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.

8-20-16 / The Crystal Room at the Omni Hotel and Resort / Bedford Springs, PA

As a wonderful surprise for my birthday last month, my wife took me on a weekend trip to Bedford Springs, PA for dinner at The Crystal Room, followed by overnight accommodations, and brunch at the Golden Eagle Inn (more about that in the next post). I’d been very excited to dine at the Crystal Room for quite some time, since reading about it and the Omni in Bedford Springs a few years ago. The trip was very easy and straightforward, the resort itself was gorgeous, but quite a few elements kept the Crystal Room from being an establishment I can confidently recommend.

Unfortunately the cocktails were forgettable, lemon whiskey, cointreau on the left and a basil, gin, simple syrup on the right. The open kitchen was hidden behind a buffet. Our seat was great and the view was enjoyable, but it would have been nice to actually see them cook and prepare with an unimpeded view. The bread basket was fine: either crusty sourdough or poppyseed and sesame seeds on a softer roll. Unfortunately the hard butter balls served alongside were difficult to cut into and spread. Hard butter is never a good early sign.

We also had a dedicated “waiter’s assistant” focused on keeping our water glasses full (he didn’t) and checking to see if we had any problems (we did). The wine menu (a very large, heavy copper-covered binder) joined us for the entire meal, but alas our time with the bread basket was so short-lived that it was taken from us before its time (there was still bread in it) and never returned.

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My wife’s potato leek soup made with a local gouda and dressed with rosemary oil. Good, consistent flavor and texture throughout. It would have been a touch warmer, as my approach with soup is always serve it inedibly warm and allow it to cool at the table instead of serving it running towards room temperature and way from the warmth that a soup should provide. The flavors of potato and onion were all there without the grainy texture that a lot of lesser creamy potato soups have, so it was overall a win.

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My wife and I ordered soup (see previous) a salad (see next) and an appetizer to share (see this). I was very confused as they served the soup and appetizer at the same time and I had to inquire about my salad (after I’d eaten half of the appetizer) before it was served. The Grilled Asparagus and Egg appetizer, served with roasted mushrooms, hard cooked quail eggs, and Truffle Salt was a misstep. The grilled asparagus was fresh and delicious, crunchy, smokey, and nicely trimmed. The mushrooms were good, a nice sampling of shiitake, miyataki, and crimini, earthy with enough of their meaty texture intact. The quail eggs were a strange addition, overcooked without enough body to add much to the dish. The greatest error in this dish (already apparent to those of you with astute vision) is the heavy heavy hand that was taken with the truffle salt. The salt overpowered the entire dish and made it difficult to enjoy. Ironically, the eggs seemed to be added last and avoid any kind of seasoning at all. Unfortunately, oversalting wasn’t prepared to leave us just yet.

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The “Crystal Caesar” arrived after my wife had finished her soup and was staring at her half of the asparagus appetizer. Half of a head of endive, dressed with shaved parmesan, and a garlic crouton all over a thick and creamy roasted garlic dressing. This whole dish screamed “deconstructed concept” to me. It was annoying. After preparing it and mixing it all up, it was fine. I ‘d hoped for some nice notes of anchovy or differing texture, but the crunch of the endive (mostly yellow stalk) and the inconsistent crouton (more of a garlic bread with very hard ends, soft inside, and over-buttering), forced the dish to “passable” from the great potential that it had started with.

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My wife ordered the Ratatouille Risotto, described as containing “garden vegetables, crispy chick peas, and garden basil”. As anyone who watches Top Chef can tell you, risotto is a very difficult dish to do right. Proper cooking times, proper seasoning, and a proper approach are so paramount to keep this dish from being a mushy, pastey chore. The zucchini, tomato, and onion added far more liquid than it seems the chef was prepared for, creating a very wet, thick consistency. The risotto itself was very unevenly cooked, with some pieces crunchy and uncooked and others soft and mushy. The crispy chick peas quickly succumbed to peer pressure and become soft and chewy. The garden basil never made it from the dirt to the plate and that’s quite unfortunate, as some more flavor and seasoning would have made a huge difference.

