety sour cream sauce were wonderfully salty and sweet and also provided that much-needed respite from the main courses.

Talking with Judy the owner as we sat there, she walked us through each of the entree options and answered our multitude of questions with a wonderful zeal and evident passion. I would have been happy ordering any of the entrees, but ultimately I decided on her favorite dish, the steak smothered in fried onions (Hagymás Rostélyos) She says that she tries to order it everywhere she goes when she’s in Hungary and I can see why. Pounded out thin and marinated in garlic, herbs, and heavily spiced with pepper, the steak was a flavor explosion. The generous cut was cooked to a wonderful medium, the meat was tender and juicy, and it was well-butchered without a hint of gristle or fat. The co-star was the 50 pounds of impossibly thinly sliced and flash-fried onion rings covering the steak and most of the plate. Again, perfect restraint was shown in over-seasoning or salting the onions as the steak provided enough of a flavor bomb for both of them. The onion rings weren’t greasy but the crunchy fry served perfectly to elevate the already explosive steak while balancing out the flavors. The wedge fried potatoes (which were also the side with the pork loin) were excellent. Crunchy and crispy on the outside, with soft pillowy mashed potato insides. You could tell great care had been taken with the fried potatoes and they weren’t some throwaway side that came with the plate. The fresh vegetables that appeared again and again were a nice break from the heavy steak and potatoes, but I could have done without the strong red onion; the cucumbers and red pepper did the job just as well on their own.

The pork loin with bacon strip (Cigány Pecseny) that my wife ordered was also very tasty. Pounded out thin and lightly pan fried, topped with a gorgeous thick cut slab of bacon, it had wonderful flavor throughout and was also served with those amazing fried potato wedges. I had to take a picture of the Chicken Paprikas because it was too pretty not to. The cornerstone of the Hungarian “meat and dumplings” dishes, it was a generous portion of chicken and house-made dumplings (nokedli) covered in their delicious paprika cream sauce. I will definitely be back to get an order in these upcoming months as the weather turns colder.

We couldn’t leave such a sweet host without having a sampling of their authentic desserts. The chocolate torte was lovely but standard, with a nice dry crumb and rich buttercream icing and having that good European balance of not being too sweet and using mostly dark (and not milk) chocolate. The palcsinta (of which you can choose apricot, strawberry, nutella, cottage cheese, or apricot and ground walnut paste) was a wonderful crepe extremely similar to a blintz. The crepe itself was eggy and soft, with that wonderful sweet light sponge texture, it enveloped the filling in a harmonious balance. We opted for both the nutella and house-special Gundel (apricot jam, ground walnuts, and rum) and both were delicious. The nutella was by far the richer and more decadent of the two, with the traditional jam and nut paste reminding me of a Kifli, or traditional Hungarian walnut cookie. The standout for me was the Kremes, the Hungarian version of a Napoleon with crispy and flaky puff pastry under a layer of powdered sugar, barely containing a tall layer of fresh whipped cream and vanilla custard. The fresh pastry flaked apart wonderfully, painfully fresh and light as air daring to float away with clouds of whipped cream, were it not kept down by the smooth and velvety custard.

 

There is hardly a better feeling than walking into a restaurant and instantly feeling like a regular, like you’re welcomed, and like you belong. From the very first smile from Judy and the earnest and attentive service from Mike (our waiter), to settling up the bill and walking back to our cars, it was a wonderful and personal experience. So often you can feel like just another table, serviced as quick as possible to turn into another faceless and nameless party, throwing your money into an abyss towards who knows what. Having that personal touch and feeling not only welcomed, but invited and guided through the meal is something that you just cannot get at a larger, more commercial restaurant. Please go see Judy at Huszar, get some potato pancakes to start, a big ole honkin plate of meat and carbs for your entree, and some Kremes for dessert. I guarantee it won’t be your last trip.

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3-15-17 / Cenacolo / Irwin, PA

Lobster Agnolotti, spinach, tomatoes, in a cheddar truffle cream sauce

Located only a 20 minute drive away from Pittsburgh, Cenacolo is an authentic, high-quality Italian restaurant focusing primarily on fresh, homemade pastas. I recently met some friends for an incredible meal and while we ordered quite a bit, the leftovers made for a wonderful reminder of the lovely meal we shared. An outstanding find just a small jaunt away from the city, Cenacolo is the restaurant-front for Fede Artisan Pasta. A beautifully curated menu with something for everyone, Cenacolo is a can’t miss pasta experience rivaling the best of what the city has to offer. Huge portions, affordable prices, and outstanding service, Cenacolo is absolutely worth the drive out of town to the usually-barren surrounding suburbs.

