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.

 

Best Meals of 2016 (Non-Pittsburgh Edition)

Hey everyone! Sorry it’s been such a long hiatus since I’ve posted, life just has a way of getting away from you. I’ve decided to return with my two “Best Of” lists: first up is my top 5 meals of 2016 not in Pittsburgh. Tune in on Saturday the 31st for my top 15 best plates of 2016 in Pittsburgh. This was quite a fun adventurous year, with culinary adventures in Baltimore, Bedford Springs, and Las Vegas. Let’s get into it.

#5. Di Pasquale’s Marketplace / April 29, 2016 / Baltimore, MD

2016-04-29-14-27-33

Baked in their brick oven located within the dining room, the Fig Jam, Honey, and Mozzarella pizza was one of the most memorable bites my wife and I had in our trip to Baltimore in April. Overflowing with molten, gooey, creamy fresh cheese over the sweet bite of the fig and honey, with pillowy outer crust and cracker thin crunchy crush beneath. Unfortunately, I think this was one of the specials of the day, so it may not be available every day. That being said their grilled chicken caprese and meatball hoagies were outstanding and served on their fresh, homemade bread. Di Pasquale’s is a can’t-miss stop on any trip to Baltimore.

#4. Woodberry Kitchen / May 1, 2016 / Baltimore, MD

2016-05-01-10-59-22

Our last meal in Baltimore was Sunday brunch at the charming Woodberry Kitchen. Looking like a giant cabin, complete with open bakery, 20 foot tall stacks of firewood, and a lovely loft overlooking the entire restaurant, Woodberry was an outstanding meal from beginning to end. I was so impressed with their homemade ‘Batch 13’ hot sauce that I bought a bottle to take home with us. The magnificent stamp on the entire meal were their homemade pastries. We chose to sample the Blueberry Lavender donut and the Sour cream coffee cake, topped with blackberry jam and streusel. Perfectly balancing sweet toppings (the icing and jam) with savory, fresh, and light bodies to their pastries, it was the best ending to an incredible meal and even better trip. I would absolutely return to the Woodberry for brunch each time we’re in Baltimore. (PS –  They Might Be Giants fans be on the look out for the lyrics to “Women and Men” written on the walls where their restrooms are)

#3. Golden Eagle Inn / August 21, 2016 / Bedford Springs, PA

2016-08-21-11-18-46

You can read the full write-up here, but an absolute stand out of my trip with my wife to Bedford Springs for my birthday this year was brunch at the Bed and Breakfast we were staying at. From the make your own Bloody Mary Bar to the meatball frittata and tater tots, but the best was the fried chicken, biscuits, and sausage gravy. Hot, crispy fried chicken soared through this heavy as a brick (in a good way) dish of biscuits, savory sausage gravy replete with pan drippings, and herbed olive oil. Wonderfully seasoned and peppery bold, it was a confident and wonderfully composed dish. Just what you want to last you all day during a long road trip back home.

#2. Aburiya Raku / May 19, 2016 / Las Vegas, NV

2016-05-19-19-28-14

Unfortunately, I never took the time to write up the expansive and outstanding meal that we had our last night in Las Vegas at Aburiya Raku, where chef Mitsuo Endo has been a Semifinalist for the James Beard Award for best chef in the Southwest 5 years in a row. The meal was a mix of skewers from their robata grill, made with such high quality ingredients as both Iberico and Kurobuta Pork as well as their hand-raised, humanely farmed Asajime Chicken, in addition to smoked pork ribs, sliced pork loin, Colorado Lamb, crispy asparagus (okaki), homemade tofu, grilled rice cakes (yaki onigiri), and Sake. An incredible dining experience, with over 15 courses, one of the finest and the course that made one of the biggest impressions, was the shishito pepper topped with smokey katsuobushi. The charred and grilled peppers combined their smokey spice and sweetness with the woody smoke of the bonito to create an incredible flavor and texture. It was the continuation of the (still-continuing) kick that I’ve been on, seeking out grilled shishito peppers wherever I go. However, where that started was on first night in Las Vegas, at…