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I was very excited to read about the Berkshire Boneless Pork Chop. The menu listed “Bacon-Cheddar Grits, Wigle Whiskey Roasted Peaches, and Roasted Tomatoes” as accompanying this dish. It’s not good to get your hopes up sometimes. The roasted tomatoes were pretty cold and wilted by the time the dish was served. The peaches were canned peaches soaked in whiskey. The result was rough, sweet syrupy mushy peaches with an alcoholic finish. The pork itself was fine, cooked far closer to medium or medium well than the medium rare requested and very underseasoned. The grits looks amazing, studded with pieces of crunchy pork belly, smelling strongly of cheddar and pork. All I can assume happened was that the chef had come down with a sinus infection and was unable to taste. After salting the grits, they then turned around to take care of something else. Not remembering if they’d salted the grits, they then turned back to the pot and decided to salt them lightly. This then repeated itself over the next 20 minutes. I was very close to saying something (and I regret not), but I was just so disappointed with the entire dish, and didn’t want to wait the 20 minutes while my wife moved her risotto around her plate bowl with her fork for them to bring me out something else.

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In an attempt to turn the meal around, we both ordered two different alcoholic coffee drinks. Let me reiterate that, two different drinks. We asked the waitress if she was sure that these were different and she assured us they were. Flavor assured us that they weren’t. I was supposed to have sambuca and my wife was supposed to have shaved dark chocolate over hers, made with bourbon. It was another disappointment. We asked if we could order the hazelnut bomb for dessert, after seeing it listed on the prix fixe meal. We were told we could not and had to pick something else.

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The finale arrived, a flourless chocolate cake with hazelnut ice cream, fresh berries, and fresh whipped cream. Now I know what you’re thinking, “oh god, how did they manage to screw this up?” I don’t know if it was just in comparison with the rest of the meal the entire night, but I think this was one of the best flourless chocolate cakes I’ve ever had. A ring of crushed and chopped hazelnuts were surrounded and enveloped in a dark, smooth, deep chocolate cake. The glaze was a sweeter, albeit still dark chocolate. The ice cream was cool, light, and not too sweet, providing an outstanding counterbalance to the richness of the cake and icing. The chocolate bark and sauces were of different cacao and sugar ratios as well, creating a complex and varied chocolate tour across the entire plate. The berries were fresh and vibrant and cut through the sweet richness beautifully. This dessert was an oasis in a desert meal of disappointment.

 

The last thing I want to do is seem ungrateful for this incredible gift and the amount of preparation and work that went into making this meal happen. My wife is an incredibly kind and thoughtful woman and I am so lucky to have her make arrangements like this for me. The first thing I want to do is provide a cautionary tale as to what kind of experience you might have if you followed in my footsteps. Go to the Omni Bedford Springs to take in the hiking trails, lush nature, gorgeous accommodations, and then reward yourself with some dessert before heading  back into town to enjoy the city of Bedford Springs itself.

6-3-16 / Scratch Food & Beverage / Pittsburgh, PA

Last Friday night, my wife suggested we take a jaunt up Troy Hill over on the North Side of the City and check out a new place. I’m always game for new restaurants and this one had been on my list for a bit. Open for just a little over a year, Scratch F&B shows excellent promise and technical skill in the kitchen, but still has some room for improvement. It feels very much like a friendly, local kitchen, with more upscale offerings.

It’s a smaller restaurant, with a very open kitchen. It was enjoyable watching the two chefs prepare the dishes and seeing them come out directly.

Admittedly, we got aggressive with their small plates. Our waitress recommended 4-6 dishes to share between the two of us and of course we said, “7? Did you say 7 things? Perfect”. Unfortunately, each dish came out one right after the other at the same exact time. There was no pacing, there was no “coursing”. I would have served the soup first, then the tacos, then the vegetables, fries, and chicken as the final course. But that’s just me.

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I enjoyed a couple of the “Adult” Ecto Coolers, the featured off-menu cocktail of the night. It was heavy on the pineapple juice (which I love) and went down sugary sweet and sour, like a pineapple limeade sour. Exactly as I remember Ecto Cooler tasting. I also started with the soup of the day (no pic), an incredible New England Clam Chowder. The broth was creamy and thick, heavy with garlic and flavor. The big chunks of soft potato and huge clams, as well as the fatty pieces of bacon intermixed worked to make more of a meal than a starter. It was one of the best clam chowders I’ve ever had and absolutely a highlight of the night.

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The Halusky (smaller size) was far from the Pittsburgh traditional dish I’d grown up with and love. Far from the butter-drowned egg noodles, topped with steaming cabbage and onions, this was more of a spaetzle dish than anything. Squeaky and lovely, the large portion of spaetzle was topped with caramel brown onions, intermixed with small chunks of cabbage, and topped with a luxurious goat cheese mousse. The resulting dish was light, although that could have been due to the under developed flavors of cabbage and underseasoned spaetzle. I prefer a nice kick of black pepper or a lift of salty, buttery cabbage flavor, but overall it just blended together. A very mild, balanced dish, it was absolutely made with love and care, but handled with a little too much of soft touch for my taste. This ended up being a trend throughout the dishes.

