Best of Pittsburgh (2017)

Another year down, another amazing series of meals in this lovely city of Pittsburgh. We continue to thrive as a community and move forward in both economic and societal successes. Let’s all support each other and make sure to especially support those small, neighborhood restaurants that you really enjoy! I was very disappointed to see both El Milagro and Casellulla go out of business this year, but as to what the entire story is, I cannot say. I can only hope through supportive patronage and spreading the word to our friends and family, we won’t lose any of those on this list. Also, please note while I may have visited these places many more times throughout the year, the dates given were when these pictures were taken and these experiences were had. All that being said, may I present the 15 most enjoyable bites I had this year within the City of Pittsburgh.

 

15. The Cafe Carnegie / 5-14-17 / Oakland

It’s very rare that someone might highlight the food at a museum as being the reason to make a visit, but the Cafe at the Carnegie Museum of Art has definitely made itself a destination restaurant for me. Chef Sonja Finn has established a gorgeous dining room, a technically impressive menu, and a truly wonderful dining experience overall. Great service throughout (we visited on Mother’s Day for brunch) seemed to be part and parcel with how the cafe operates. The soft boiled egg dish was served with prosciutto and delicious bitter greens, open-faced over a piece of toast, providing a nice and rich dish. The egg in the hole sandwich had fresh toasted wheat bread with that wonderful fried egg and spicy meats throughout. The lightly dressed salad was a welcoming accompaniment of vinegar to cut through the richness of the yolk and meats. The dining room, the ever-changing menu, and the wonderful service while even completely full ensures I’ll be returning for many a refined brunch at the art museum.

 

14. Kaya / 7-13-17 / Strip District

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File this under the “things that may only have been a secret to me” but Kaya has ridiculously delicious fried chicken. Every Thursday night they offer up a half of a chicken, tortillas, and a seasonal assortment of sides/sauces. I’m always hankering for some delicious fried chicken (I’d love to know some of your favorites) so I decided to head out to check it out with my Dad back in July. I was very impressed to say the least. The buttermilk marinade is evident front and center with that impossibly juicy chicken underneath the crags and mountains of beautifully seasoned and crunchy coating. I went with the Nashville hot preparation, which kicked the spice up quite a bit, but it was balanced with precision by the cucumber ranch dipping sauce, fresh vinegar coleslaw, and huge slices of salted watermelon. Pulling the meat off of the thigh and loading that up into the tortilla with some of the ranch and a sprinkling of coleslaw was like some Dr. Frankenstein Southern taco abomination, but it tasted outstanding all the same. Take the time and join the club one of these upcoming Thursdays or check out Kaya any other day of the week for some of the best Island cuisine in the Strip.

 

13. Ting’s Kitchen / 3-10-17 / North Hills

13 ting's kitchen spicy pork ribs

One doesn’t normally equate “McIntyre Square Strip Mall” with “delicious and authentic Szechuan cuisine” but that’s exactly what Ting’s Kitchen achieves. Previously known as China Star (not that China Star), but with a new management and the same kitchen staff. This authentic Chinese restaurant is a wonderful oasis in a shopping center not known for its destination cuisine. I’ve had their variations on double-cooked pork belly with garlic greens, as well as their Chongqing chicken and shell-on wok-fried salt and pepper shrimp and all have been delicious. Pictured here are the spicy pork ribs and leeks. The bone is trimmed and cut, so you have to remove the meat from the bone and discard the bone separately, but the meat is cooked long enough to completely fall right off the bone. These are not ribs in the traditional American sense, but more of a nugget of pork chop surrounding a small piece of bone for bite-sized portions. The chili broth permeates the celery, scallions, and mushrooms nicely, so as to create a wonderful stewed flavor throughout. They also do some of the best red chili oil dumplings I’ve had. While you may have only been aware of Taj Mahal for incredible authentic cuisine off of McKnight Road, check out Ting’s Kitchen if you’re out that way (and Chengdu Gourmet or How Lee or Sichuan Gourmet if you’re near Squirrel Hill).

 

12. Huszar / 9-27-17 / North Side

12 Huszar steak

Even though we only just visited back in September, I’m already planning on ordering those potato pancakes when we return to Huszar. I had such an enjoyable meal meeting the staff and learning the history of this bar and how it became a restaurant. While the wonderful stories would have been enough to make this an unforgettable meal, the food really knocked it out of the park. Perfect food for the kind of weather we’ve been having, Hungarian cuisine helps keep you warm both inside and out. The aforementioned potato pancakes were some of the best I’ve ever had (not to be confused with the outstanding hash-brown-adjacent latkes that my mother cooks up for Hanukkah) these are light and fluffy and wonderfully toasted and crispy. The paprikash was amazing, the eye of round steak with a mountain of onions that I ordered was wonderful, the desserts were out of this world, with service and a guide through it all that was second-to-none. Few neighborhood restaurants make you feel as welcome or as at home as Huszar and I can’t wait until you feel like part of the family, as well.