#1. Carnevino Italian Steakhouse / May 13, 2016 / Las Vegas, NV

2016-05-13-21-06-17

As with the Golden Eagle Inn, you can read the full write-up here, but Carnevino was easily the finest meal that I had this year outside of Pittsburgh. The dry-aged, bone-in Ribeye for two was an enormous 16 oz ribeye that was carved and portioned tableside in a grand fashion. Perfectly cooked to a bloody medium rare, lightly finished with large flakes of sea salt, and magnificently savage with gorgeous layer of marbled fat, rich and flavorful dry-aged beef. It was a truly indulgent meal from start to dessert, one I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

9-21-16 / Morcilla / Pittsburgh, PA

A few weeks back, I had the pleasure to join a friend of mine for dinner before heading back to his studio to record an episode of his podcast. We easily decided on one of the hottest restaurants in Pittsburgh, Morcilla. Please check out Garrett Titlebaum’s Podcast It’s Nice to See He’s Working and listen to our episode here. It was a wonderful meal, with equally outstanding company.

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Our waitress was an excellent guide to the expansive and complex menu during the entire meal. She initially helped us decide on cocktails and we both went with (two different preparations) of their house gin and housemade tonics. I went with a lovely lavender, juniper berry, mint, and orange citrus accent. The gin was perfectly smooth with just the slightest twist of that alcoholic finish. The tonic equally matched the gin and created an outstanding, craft cocktail. I look forward to working my way through their gin and tonic menu as much as I do their food offerings.

You can’t say “Morcilla” without their charcuterie program being the next, immediate thought. Justin Severino is the undisputed king of in-house charcuterie (with some outstanding contenders at Spork , Altius and Butcher and the Rye). What he does with nose-to-tail usage of an animal and his unique approaches to butchery are second to none. I was extremely impressed with their offerings and due to my inability to pick a few of the options that I wanted to sample, we went with the aptly named “All the Meats”.

From the top left, working clockwise around the entire plate are: Fuet (a fattier hard pork salami with garlic), the Morcilla Achorizada (pork salami darkened through the usage of pigs blood, with a fine mince of pimento), Salchichon (pork salami darkened through a heavy portion of nutmeg, one of our favorites of the night), Chorizo (another dark spicy pork salami, topped with dates and vanilla, it was like a spicy porky sweet explosion).

Under the Chorizo was the Serrano Ham, an 18 month aged sliced ham, one of only two meats on the menu not made in-house. To the left of the Serrano Ham, overlapping slightly, was the finest ham available for purchase, the world famous Jamon Iberico de Bellota (Iberico ham).  Much like Kobe Beef, Chardonnay, or Parmigiano-Reggiano, Serrano and Iberico hams are made in such a unique, proprietary way, that nowhere else in the world are you able (or legally allowed) to duplicate the process (nor could you if you tried). The flavor profiles were both extremely unique both to each other and to all of the other hams I’ve sampled before. The Serrano has a buttery mouthfeel, with an inherent smokey flavor that lingers between the ribbons of soft fat. The Iberico on the other hand, was far nuttier, with a deeper and more intense pork flavor. The fat melted in your mouth and coated the deep red pork meat beautifully. It’s a rare experience, but I don’t think your enjoyment of the meal will suffer much if you go with the delicious Serrano over the Iberico.

Directly below the two Serrano and Iberico, on the right side of the plate, was the incredible Sobrasada. A spreadable pork salami with dried chilis and Spanish paprika (pimenton), it was a gorgeous rough, paste, not unlike a bacon jam or a smoother chopped liver. The flavor was intensely meaty, rich like a lardon but with the texture of a finely diced carpaccio. Below that was the lomo, a dried pork loin seasoned with adobo spices. Not far from a pork jerky, it stripped nicely along the lines of fat, with a good deep smoke from the adobo.

Finishing off the plate were the slices of crispy bread and Manzanilla olives, strongly flavored with citrus, rosemary, and olive oil, providing a nice acidic bite through all of the fatty, heavy meats. The Marcona almonds served on the plate were lightly toasted with olive oil and sprinkled very lightly with sea salt. They worked to enhance the flavors of the pork slices that they were served atop. The almonds in a huge bowl on the side were enhanced even further with an outstanding lavender sugar and sea salt coating, making them the perfect bar snack to enjoy throughout the meal with both our charcuterie and cocktails.