Truffle Popcorn
Truffle Popcorn (Complimenti) from Cenacolo

We decided to share quite a few appetizers while we drank and talked, so it was only natural to start with the Truffle Popcorn. Expecting a small cup or two, this was an overflowing bowl of freshly popped popcorn, covered liberally with drizzled melted butter and truffle salt. The crunchy popcorn was softened only slightly by the butter and exploded with the earthy, unctuous truffle flavor. This was not a simple, mindless movie snack, this was prepared to stand up and demand to be recognized. This was a good sign for the bold flavors and smart seasoning that was intended to last the entire meal.

Two of the shared appetizers that we ordered were the Carciofini Fritti (left) and Stracciatella (right). The fried artichokes were sprinkled with freshly shaved parmigiano-reggiano and served with a chiffonade of basil and half of a grilled lemon. Lightly battered, far from greasy, perfectly golden-brown and crunchy, the artichokes were all of the best parts of a fritti.The pairing of the cooked and prepared lemon was an excellent move, elevating the simple addition of citrus with deeper flavors from the char.

The Stracciatella was more like a dessert than I’d expected, with the sweet prosciutto, the golden buttery toasted bread, and the smooth, creamy cheese topped with honey and sliced almonds. Combining all of the elements created a truly decadent bite. The stracciatella itself was like the more rustic cousin of a burrata but with more body and more forward creamy, dairy notes. The prosciutto only enhanced that deep milk flavor with its buttery, creamy fat and salty pork. An excellently composed and unique dish.

Selection of 4 cheeses (Scamorza, Truffle Cheddar, Parmigiano-Reggiano and Cabot Clothbound Cheddar) and 2 meats (Speck and Hot Sopressata)
Affettato y Formaggi

I’d be hard-pressed to overlook a good cheese board opportunity and our visit to Cenacolo was no different. We opted for the Seven Selection Assortment (of their daily choices of 10 meats and cheeses), choosing the Scamorza, Gouda, Truffle Cheddar, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, Hot Sopressata, and Speck (guanciale). Unfortunately, we were informed that they were out of the Gouda, so we opted for a double-order of the Truffle Cheddar. All of the cheese options were excellent, beautiful crumbly salty parmigiano, creamy aged cheddar, and earthy and smooth truffle cheddar. The scamorza I was less familiar with, but nonetheless impressed by its mild, nutty texture almost like that of a young, dried mozzarella. The hot sopressata was excellent and peppery and the speck provided a gorgeous strong flavor of cured pork that can only come from a long time investment. Again, those buttery-rich slices of toasted bread were perfectly crispy and crunchy around the outside and golden delicious inside, the perfect vehicle for any topping or alone.

House arugula salad with shaved aged provolone, grape tomatoes, and a sweet balsamic glaze dressing
House Arugula Salad

All entrees came with a house arugula salad, liberally dressed with slices of provolone, halved grape tomatoes, and a house-made sweet balsamic reduction. The peppery blast of the arugula was balanced beautifully by the sharp salt bite of the cheese, the tart acidity of the tomatoes, and the sweet sour balsamic vinegar. A really nice and light step up into the main course.

Lobster Agnolotti, spinach, tomatoes, in a cheddar truffle cream sauce
Lobster Agnolotti

I chose the Lobster Agnolotti, lovely half-moons of squid-ink pasta shells stuffed with a chopped and blended spinach lobster mixture served with grape tomatoes roasted until they’d burst, and an outrageously rich cheddar truffle cream sauce. Cenacolo is, at its heart, a pasta restaurant and they take it and run with it to the moon. Perfectly portioned shells, cooked to a perfect al dente, gorgeously enveloped in a rich cream sauce. Many times the inclusion of roasted tomatoes and spinach can lead a dish to contain a watery run-off, especially if the pasta isn’t drained and dried properly, causing a battle between the sauce and water. This is so far from the case at Cenacolo, with the truffle cream sauce holding it all together. From the sweet and savory lobster stuffing, to the acid sweetness of the baby tomatoes, to the earthy cheesy goodness that was the cheddar truffle cream sauce, everything was perfectly balanced and seasoned, allowing the entire dish to come together in cohesive glory.

Fudge Brownie, salted caramel sabayon custard, whipped cream, shaved chocolate
Salted Caramel Brownie Sabayon

We finished the meal with a shared dessert, coffees as well as a salted caramel fudge brownie custard. A beautiful vanilla sabayon, thick and creamy, studded with pieces of fudge brownie, layers of homemade whipped cream, salted caramel sauce, and shaved chocolate. Rich and decadent, but actually balanced nicely with the custard, it was a wonderful ending to an extravagant feast.