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The Spring (?) Vegetables  was proclaimed as a “can’t miss” by our waitress, but I have to admit I couldn’t understand why. The mixture of zucchini, one pickled white asparagus stalk, charred english peas, a couple charred shishito peppers, and fingerling potatoes didn’t really do each other favors by being included in this garden plate. The star of the dish was absolutely the 60 minute egg in the center, which when burst and the yolk was able to mix with the ramp pesto below the vegetables, created a nice sauce that worked well with the fresh vegetables. Again, unfortunately, seasoning was the enemy, with the potatoes doing their part to stomp around the plate and suck up and flavor that may have been left by the pesto or egg. Another tasty dish, but far from a “must order”.

The Chicken and a biscuit was advertised as a chicken breast prepared confit style and then fried, which resulted in a tender and crispy piece of chicken. The strong, fresh chicken flavors stood up meekly against the heavy coating and brick of a biscuit. I would have loved to have seen bold spices, heavy use of vinegar and hot sauce with this chicken, something that would have stood up to the blanket that was this biscuit. It was as dense as a black hole, making it impossible for flavor or light to escape from. The green onions and maple syrup held up their end of the bargain, providing a nice oniony tang to the chicken and sweetness for the dish as a whole. Overall, I think they’re capable of so much more with this. The enormous bowl of fries were excellent, fresh, hot, crispy as fries should be. In their most brazen act of the night, the fries were served with a “homemade” ketchup that was more of an amazing dipping sauce than traditional tomato catsup. Strong notes of cranberry, garlic, pepper, and worcestershire worked well to make quite an addictive little dip. I would have loved these fries even more if there was an option to get them covered in cheese or poutine-style, something that would highlight them even more. Ironically, they were overly salted, but that just encouraged me to order another Ecto Cooler.

We ended our meal with the two taco offerings. The beef brisket taco was replaced with a pork belly taco, which is usually a welcome replacement for us. Unfortunately again, both tacos were lacking. The pork belly was flavorful and fatty, but the tacos needed to have far more spice and crunch. I would have liked to have seen a crusted pork belly with some crispy pickled onions, some sliced jalapenos, maybe a homemade hot sauce. The tofu suffered from the same fate, lovely crispy fried tofu, cilantro, and sliced jalapenos, but nowhere near enough carrots or jalapenos. Again, a habanero cilantro lime sauce would have raised this dish up to where it deserved to be. Also, maybe this is just extremely dense of me (but still not as dense as that biscuit), but each taco was served in a corn tortilla on top of another corn tortilla. Possibly the idea was to make 4 tacos out of each plate, but the tacos themselves weren’t overfilled or provided enough to make a whole other taco. What ended up happening was whatever fell out of our tacos as we were eating them made its way into the 3rd shell while the 4th shell on each plate sailed sadly back to the kitchen.

All in all, I don’t want to give the wrong idea or come across too harshly: I LIKED SCRATCH! They’re small, they’re local, they’ve only been open about a year. I want to see them grow, I want to see them succeed. Please go check them out, try something different than what I got or try what I got if I described something that sounded good to you. All that being said, they are far from perfect and can make some very simple changes to get just that much closer to outstanding.

5-28-16 / The Wooden Nickel / Pittsburgh, PA

Far be it from me to put forth this expectation that I only go to good restaurants and have incredible meals, I have to share this recent experience with you all. Saturday night my wife and I were looking for somewhere to enjoy in the Monroeville area, a part of town notorious for their chain restaurants. We decided to try a place I’d grown up knowing about, but had never had the opportunity to experience. I’d remembered that they’d won some kind of an award from the Pittsburgh Restaurant Week a few years back, so that was all of the support I needed.

I should have known from the very beginning that we were in for disappointment.

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I ordered a glass of the Infinitus Moscato to go with my meal, which was quickly poured from a normal, appropriately-sized carafe into a glass that I can only assume was a novelty. Featured next to the repurposed wine bottle full of water, I assure you there are no camera tricks. I felt ridiculous drinking from it. Unfortunately the wine itself was far too heavy on notes of peach and had an intense bitter aftertaste, which I have to assume was from the wine not being freshly opened or properly stored.

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Hearing the specials of the day from the waitress, we were extremely intrigued to try the the “mushroom and truffle risotto” appetizer. This is what was brought out. When we pressed her on why it wasn’t described as “fried risotto balls” she replied that the chef felt that if they were described as such, no one would order them. Red flags like this continued throughout the evening. The sauce was extremely watery and only served to moisten the already soggy with oil balls. The filling, full of the flavor of truffle and not much else, provided a nice cheesy off-set to the greasy coating and wet sauce. Search parties were sent out for pieces of mushroom or truffle and never returned.