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Easily the best plate of the entire night (so good, in fact, that we ordered a second one) was the Oxtail montadito. The montaditos section of the menu is small, with only 4 options (from anchovy, shrimp, sausage, or oxtail) and each served on one- or two-bite slices of thinly sliced crispy bread. The oxtail, slow braised for hours, had such an intensely beefy flavor, you could tell it had been treated with care and aplomb for the hours it had taken to prepare. The thin slice of melty, rich oxtail was served over caramelized onions and topped with melted Mahon cheese, created a small, but powerful bite of roasted beef, sweet and salty onions, rich and creamy cheese, and crispy bread, which was (fittingly) described to us as “deconstructed French onion soup”. The flavor profile, the deep richness of the entire dish is something that cannot be faked and can only be captured through hours and hours of slow-roasting a beautiful cut of meat, braising it perfectly, and serving it simple enough to highlight each of the flavor and textural nuances. An outstanding dish and an absolute can’t miss.

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Unfortunately, I was less impressed with the Crab churro. A long crispy pastry tube, filled with a well-balanced and sweet seafood mixture filling, it just didn’t work for me overall. The texture was fine and the concept was unique, but the flavors of the crab and seafood weren’t balanced enough with the heavy churro pastry. The citrus aioli was a nice companion, but couldn’t serve to save the entire dish which I feel was a holdover from the earlier summer months.

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The Pulpo Escabeche was a classic Spanish dish, handled wonderfully, with some of the best octopus I’ve ever had. Perfectly chargrilled, smokey, with a wonderful seafood snap and smooth interior of the meat, it was unlike any other octopus I’ve had. Nothing chewy or resistant in the texture whatsoever, it ate like a cross between a giant shrimp, slow-cooked chicken, and scallop. The wonderful briny sweetness of good fresh seafood worked with the salty new potatoes and creamy potato foam to balance each other out. Acid from the diced tomatoes and a delicious olive oil balanced the dish wonderfully. A beautifully composed and balanced seafood dish in a pork-heavy menu.0

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The last dish that we shared of the night was the Pork Belly a la Plancha. The meaty, smoky cut was prepared a la plancha (or on a griddle) allowing it to gain that excellent crispy bacon exterior, while the fat within renders and makes the meat more pliable and melty. The exquisite cut of meat was served with Chistorra (a quick-cure Spanish sausage), chopped hazelnuts, and sprigs of fresh dill. The crunch and deep earthiness of the nuts worked wonderfully with the bounce of the sausage and equally crispy and smooth pork belly. An expertly crafted dish from an expert craftsman.

 

It’s hard to read about all of the best restaurants in Pittsburgh and not feel a slight bit of apprehension or concern when viewing it all from a critical eye. That being said, with all of the hype, with all of the attention, I had an outstanding meal at Morcilla and can’t wait to return and explore the ever-changing menu even deeper.

8-31-16 / tako / Pittsburgh, PA

Before going to see The Moth mainstage at the Byham Theater, my wife and I stopped into tako to grab some dinner. We’d eaten here previously, at the open kitchen seating outside, but tonight we were able to snag a seat at the bar. The bar manager was extremely warm and conversational, an incredible feat, especially while she continued to make complex drinks for the entire restaurant all throughout our meal. The food and drinks were excellent and we will absolutely return, despite the fact we’ve yet to eat here at a table.

My wife decided on the Ramon’s Gin Fizz, being a big fan of gin and unique drinks. The fizz is extremely creamy and smooth, made with green tea infused Tanqueray, lemon, lime, rose water, with the addition of mandarin Jarritos at the end. All of the amazing creaminess comes from the addition of avocado and cream itself. It’s shaken until the entire drink becomes a tall foamy almost-milkshake, and expertly poured into the tall, ornate glass. The citrus finishes of mandarin orange, lemon, and lime balance out the thick creaminess and make a fascinating cocktail.