Complimentary hazelnut cookies and a shot of house-made limoncello came out for the final bite of the evening, but unfortunately I didn’t get a shot of it before they were disseminated and devoured. It was an excellent meal from beginning to end and even quite affordable for the sheer amount of food that was shared amongst the group. I’m hard-pressed to think of a restaurant anywhere that does pasta as well as Cenacolo does, let alone just in Pittsburgh, but in most of my travels. Even better, they sell their fresh pasta and gnocchi by the pound so you can take it and enjoy it fresh, made in the comfort of your own home. If you’re in the mood for pasta and not afraid of driving an extra 25 minutes out of your way, I can’t recommend Cenacolo highly enough; just make sure to bring along a big group of friends to help you eat it all.

Quick Bite 11-21-16 / Wiggy’s / Pittsburgh, PA

The Monday before Thanksgiving found my father, my wife and I on the hunt for some BBQ. It’s astonishing how many restaurants are closed on Mondays. We found this out as we struck out at location after location (initially intending to head to Yinzburgh BBQ). Finally, I found in my notes a place that a few life-long local friends had suggested, so we loaded up the caravan and trekked it out to the West End (between Crafton and Greentree) to Wiggy’s . This place was small Pittsburgh through and through: walk up counter ordering, menu board with black block letters on a big white wall, too many televisions for how big it was, a couple of those “games of chance” machines, and some really delicious chicken wings.

I had heard nothing but good things about their chicken wings. Being the aficionado myself, I had to check them out. They have orders in multiples of 8, starting at $5.95. Huge, fresh (never frozen) chicken wings, doused liberally in the sauce of your choice. I requested them extra, extra crispy and they delivered. The buffalo garlic parm were easily my favorite, the pungent acidic bite of the vinegary hot sauce and parmesan cheese, with the roasted garlic finish. The cajun were standard and had a nice extra kick to them from the addition of a dark red bbq sauce. The roasted garlic pepper wings were good, but I didn’t realize until after they were delivered that they were just the standard garlic parm without the parm. Their signature hot of hot sauces, the Supersonic, was a nice robust heat, not purely from Frank’s or another vinegar based hot sauce, but also with additional chiles and spices. A good, front-end heat, with a slow burn on the back end, but nothing anywhere close to how spicy some places make their wings.

My father went with the ribs, with sauce on the side (which was abnormal for this place). I’d recommend getting them with the sauce on, so you can get some caramelization and char on the bark from the sugars in the sauces. The sweet bbq sauce was great, definitely homemade, and full of sweet molasses and brown sugar without too much of a peppery finish. My wife went with the chicken parm sandwich and that could definitely be skipped for something else instead. Go on a Wednesday to take advantage of their 50 cent wing night and (attempt) to try the majority of their sauces. You can’t go wrong with a well-cooked chicken wing and Wiggy’s does them as good as most anyone around.

 

Quick Bite 11-13-16 / The Abbey on Butler / Pittsburgh, PA

Later that week, I went with my family to The Abbey on Butler, a converted funeral parlor that is now a coffee bar, a bar, and a restaurant all in one. While it’s a beautiful space and the service is excellent, I still feel like they have a couple of kinks to work out with the kitchen and pricing.

I ordered one of the specials of the night, a seared Ahi tuna, with a side of broccoli. My father ordered the Abbey Normal Mac and Cheese with the addition of a protein (their beer battered fried chicken).

The tuna was delicious, really nicely seared, with some good Asian flavors in the broccoli and throughout. The major problem was the portion size. There couldn’t have been more than 6 oz of tuna, and maybe 10 broccoli spears. They also didn’t do themselves any favors by plating on a huge platter, making it look even more empty. The portion of mac and cheese (or in this case, cavatappi and cheese) was very generous. Big chunks of bacon and tomato were found throughout the velvety-smooth and rich pasta and cheese dish. It was finished in a cast-iron skillet, providing a lovely crunch from the browned top layer. All-in-all a great dish for  any restaurant or bar or restaurant bar. Unfortunately, the tuna came out to be around $22 and the mac and cheese (with the chicken) also was around $20. I have no problem spending that kind of money at most restaurants, it’s just very difficult to equate the two dishes in terms of ingredients, portion, time spent in preparation, and delivery to the table. It was disheartening to see such a small portion size in their special of the evening and I hope in the future that the size/cost would increase to be equitable with the rest of their menu offerings.

All the above being said, I definitely recommend the Abbey for a drink, a visit to their coffee bar, or even a meal. It’s a very unique space converted into a unique concept and I hope to see them succeed and thrive along with all of the other new restaurants in Lawrenceville.

Quick Bite 11-9-16 / Bea’s Taco Town / Pittsburgh, PA

Over the next three days, I’m going to post a few “quick bites” of meals where I only enjoyed one dish or where I dined alone in 2016. I wanted to highlight these three restaurants for their unique place in Pittsburgh’s ever-growing culinary scene. Bea’s Taco Town offers authentic Mexican in the heart of Downtown, filling a much needed hole in the fast-casual-heavy Downtown area.

tres tacos
Bea’s Taco Town (L to R) – Tinga de Pollo, Pollo, and Chorizo, all served with fresh diced white onion, cilantro, and lime.