When ordering our meals, the waitress asked my wife is she wanted soup or salad with her meal. Far more familiar with the prices matching up with the level of quality of the restaurant and all things being served a la carte, she declined. It was then that the waitress informed us that the salad or soup were complementary. My wife opted for the wedding soup and I opted for the Caesar salad. The soup, murky, and muddy, with strips of dark brown escarole, a handful of pastistio, and 4 tiny meatballs would have been better off left in the kitchen. The soup, mostly tasting of nothing, seemed to be an afterthought for a soup of the day. The salad didn’t fare much better. A warm(?) and over-dressed mixture of iceberg lettuce, soggy croutons, and shredded parmesan cheese, this was far from the traditional Caesar salad I’d expected. The waitress also asked me if I like anchovies (which I do) and served me these (which I don’t). Describable only as vinegar pickled halved anchovies, these were as close to the oil-packed anchovy filets I’ve come to expect on Caesar salad as ground-beef in the tacos from Taco Bell are from a bone-in ribeye. The fish flavor was closer to bottom of the ocean than the creamy, smooth flavor of a good anchovy.

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Before we ordered, my wife remarked “Chicken Parmesan, it’s a dish so simple, how could they screw it up?” The Wooden Nickel decided to take that challenge upon themselves and give a resounding answer how. Two enormous, flat-pounded chicken breasts cooked to beyond the grave, then chilled, baked again, and tasting of sawdust. The chicken portions were so overcooked, they couldn’t be cut without a knife and came apart in strings. The coating, much like the sauce, and cheese, tasted of absolutely nothing. The sauce here, even more watery than that featured in our appetizer, rejected the pound and a half of overcooked pasta and chicken completely, instead finding comfort at the bottom of the plate. The half pound of melted provolone on top of each piece of chicken provided the only flavor in the entire dish, choosing to make you sick to save you from having to complete it. The shining star, the shredded parmesan on the side, came included with the plate, as if the kitchen had already given up before serving the dish.

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But what really makes me angry, and I definitely wasn’t angry before, were the “Vanilla Bean Shrimp”. Described as “Pittsburgh Restaurant Week’s PRABBY award winning”, the shrimp were overcooked and underseasoned, along with everything else on this dish. The whole plate was covered in a butter sauce created by someone that maybe had once enjoyed vanilla bean, light years from the “Tahitian vanilla bean butter” sauce I’d been promised. The potatoes were burnt on one side and raw on on the other, yet somehow completely flavorless and mushy. The asparagus, while not incredibly overcooked, were mushy with butter. The three (3!) shrimp were butterflied and stuffed with a jumbo lump crab meat, which was the only saving vestige of the entire dish. The shrimp were rubbery and tasteless and disappointing. My only explanation is that the dish voted “best of” the Pittsburgh Restaurant Week in 2014 is not this dish, that chef has long since quit and moved on to a better restaurant, and those left in his stead have had to make do with only random scribblings of recipe notes and the palate of an 8 year-old.

Finally, as a last note, I need to explain my extreme and utter disdain for this dish and the restaurant serving it. Their Appetizer section, affectionately referred to as “No Better Way to Start”, has a dish under it. The specific dish I’m referencing is described as “Three crab-stuffed jumbo shrimp, topped with Tahitian vanilla bean butter” is called Vanilla Bean Shrimp and is listed at $16, a price I’d have no problem paying for my entree. Quite to the contrary, my dish, with the addition of potatoes and asparagus, cost me $30. So either the potatoes and asparagus cost the restaurant $14 or I just paid $10 a shrimp (or $5 more per shrimp) for absolutely no reason at all. I am never one to complain about pricing, but this just infuriated me.

Naturally, my wife didn’t finish her meal, so she asked for a box out of consideration and kindness. We had no intention of eating the leftovers, but we were not about to get into it should questions be asked. Some restaurants it’s just better cutting your losses, spreading the word about quality, and never returning. The icing on the proverbial shit-cake came when they brought out her leftovers. Please keep in mind this is a restaurant that consistently churns out $75+ tickets on their tables.

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I can say no more beyond our experience. I’d love to hear from others. Have you been here? Did you have a good meal? Was the chef and entire kitchen staff murdered shortly after you left? Are there imposters in the kitchen now? Who can we warn? Please don’t take or eat at any Wooden Nickels.