I went with the Lychee and Pepper margarita before our meal and with our appetizer. I love lychee, and the sweet, grapey, peachy fruit paired wonderfully with the spicy pepper, smoky Mezcal, crisp and sweet Bauchant (an orange liqueur). The pepper was a nice throaty spice and didn’t add too much of a burn at all, keeping the drink savory while still opening up the palate. I was torn between the two drinks, so after finishing the lychee pepper, I went with the Watermelon Basil frozen margarita during our meal. Perfectly smooth with natural watermelon flavoring, it was really a lovely drink, especially with the rich, fatty proteins in our tacos and the richness of the queso. Speaking of which…

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The Queso Fundido was a magical skillet of cheesy meaty goodness. The simple, yet incredible dip from tako features their house-made chorizo, roasted shishito peppers, and an exorbitant amount of chihuahua cheese. We chose to enjoy the dip alone and with the warm flour tortillas served alongside. It was ridiculously rich, cheesy, and spicy delicious from that meaty, porky, garlicky chorizo and earthy, roasty from the peppers. The perfect kind of dip, wonderfully thick and gooey, it was an outstanding start to a equally impressive meal.

Each order of tacos comes with two, so we shared the Chorizo and Pork Belly tacos. The pork belly (on the left) were styled after a standard banh mi sandwich with rich, fatty braised pork belly, quick pickled vinegar cucumbers, lime, and a ton of crunchy herbs like cilantro, basil, and mint, sprinkled lightly with sesame seeds. The large portion of pork was present for every delicious bite (as a protein in a taco should) with the vegetables and herbs providing that wonderful crunch to counter the texture of the soft and rich pork. It was nice and sweet, with some of that acidic bite from the lime and cilantro.

On the right, making its appearance for the second time that night, were chorizo tacos. That same amazing chorizo from the queso, this time topped with roasted poblano peppers, a fried egg, sprinkled with cilantro and queso fresco, both a romesco and an arbol hot sauce, all over some caramelized onions. Of course just by looking at it you can tell it quickly turned into an outrageously messy taco. The small pieces of chorizo were awash in the romesco, chile arbol, egg yolk, and poblano peppers. It was definitely best eaten leaning over the plate and not recommended for first dates (unless you truly like to live dangerously and deliciously).

Each taco was replete with their fillings and featured portions. The appetizer and two tacos was a nice meal, especially when paired with the two cocktails I imbibed. Not a place to go to stuff your face (unless you’re looking to simultaneously empty your wallet), but hands down my favorite tacos downtown. Bakersfield and Bea’s Taco Town are both on my list to try down the road, so that ranking may change some time down the line. For now, there’s no better place to pull up a seat: either outside at their open kitchen or inside at their friendly bar, order a margarita (or 2) and get your hands messy. I’ve also heard rumors that you can make reservations and eat at a table like a civilized human being, but I’ve yet to take advantage of that, personally.

8-28-16 / Bakn / Carnegie, PA

The following day, my Mother-in-Law offered to take my wife and me out to brunch. I’d heard good things and read positive reviews, so we decided to check out Bakn. A fun, open, and bright bistro, I hope to see more life breathed into Carnegie. It’s always exciting when discovering fun gems outside of the city and I hope this review will inspire you to make the small jaunt just west of Pittsburgh.2016-08-28-14-41-37
As this was our first trip, I thought it was only appropriate to sample their namesake offerings with an order of the Bacon Flight. Featuring their (from left to right) unsmoked, applewood smoked thick cut, cajun, maple, peppered, and Sriracha bacon, it was less of a flight and more of a plate of some pretty good bacon. While this concept sounds really fun in theory, it was a bit awkward just cutting into pieces of bacon and eating them plain. I’d love to see the bacons highlighted in different preparations, or different cuts, to move this beyond just a plate of 6 different bacons. They were all ranging in quality and flavor, with the same strong pork flavor base that comes from fresh and unfrozen bacon. I was particularly impressed with the unsmoked and the peppered and found the cajun to be an unnecessary preparation. I didn’t really have an expectation to be disappointed, but I felt like this was a muddy start to an otherwise delicious meal.