When I worked Downtown five years ago, I would love going to Madonna’s on 4th Avenue for their Spicy Chicken Tinga Burrito. Unfortunately, it’s now a City Oven pizza, Madonna’s has moved next to Zorba’s, and has become a (pretty good) Mediterranean Restaurant. So where is one to go Downtown if they’re hankering for some authentic taqueria tacos and don’t want to spend Bakersfield prices? Luckily, there’s Bea’s Taco Town. Bea’s is located on Smithfield Street across from the SW Randall and two doors down from where Golden Palace Buffet used to be (the one that’s turning into a Burger King).

I went with the Tinga de Pollo, Carnitas, and Chorizo tacos. The tinga had that delicious vinegar bite of the hot sauce with the smoke of the chipotle peppers. It was the perfect balance between saucey and dry, allowing the tortillas to hold up the entire time. The carnitas was moist and flavorful, but very simple and basic, strong flavors of fresh pork, citrus, and cumin. The chorizo was an absolutely knockout, smooth but crumbled texture of the well-browned and spicy sausage. Perfect amounts of ancho and chipotle peppers. The hot sauces on the side were also nice, as well as a sampling of the chips and salsa.

While all of my taco choices were delicious, I would only revisit the Chorizo again. Not because they weren’t all tasty, but because they really have a beautiful assortment of offerings for such a tiny place. The walk-up counter style restaurant couldn’t have held more than 50 people, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t have at least 20 different kinds of tacos that I could have ordered that day. Not just your standard ground beef, chicken, and pork, but also lamb, barbacoa, fish, and tongue. I look forward to my return trip.

(TBT) 9-3-16 / Roost / Pittsburgh, PA

For the next few weeks or so, I’m going to be publishing meals that unfortunately I didn’t get to from the months of September to December. I’ll also be updating with new meals that I’m enjoying currently, please just check the dates on the articles and you’ll see when they were enjoyed.

 

Back during the first week in September, a great friend of ours took my wife and I out to celebrate my birthday. We chose Roost (the upstairs restaurant of Revel + Roost). It’s absolutely the more formal, more professional older brother to the “bar/restaurant” concept of Revel. Coincidentally, my wife and I ended up visiting Revel a couple weeks after this visit (on 9/13) and the results were less than inspiring. Rather than write that up, I’ve decided to focus on the more positive of the two experiences. Roost provides a quality, formal dining experience unique to the Downtown and Market Square area.

Roost - Bread Course
Bread Course (french loaf and cheese gougere)

The starting bread course was very unique, with a crusty loaf of french bread as well as some beautiful savory cheese puffs (aka gougere). The sweet tomato marmalade was less of a success than the herbed whipped butter, but the gougere were an absolute knockout. I could have eaten 15 more of those. Thankfully, we’d ordered quite the spread and were in for quite an adventure.

sharp cheddar, aged gouda, blue cheese, fontina
Artisan Cheese Board – seasonal accompaniments, crostini

A magnificent accomplishment, the cheese board at Roost was a very generous portion of some classic combinations with a few very unique twists. The most accessible (top left) was easily the fontina with fresh berries. Sweet and more sweet, with just the right semi-soft cheese for the job.

My favorite on the board (bottom left), was the Firefly goat’s milk bleu  with candied walnuts. The soft, melty, creamy bleu enveloped the cloyingly sweet walnuts, combining together to mellow each other out. Nutty flavors from both the cheese and the literal walnuts, with a so-funky-it’s-good taste-bud-destroyer with the sweetness of the coating of the walnuts. For the sweet/aged combination (bottom right), they paired the 2 year old cheddar with some fantastic raw clover honey. The creaminess of the cheddar absorbed the strong sweetness of the honey and they both enhanced each other’s wonderful “grassy” flavor. Instead of a mustard for dipping (top right), the aged gouda was paired with an apricot/cherry mostarda. Like a sour, vinegary preserves, it was the right amount of sweetness paired with the perfect sour kick of the apricots and cherries.

For shared appetizers, we went with the Scallops and the Beef Tartare. The scallops were a stand-out, lightly seared and feathery soft, served over butterscotch pork belly. The toasted chestnuts worked beautifully with the pork and the sweet scallops to reign in the powerful fennel salad and celeriac puree beneath. A very nicely composed dish both through the balance of flavors and textures. Less successful was the Beef Tartare, served with raw tomato slices, a “deviled” egg and a parmesan cracker tuile. The beef could have benefitted from the quail egg being served raw over it, with the tomatoes removed and replaced with some acidity from a sauce or additional herb. Overall, it just fell flat, especially when put up against the delicious scallops.