2016-08-28-14-49-10 My wife got the chicken and pancakes, their take on chicken and waffles. The chicken tenders were crispy and the chicken was still moist and tender. I always prefer a spicier, bolder coating on this preparation, especially due to the overly sweet pancakes, but the coating was fairly standard without any overt additions. The bacon stuffed pancakes were a nice addition, but far too light and cakey, with a lot of air holes in the cakes themselves, to really hold up to the crunchy and crispy chicken. Unfortunately, the chef got a little heavy-handed with the scallions for this dish and they ended up dominating a lot more of the bites than they should have. The bourbon maple syrup was excellent and had a real nice finish, obviously having been made in house with real bourbon.

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My mother-in-law went with the Blueberry pancakes, two enormous cakes stuffed with a generous portion of fresh blueberries and served with a 1/2 cup of blueberry compote syrup. The cakes themselves were nicely balanced, far denser than what came with the chicken and pancakes, and held the juicy and flavorful berries in a wonderful cakey prison. The cakes themselves were very substantial and held up to the barrage of blueberries and syrup without falling apart of getting lost. The nice undertone of sourdough wonderfully balanced out the sugary sweet and syrupy blueberries. It was a very large plate of pancakes (if the 1/2 cup measuring cup is any indication of scale) and could even be enough to share between two people, if you found yourself so inclined.

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I went with the shrimp and grits, as I’d seen seafood and grits in other forms sprinkled across the entire menu and was very much in the mood for some of this Southern specialty. The shrimp themselves were far and away the star of this dish. Magnificently fresh, plump, juicy, and crisp, they were perfectly sauteed in an amazing garlic butter for just enough time for the flavor to permeate and enrich the fresh shrimp and not too long to overcook them. Every bite I had some shrimp, they shone through, proudly declaring this dish Shrimp feat. grits and friends, not the other way around. The grits were smooth, creamy, and consistently cooked, but unfortunately underseasoned and really just served as a vessel for the shrimp, eggs, bacon, and green onion. Again, there might have been a sale on scallions/green onions at the farmer’s market that morning to explain such a heavy hand that was seen in this and the chicken and pancakes. The flavor permeated far many more bites than I’d preferred and I found myself moving them off to the side after a time. The fresh diced tomato were a nice light addition to the traditionally heavy dish and even added a nice sweetness to the grits to counterbalance the strongly seasoned shrimp. The bacon was diced, nice and smokey, with an inconsistent cook that I actually preferred, allowing me a difference in texture and finding some bites thick and chewy and others crispy crunchy. The two over-easy eggs added a nice sauce to the dish and the velvety richness of the egg was wonderful with the creamy grits and spicy shrimp.

 

I was very impressed by the wide variety of offerings in their menu and saw a lot of potential and great successes in many of the dishes we sampled. I would gladly return and try all new dishes, as I have faith in the core quality of the ingredients and technique in the kitchen. I can only hope this is the beginning of a revitalization of Carnegie like we’ve seen in many of Pittsburgh’s lesser-traveled neighborhoods.

8-27-16 / Butterjoint / Pittsburgh, PA

The last Saturday in August, a friend of ours was in town from Los Angeles, so we arranged to meet him for some late night dinner and drinks at pretty much the best spot in the entire city for late night dinner and drinks, Butterjoint.

Unfortunately, I didn’t capture our libations, but what we had were excellent cocktails prepared by an excellent bar staff. My favorite drink to order there (pretty much my favorite thing to do anywhere) is the Mercy of the Bartender. It is exactly that, whatever strikes the fancy of the bartender at that exact moment. The first drink was a nice apertif, bitter and sharp, lots of lemon and bite, and worked wonderfully to open up my palate. My second MotB was far more laidback: smokey mezcal, sweetness, heat, a peppery finish. It paired perfectly with the rich, luxurious food we enjoyed.

We shared a few appetizers amongst the table, a mixture of fried, heavy, and light dishes which worked nicely with the balanced cocktails and lively conversation. The pickles, served in a cast-iron skillet over the traditional wax paper in a mesh basket, were beer-battered sour dills, cut into spears. The beer-batter was far preferable over the traditional cornmeal coating which tends to crack and break off after one bite. The batter clung to the pickles and provided a nice lightly fried crunch with each bite. The Morita-Sungold aioli, a wonderful combination of morita chile peppers and sungold tomatoes provided a wonderful thick, slightly sour/slightly sweet dipping sauce that added a smooth finish to the acidic pickles.

The grass-fed beef tartare, one of my favorites in the entire city, is prepared simply and with the traditional adornments of an egg yolk and chives. It’s the seasoning that really takes it over the edge: garlic, sea salt, fresh ground tellicherry peppercorns, soy, worcestershire, and a whole host of other seasonings made each bite a burst of that incredible real, raw, beef flavor, elevated and put onto a pedestal made of a whole array of varied, dancing flavors. It’s such a complex bite, prepared so simply, it truly captures the heart of what a good tartare (or ceviche) is supposed to be.

The baba ghanoush with kalamata olives and pickled cucamelons were a nice, light break from the other heavier dishes. The garlicky eggplant dip was rough-blended, and not pureed, to allow it to retain some of that smooth vegetal texture without becoming like a sauce. The pita slices were warmed and nicely finished with a dusting of paprika. The cucamelons were a fascinating first for me. Tiny little grape-like orbs, tasting intensely of cucumber, but bursting like grape tomatoes with a cucumber rind, pickled with garlic and dill. They were lovely to snack on in between bites of all of the appetizers.

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A vice of mine, I cannot leave Butterjoint without ordering their fancy burger. It’s a masterpiece, easily in my top 5 burgers in the entire city of Pittsburgh. Their perfect, house-ground patty is an incredibly flavorful and juicy mix, balanced wonderfully between meat and fat, to allow that crispy sear outside and retain all of the flavor and juices within. Their homemade brioche buns are always wonderfully buttery, but with a substantial enough crust to hold the inventive combination of toppings together without falling apart. High quality cheeses, homemade sauces and spreads, and the freshest vegetables always work in beautiful symphony of their spectacular burger patty. I’ve never been disappointed by a fancy burger of the day and I cannot foresee that happening any time soon. The house-cut fresh french fries are always hot, crispy, wonderfully salty, and delicious with ketchup or their housemade garlic aioli.

 

Butterjoint, attached to the equally delicious Legume, continues to be a incredible bastion for quality late-night (or anytime) food. In a part of Oakland oft-overlooked, I hope through local support of their continued high-quality offerings of both food and drink, Legume and Butterjoint will succeed for many more years down the road.

8-23-16 / Altius / Pittsburgh, PA

For my birthday this year, I was struggling to come up with a place that we’d all enjoy as a family (my wife and parents). I’m always looking to try somewhere new and something different, but I couldn’t think of a place that I’d eaten in the last year that was as special as the dinner that my wife took me out to for my birthday in 2015: to Altius at the top of Mt. Washington. While the menu at Altius is constantly changing, there were a few holdovers from last year that I was happy to see. Happier still, their cocktail program remains the best I’ve had the pleasure of enjoying in the entire city. With an unbelievable view, outstanding service, incredible food and cocktails, surrounded by loved ones, I could not have asked for a better birthday meal.

My father’s not a big drinker at all (except for the occasional Bloody Mary, heavy on the worcestershire sauce and tomato juice, light on the vodka), but my wife and mother joined me in ordering a couple of cocktails.

(top right) I started off with the Last Laugh (Hayman’s Old Tom Gin, Yellow Chartreuse, Fino Sherry, Maraschino Liqueur, candied lemon slice) a sweet, cool, refreshing cocktail. Extremely drinkable with a lovely tart finish from the chartreuse and the lemon slice. (bottom left) Later in the meal, I ordered the Laid Back (Leatherbees Gin, Clément Orange Liqueur, Lemon, orange segments). Perfectly citrusy and sweet, with a nice orange mellow note, it went down smooth and was well-balanced in strength.

(top left) My wife ordered the Lemon Drop (Meyer Lemon-Infused Vodka, Cointreau, Rosemary, Lemon) powerfully lemony and herbaceous with a lightly sugared-rim, the vodka and cointreau made it a bit strong for my tastes, but she loved it. (top middle) For our entrees, she ordered the Debutante (Ketel One Vodka, Cointreau, Lemon, Mint, Balsamic Syrup, Egg White). The balsamic cut wonderfully through the frothy creamy egg whites and the bright sharp notes of the lemon and mint. It was all wonderfully balanced and beautifully smooth.