My wife, ever the consistent omnivore, went with the chicken breast. In lieu of the suggested sides of sage bread pudding, glazed haricot vert, radish, and butternut squash batonnet, my wife opted for a side of mashed potatoes, corn, and roasted asparagus. With little rope, you can do little damage, and this dish was as expected. Unfortunately, this cannot be judged against the standard offering, so please don’t consider the chicken an afterthought. The Shrimp and Grits, on the other side of the exact same hand, were the picture of what you do with a standard recipe. The shrimp were colossal and fresh, perfectly grilled and bursting with flavor. The aged cheddar grits, wonderfully creamy and smooth, were studded with beautiful chunks of crispy pork belly. The classic addition of a sprinkling of diced green onions added a lovely vegetal bite to cut through the richness of the shrimp and grits.

duo of pork
Duo of Pork – double cut kurobuta pork chop, house-made cotechino, sauerkraut, roasted carrots, stone-ground mustard, quail egg, radish, balsamic-fig compote

Upon recommendation of the waitress, I went with the duo of pork for my entree and I am so glad that I did. The magnificent double-cut pork chop was the star of the dish, cooked to a beautiful medium rare, with a crispy sear of fat around the outside. The cotechino was a fascinating pork sausage, rolled like a porchetta, but fried like you’d cook salami/pepperoni. Strong flavors of fennel throughout the sausage, the topping of a balsamic-fig compote was a beautiful sweetness that worked with the (real) baby carrots. Served atop braised and pickled cabbage, with a nice mix of fall vegetables (whole baby carrots and radishes), all of the lighter sides provided a nice break from the heavy pork and the cotechino. The return of the deviled quail egg (from the tartare earlier) and the mustards were unnecessary, but still appreciated overall.

Desserts were overall disappointing and forgettable. The blueberry cobbler was far too heavy on the dough, the filling was overcooked and dry, and it all was severely lacking in sweetness or a forward fruit flavor. The ice cream served on the side was delicious, but far too heavy of a hand was used in the crumble on the side, which started to take over the ice cream texture and create faux-ice crystals in its sandy texture. The other dessert we ordered, a fudge brownie, was hot and chocolatey, but the fruit elements were far too pronounced and inescapable in the bowl with the chantilly and whipped creams. The complimentary chocolate chip cookies were a sweet note to end the night on. Firm, with crisp edges and a still warm center, they were a lovely ending to a delicious meal.

Exemplary service was had throughout, elevating the meal to even greater heights. It can be especially difficult downtown, with diners usually more focused on appearance than quality of food, to cultivate a restaurant such as Roost. My greatest solace is that those far less concerned with enjoying a formal meal have only to look downstairs at Revel, saving the upstairs at Roost for those who truly want to have a delicious dining experience. I look forward to returning and seeing how they evolve seasonally and with the area. When we initially visited, they were the only major restaurant on the block, but now with Pirata (Caribbean), Pizzuvio (pizza), Delicious Raw (juice smoothies), and Hello Bistro (fast casual salad bar) all crowding the area, it’s hopefully going to grow to be another part of the ever-expanding downtown cultural district.

Best Plates of 2016 / Pittsburgh, PA

Over the past year, I’ve had the honor and the pleasure to discover some truly unique and incredible restaurants. We’re so lucky to be in a city nearly bursting at the seams with quality options for any kind of meal you’d wish to have. I cannot in good confidence present the following list as some kind of end-all-be-all list of the “best” of Pittsburgh, as 15 is just far too small of a number to do the culinary scene any justice. These are simply my most memorable plates/bowls/bites of the year and I am very excited to share them with you.

The restaurant names will link to their menus and the date will be linked to my original review (when available). As always, I welcome conversation and feedback on my choices.

15. Yinzburgh BBQ / Pulled Pork, Ribs, Quarter Chicken / October 14

2016-10-14-20-17-33 Pittsburgh is severely lacking in its BBQ options (especially since Union Pig and Chicken decided to go the way it did), but the strongest contender in my book right now for pure, good, smoked meats is Yinzburgh BBQ. Not only are all of their meats perfectly cooked and juicy, their sauces are top notch. So many BBQ joints are happy to throw out Hot/Sweet BBQ, some kind of gross yellow mustard base, and maybe a tasteless vinegar for your pulled pork/chicken. Yinzburgh has created the best bbq condiments in the city, with their Signature Red (a tomato based bbq sauce with a wonderful kick of peppers and spices), Afterburner (far more peppery, with a chili twist on the front end, vinegary, but still smooth unlike a hot buffalo sauce), and their outstanding Hot Honey (the front end of a creamy bbq sauce with both a tangy mustard and sweet honey twist at the back end). What Yinzburgh has done is craft the marriage of meat and sauce, both wonderful on their own, but even better together.