(bottom right) My mother ordered the Violation (Hendrick’s Gin, Aperole, Crème de Violette, Blueberry, Lillet, Lemon) a lovely sparkling, smooth apertif. She’s been obsessed with aperol as an apertif ever since her and my Father went to Italy and enjoyed Aperol Spritzes up and down the Amalfi Coast.

 

For an amuse bouche, the chef sent out a lovely mini-sugar cone filled with a smoked salmon mousse, topped with tiny chives. I am a huge fan of smoked salmon, but the sweetness of the sugar cone was strange to me. I always go the salty route when it comes to the proper lox and bagel, so I was not a convert this night. However, it served its purpose perfectly, cleansing my palate without any lingering aftertastes of salt, smoke, or sweetness.

The bread course featured a (clockwise from left) Zucchini Bread, stoneground rustic wheat, and a sea salt garlic focaccia. They were served with a chive honey butter and a roasted red pepper paste. The zucchini bread was moist and sweet, far closer to a cake than a paired bread, but I wasn’t complaining in the slightest. Chunks of walnut reigned in the cinnamon-sweetness of the rest of the dark, dense bread. The wheat was excellent, with firm, crunchy crust and a soft, pillowy body that made it perfect for either spreads. The sea salt focaccia was nice and light throughout, with a salty, crispy, buttery crust to hold it all in. The honey butter would have been nicer with a less savory element so prominent throughout, making it an impossible pairing for the zucchini bread, but enjoyable with the wheat.The roasted red pepper paste, very thick and just slightly, slightly on the further side of bitter, was still extremely vibrant and tasty, just very specifically one-note for such varied bread offerings.

When we dined there last year, I’d ordered the She-Crab Bisque and was absolutely amazed by it. A bowl, prepared with golden crab roe, sherry creme fraiche, and honey roasted peanuts is presented and the golden, thick, buttery creamy crab broth is poured over the art tableside. I love the crunch and sweetness of the nuts with the salty pop of the roe and creaminess that the creme fraiche and bisque broth that all work together to create a sweet and sour body of soup magnificence. I’d urged by mother to order it, but she was less impressed with the technical ingenuity and put off by the lack of actual crab meat pieces in the soup. I think she’ll order the bisque again when she returns to the shore and they’re far more direct in their soup preparation and delivery.

I ordered the Calamari Milanese, not even realizing it at the time that it’d be served as a salad over baby arugula. Two huge filets of calamari were liberally coated in an egg wash batter and deep fried. They were tossed with crispy prosciutto, a caper vinaigrette, and sprinkled liberally with truffle pecorino. The best way I can describe it is all of the best parts of the inside of an italian chicken sandwich (zesty, herby, garlicky from the cheese and dressing, meaty/smokey from the prosciutto and calamari) with the crunch from the crust on the calamari. It was delicious. Far more substantial and hearty than any salad has a right to be, I was glad to share this one.

I was extremely impressed with the charcuterie board when my wife and I had visited the year previous, so I wanted to share that experience with my parents, as well. All house made and local cured and smoked meats, a selection of local cheeses, grilled breads, a cup of pickled gherkins and drop peppers, stone ground horseradish mustardo, a quince jam, and honeycomb. The cheeses were a nice spread of semi-soft goat, soft and gooey cow’s milk, and hard sheep’s milk cheddar. The meats were equally varied, with nice cures, beefy and earthy salami, prosciutto, and bresaola. Especially delicious with the funkier cheeses, the honeycomb was outstandingly sweet and feathery soft.

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My father had one of the nightly specials, the bone-in Ribeye, served over purple mashed potatoes, baby carrots and green beans, with a maitre-d’hotel butter. The meat was cooked a perfect medium rare and a gorgeous sight overall. Beautiful marbling kept the steak flavorful and juicy, but it was cooked long enough and at a low enough temperature to melt all of the fat down to a sauce-like consistency and still maintain a gorgeous crust and sear all over. The potatoes were sweet and creamy, with a nice kick of extra earthiness from the purple potatoes.

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My mother opted for the Ora King Salmon, seared, and served over escarole tossed in a buttermilk dressing, shrimp and white speckled grits (but opting out of the andouille etoufee), alongside a slice of fried green tomato. The grits were some of the best I’ve ever had in my life, smooth and creamy, cheesy and sharp. The shrimp were plump and fresh, perfectly complementing the grits and tossed escarole. The salad added a nice light creaminess to the base set by the grits and supported throughout the salmon. The tomato had a lovely cornmeal coating, adequately ripe and hard, cooked nicely to highlight the vinegar bite and tartness of a green tomato. The salmon itself was outstanding, seared to a magnificent crisp on the skin-side and practically (perfectly) raw within the fish itself, it flaked satisfyingly and the  bright orange flesh was a true testament to how fresh it was.

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My wife went with the Pennsylvania Amish Chicken Breast, served over a sweet corn hash, bacon lardons, and topped with a chimichurri aioli and tempura zucchini blossoms. The sweet vegetal blossoms and sweet corn hash were a wonderful contrast with the crisp carnivorous sear and juiciness of the chicken and bacon. The aioli provided just enough zip to weave throughout the hash and fatty bacon. The chicken was even butchered ideally, with just the smallest wing bone on the large, frenched breast. An excellently composed dish and a wonderful relief to see chicken highlighted on a menu, rather than just thrown on as so many higher-end restaurants tend to do.

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Unbeknownst to me until after ordering, I (again) went with what I had last year, the Australian Lamb Rack, with herbs de Provence, French green beans, truffled purple potatoes, lightly fried lamb sweetbreads, atop a Meyer lemon Parmesan jus. Subconsciously, I must have recalled the expertly cooked and butchered rack of lamb, the outer crust so well-seasoned and crunchy, the inside meat a gorgeous pinkish red of medium rare, buttery soft and bursting with fresh lamb flavor. The bones, again, were outstanding to strip clean, most of the work already having been done for me by the kitchen, leaving me with the best possible cut to enjoy. The sweetbreads were nice and small, providing nice pops of that good meat flavor that comes from all organ meats. Sweetbreads, which are not brains as a lot of people think, but actually the thymus gland, are wonderfully meaty, soft and sweet in texture and taste, and remind me of the best kind of chicken nugget or scallop in their downright creaminess and mouthfeel.

The sun was setting as we enjoyed our entrees, the city was starting to light up, and the feel of the entire restaurant (with their floor to ceiling windows surrounding the entire floor) began to change. I ordered a glass of the Joseph Phels ‘Eisrebe’ 2014, from their dessert wines list as it’s my birthday and I’m allowed to have an indulgent glass of Ice Wine at least once a year. The ice wine was sweeter, with more of a honey mouth-feel than I’m used to, but finished with that outstanding Napa crispness. The restaurant also provided a slice of decadent fudge brownie topped with a candle, a chocolate straw, fresh whipped cream, a strawberry, and creme anglaise. It was a lovely gesture and greatly appreciated. Had I known we would be getting this complimentary from the kitchen, I certainly wouldn’t have ordered the…..

Sweet holy mother of God. The innocently-enough named “Chocolate Ball” is instead a wrecking ball that will swing into your life and fuck your shit up. Richer than rich, more decadent than anything I can remember having in a long, long time, this dessert was a powerhouse. As seen above, a thick white chocolate shell, covered in hot chocolate until it melts, all surrounding a sweet chiffon cake topped with creme brulee and dark chocolate mousse, until it all blends together to  become this Frankenstein’s Monster of all things unholy and delicious. In a world where desserts are no longer ordered to be enjoyed by a solitary person, this is the Destroyer. Assemble teams, get a block party together, because everyone is going to have to take a bite and pass it around. The multitude of layers of chocolate alone is enough to constitute its own dessert, but when you add the pudding and crunch of the creme brulee, the soft moistness of the warm cake, the smooth creaminess of the cold mousse, the hot chocolate sauce, everything starts to get hazy and you wake up in the car on the ride home. Bring a sherpa.

 

Another incredible meal from the folks high atop the Mount. 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. I am so, so impressed that they’ve managed to top the magnificent meal that I enjoyed last year. I’m going to have to do some heavy research and investigating if I’m going to find somewhere that I’d even consider going to next year for my birthday that could top Altius.