14. tako / Queso Fundido / August 31

 

Queso at tako
Queso Fundido – chihuahua cheese / house-made chorizo / shishito peppers / warm flour tortillas

tako is the image of the perfect downtown restaurant: cool, hip, great cocktail program, delicious small plates, appetizers great for sharing, and impossible to get a table at. While it seems like a strange statement, many great Mexican restaurants do not have great queso. tako breaks that trend with their wonderfully thick and indulgent queso dip, loaded heavily with chorizo and smokey shishito peppers, topped liberally with cilantro and green onions, it’s best enjoyed on their flour tortillas, made fresh in-house. I’ve eaten there many times and still have yet to sit at an actual table: the kitchen-side seating outside is a wonderful experience on a beautiful day, while sitting at the bar allows you the opportunity to converse with their amiable bar staff.

13. Istanbul Sofra / Whole Dorado / July 29

whole dorado
Whole Dorado at Istanbul Sofra

While it’s difficult to recommend to everyone (especially to those with an aversion to eating something with the head still attached), I can confidently say that if you like fish, you will love the dorado from Istanbul Sofra. Dense, flavorful white fish held within a wonderfully crisp skin (like the best parts of flounder and grilled salmon), I absolutely love the preparation and care. The freshness of the ingredients and the skill of the chef in the kitchen shines through this exemplary seafood offering and provide what it can look like in Pittsburgh.

12. Millie’s Homemade Ice Cream / Brioche Ice Cream Sandwich / March 11

Interior of Millie's Homemade Ice Cream Shop
Millie’s Homemade Ice Cream Shop when they opened in March on Ellsworth in Shadyside

Millie’s takes all of the best parts of good, simple ice cream and elevates them to new culinary heights. Their Vietnamese Coffee and Salted Caramel flavors are pure, beautiful, and rich. They don’t cut any corners with their ingredients, or their process, and it shines through their small-batch offerings. Going even further beyond their ice cream, is the delivery method in which to enjoy it. Unique to Millie’s and certainly the only once I’ve had, they take a perfect sphere of your choice of ice cream (or sorbet) place it in the middle of two slices of buttery brioche bread, and place it into a kind of panini press (with a sphere in the middle to not completely compress the ice cream). What results is a hot, crispy, french toasty outside, with a cold, only melty on the outside ball of incredible ice cream. It’s a can’t-miss sweet treat. I am extremely excited for their new location within Market Square and look forward to grabbing a pint or two during my lunch break to bring home.

11. Butcher and the Rye / Pig Wing / July 22

 

Crispy Pig Wing at Butcher and the Rye
CRISPY PIG WING – thai chili sauce / pickled mango salad / peanuts / cilantro

The extremely difficult to share “pig wing” (really just a deep fried rib) at Butcher and the Rye was one of my favorite small plates of the year. Crunchy exterior, succulent and unctuous interior, perfect balances of salty, sweet, and spicy, with the beautiful undertone of roasted pork. The coating was evenly spread to ensure each bite contained that magnificent crunch and sauce. It fits perfectly onto the well-composed menu of small plates and shareable larger plates.

10. (TIE) Umami and Teppanyaki Kyoto / Takoyaki / October 21 and December 16

One of my new food obsessions this year (in addition to shishito peppers) are takoyaki. These amazing deep-fried balls of batter, studded with chunks of diced octopus, topped with bonito flake, kewpie mayo, and takoyaki sauce (like a sweeter, thicker, saltier, soy sauce). I first was able to enjoy them at Umami, the hippest (too cool for me) restaurant in Pittsburgh. The soft, pillowy pancake balls were crunchy on the outside almost completely smooth on the inside and strongly flavored with the oceany sweetness, salty sauce, creamy mayo, and smokey bonito. Alternatively, the takoyaki at Teppanyaki Kyoto, which is more like a roadside family-run izakaya had big chunks of tender octopus and the interior were far denser and cooked more evenly. I also preferred the large shavings of bonito, as opposed to the flakes at Umami. As a testament to their quality, my wife (who usually hates seafood) enjoyed them at both locations, although her strong preference was with Umami. My perfect takoyaki lies somewhere between the two (hence the tie) with a crispy shell, smooth oceany sweet filling, large shavings of bonito, only a light application of mayo, and a nice vegetable salad on the side to cut through the heavy dumplings.

9. Nancy’s East End Diner / Pancakes and Chili / June 19 and October 22

My favorite local restaurant is easily Nancy’s East End Diner. I think their pancakes are magnificent with the buttery crispy edges and the light and sweet interiors. Nothing too fancy or elevated, just simple, good food prepared with care and attention. You can’t go wrong with breakfast or lunch, as I had the pleasure of trying their chili on a recent visit during a blustery day in October. Not one to normally order chili, I ordered it and expected to get the standard tomato soup with chunks of tomato, red kidney bean, small bits of ground beef, maybe a sprinkle of cheddar cheese, and club crackers (no offense Eat N Park). I was supremely impressed with their bold, spicy, thick-as-a-stew chili. Extremely well-spiced, rich and deep in its earthy flavors of chili, paprika, cumin, cinnamon, and countless other spices, it was studded with multiple types of beans and heavy with big chunks of chorizo and beef. Easily a meal in and of itself, I heartily recommend the chili at Nancy’s.

8. Dorothy 6 / Reuben / October 7

Reuben and Steak Fries
Dorothy 6 Reuben – house-made lean corned beef, melted Swiss cheese, sauerkraut & thousand island dressing layered on marble rye served with steak fries

I’m a sucker for a good corned beef sandwich. It sounds so simple at face-value, but it’s a concept that Pittsburgh has struggled with for decades. My new favorite, hands-down is the reuben at Dorothy 6 in Homestead. You can’t fake good corned beef and it’s evident in the time and effort that Dorothy 6 puts into their proteins and ingredients. The perfectly lean beef shreds within the melty swiss cheese, creamy thousand island, and crunchy sauerkraut. Two wonderful slabs of fresh marble rye hold it all together. The perfect reuben isn’t some great mystery, but Dorothy 6 has done is as good as I’ve had it anywhere.

7. Apteka / Horse and Pepper Sandwich / May 27

Horse and Pepper at Apteka
Horse and Pepper at Apteka – veggie pate, horseradish slaw, pepper relish, chili peppers, black garlic butter on a hoagie roll

My favorite sandwich this year however, was the Horse and Pepper at Apteka, the eastern European vegan restaurant. Wonderfully bold in it’s spice and horseradish, I love a good sandwich that plays to its strengths and pulls no punches. The crusty hoagie roll was slathered liberally with black garlic (pretty much the best flavor known to man), topped with a wonderfully heavy slab of their vegetable pate. Closer to a meatloaf than anything else, it was the perfect density and texture to be the star “protein” of the sandwich. The strong toppings of horseradish slaw, spicy sliced chili peppers, and a spicy pepper relish all elevated the sandwich to a wonderful combination of dense pate, crunchy crispy fresh bread, and liberal seasoning. Unfortunately, revisiting their menu online, it doesn’t look like this sandwich is still available. I can only hope they bring it back or at least utilize that black garlic in another way.

6. Chengdu Gourmet / Baby Bok Choy and Black Mushroom / July 15

Baby Bok Choy and Black Mushroom
Chengdu Gourmet – Baby Bok Choy and Black Mushroom

The vegetable dish, especially at a Sichuan Chinese restaurant can often be overlooked or considered non-essential to the enjoyment of the meal. Chengdu Gourmet casts that aside with this dish, easily my favorite vegetable course of 2016. The baby bok choy is cooked perfectly to the point of a wilted spinach-like top while retaining the crunchy, juicy stalk. The shiitake (black) mushrooms are utilized wonderfully here, providing the contrasting flavor and texture that the best Chinese dishes do. The yin and yang of the plate, here the juicy, soft, crunch bok choy working in harmony with the meaty, soft but still substantial, and power packed punch of flavor of the mushrooms. The velvety black mushroom sauce is so earthy and beefy, it’s all of the best parts of a five-spice sauce and homemade beef gravy. Chengdu Gourmet has the best Sichuan Chinese dishes in the city and this is just one of them, don’t miss the Chongqing Chicken or the Double-Cooked Pork Belly.

5. Spork / Hummus / August 5

Hummus at Spork and toasted bread
Hummus at Spork – hummus, smoked almonds, dates, honey

The best dip of the year easily goes to Spork. Their outstanding take on hummus was still a little coarse but still creamy, heavy on the garlic and tahini and light on the lemon. The perfect spread was enhanced by the chunks of smoky crunchy almonds, as well as the soft sweet dates and wonderful clover honey. The smoke and garlic, paired with the honey-sweet preserved fruit and actual honey all melded together to make a savory sweet spread that was ideal with the grill toasted buttery loaf. I could have eaten it with a spoon, but my wife and I even asked for more bread to ensure we got every last drop of the jar’s offerings.

4. Carota Cafe / Beans and Greens / March 25

Beans and Greens from Smallman Galley
 Carota Cafe  – Beans and Greens

The dish that stuck with me the longest (enjoyed in March) was easily the beans and greens from Carota Cafe located within Smallman Galley, the restaurant incubator located in the Strip District. The kale and  escarole were just barely on the side of done, still substantial enough to provide a slight vegetal crunch but with enough wilt to lend itself and flavors to the surrounding soup. The white beans were also perfectly cooked, some providing that wonderful snap to well-cooked beans, others melting into the surrounding broth. The absolute star of this dish was that parmesan garlic broth. Perfectly salty and piquant, providing that shining star of acid and tang that good parmesan cheese does, the wonderfully smooth and rich broth permeated every element of this magnificent dish.

Editor’s Note – Please note I incorrectly identified the dish as coming from Provision Pittsburgh/Smallman Galley where in reality the dish was designed and prepared by Carota Cafe. I identified the greens as solely escarole when they were escarole and kale. I also misidentified the broth as having cream, when it was a Parmesan garlic broth or water. Thanks to Jessica Lewis of Carota Cafe for identifying my errors. 

3. Everyday Noodle / Pork Soup Dumplings / June 15

Soup Dumplings
Everyday Noodles – Pork Soup Dumplings

The perfect dish at a restaurant is one that you can’t get anywhere else in the city, made with care and attention to seasoning, cooked perfectly, and delivered at the peak of temperature. The soup dumplings at Everyday Noodles are a wonderful package of salty, porky soup broth delivered in the ideal thickness of wonton wrapper. A sign of the undeniable quality of the restaurant itself is the consistency, each of the 8 dumplings are always cooked to the perfect al dente, with the ideal mouthful of soup, and the perfect thickness to hold all of the soup within without making them too chewy or thick. The dumplings are served with julienned ginger and a wonderful sweet, salty plum sauce. To true testament of the quality of the dumplings themselves, they’re perfect alone and without any of the accoutrement.

2. Morcilla / Oxtail Montadito / September 21

Oxtail Mondtadito
Oxtail Montadito at Morcilla – oxtail, caramelized onion, Mahon cheese

Never before in my life have I ever been at a restaurant, ordered, eaten it, and then ordered the exact same dish again. I did exactly this during my first visit to Morcilla in September of this year with my friend Garrett. The best bite of 2016 is easily the oxtail montadito. A thinly sliced piece of baguette, topped with caramelized onions, enrobed in creamy mahon cheese (think a sweeter fontina), with the absolute all-star of this dish, the slow-braised oxtail. The meat is shredded, with the soft layers of fat melting throughout the meat, creating a less-substantial almost brisket-like experience. What makes everything work so well on this slice of bread is the flavor profile: a cohesive and singular direction, vision, and approach. This is a masterfully crafted dish, perfectly seasoned, cultivated, and cooked low and slow for hours and hours until the right amount is portioned, placed delicately upon the bread, given a little bit of time under the broiler to get the cheese melted and bubbling, and served to the luckiest recipient in the restaurant. Sometimes more than once.

1. Altius / Everything / August 23

Laid Back (with my mind on my money and my money on my mind)
the Laid Back cocktail at Altius

As I was prepping this list, I went through my entire collection of photos of food from 2016 and started to catalogue them. Picking just one plate from a lot of meals was easy for some (the reuben at Dorothy 6, the soup dumplings at Everyday Noodles) and harder for others (Chengdu Gourmet and Nancy’s) but no matter how hard I tried and how many revisions I went through, I couldn’t break down the meal at Altius to a single meal or a single element. That’s what makes a restaurant like Altius so transcendent (literally and figuratively). High atop Mount Washington, sitting amongst the dusty dinosaurs on Grandview Avenue, Altius refuses to be distilled to a single element. Their cocktail program, their service, their decor, their flatware, their VIEW, their food: it all works in beautiful synchronicity. The perfect meal is when you never are left wanting. Need more water? It’s being refilled as you notice it. A plate needs clearing? As soon as everyone has finished, without any sense of urgency or rush, a team deftly clears the table. Has it been the perfect amount of time since your last course to think about the next course being delivered? There it is, delivered by as many members of the staff as are in your party, to ensure everyone is served at the same time. There have been no missteps, no suggestions for improvement, and so important, no complacency. In a town where you can get away with serving the same menu from the 70s, Altius continuously impresses year after year. I will close this out with a line from my original review in August, “In a neighborhood full of places that are fine to rest on their name and laurels alone and never change their menu or push themselves (looking at you Le Mont, Tin Angel, Grandview Saloon, Isabella on Grandview, and Monterey Bay Fish Grotto) Altius is a shining oasis. I am so invigorated and inspired to see restaurants like this open up, do well, and maintain that high level of quality and consistency.”

 

Thank you for joining me on my trip through food in 2016. I am so excited to see what 2017 holds for all of us, not only in dining, but also in life. Thank you so much for making me a part of your day and for participating in my food blog.