11. Butterwood Bake Consortium / 8-26-17 / Lawrenceville

11 Butterwood bake consortium brownie

A wonderful gem in the ever-expanding Lawrenceville, located just a couple of doors down from my favorite vegan restaurant in the city (B52), this Bakery has really knocked it out of the park. With only a few offerings every day (but a near-consistent supply of brownies), your mileage may vary with your visit but we’ve sampled many a vegan and environmentally-consciously-sourced baked good and they all have been excellent. Their brownies, heated up, are like hot fudge at the center with a crunchy and crispy exterior, rich and chocolatey and as dense as a black hole. Luckily, their coffee is outstanding as well and works well to bring you back down to Earth before drifting too far into the core of chocolate nirvana. Lighter fare is usually available and desserts with rose water or honeysuckle or a light misting of lavender could be available and should be sampled. The best part of Butterwood is that they’re open until 11pm Monday through Saturday and 9pm on Sundays to ensure whenever you want that perfect slice of cake, you won’t have to sacrifice quality for convenience.

10. Pallantia / 5-13-17 / Shadyside

10 pallantia meat fiesta

There are a couple of notable Spanish restaurants around the city (the legendary Mallorca, last year’s list-maker Morcilla ) and I had a truly delicious meal dining at one I hadn’t previously visited back in May. They have quite a sizeable menu and I was especially impressed at their wide breadth of protein offerings (from all sorts of seafood, chicken, pork, beef, chorizo, etc). We ordered what we lovingly referred to as the “meat fiesta”, which came with chorizo, chicken, pork, and steak, with potatoes and saffron. It was a behemoth. It’s hard to tell from the picture, but this is an enormous paella pan, used to serve up a true meat party from all across the barnyard. The homemade chorizo was a standout for me, densely ground, black on the outside and a deep dark red within, with strong flavors of cumin, garlic, ancho chili, and paprika. I’m a sucker for a good sampler platter and this was easily one of the best that I was able to share and enjoy with friends this year.

 

9. Tan Lac Vien / 2-5-17 / Squirrel Hill

9 tan lac vien chicken rice noodle thing

Easily my favorite Vietnamese in the city right now is in Squirrel Hill at Tan Lac Vien. They have such a nice amount of options from the broken rice bowls to pho to the noodle bowls (bun vermicelli) to these, the vermicelli lettuce wraps (banh hoi). Not pictured are the hard shiny discs of dried vermicelli (think the translucent wrapper around a fresh summer roll). You slowly rotate those discs in the hot water they provide until it becomes soft and pliable, almost like a thick sheet of gelatin. Then, it’s up to you to stuff it with whatever protein you’ve ordered (in this case the lemongrass marinated pork), as well as pickled vegetables, fresh cilantro or basil, and any amount of vinegar fish sauce, or plum sauce, or sriracha. You roll it all up into your own kind of fresh roll and chow down. The pork is wonderfully charred and crunchy from the sweet glaze and crushed peanuts, and leaves a delicious smokey sauce on the bed of tightly wound rice noodles that it lays on. I’ve been consistently impressed with Tan Lac Vien and I look forward to more authentic cuisines taking the forefront as Sichuan cooking has in recent months.

 

8. Scratch / 5-20-17 / Troy Hill

I first discovered Scratch for myself back in 2016, and I have to admit it’s only gotten better. This year we were able to sample their offerings for brunch with some friends and it was an outstanding meal from start to finish. Their chicken and biscuits were incredible, with the hot and spicy breading breaking down into the english muffin and covered with a wonderful relish dressing, like a deconstructed fried chicken sandwich. The star was truly the pork belly and eggs with perfectly crispy and fatty thick cut pork belly under a sunny-side-up egg so when the yolk was burst, it allowed the entire dish to bathe in its rich sauce. A beautiful space when the walls can be opened and the entire restaurant becomes like eating outside, with excellent food and service to match. I look forward to returning to Troy Hill soon. I’ve also been buzzed about Pear and the Pickle, just a couple of streets away, so it looks like a trip is soon in order.

 

7. Streets on Carson / 2-16-17 / Southside

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When I was in Philadelphia last year, I had the pleasure to stop by the Reading Terminal Market and enjoy the epic DiNic’s Roast Pork Sandwich. A big crusty italian roll sliced horizonally and layered with huge slices of fresh roast pork, topped with shaved sharp provolone, and topped with garlicky broccoli rabe. It’s one of the most magnificent sandwiches I’ve ever had in my life and you owe it to yourself to try one if you’re ever in the Reading Terminal Market and hungry for a pork sandwich. The Roast Pork Broccoli Rabe at Streets on Carson is not that sandwich. It’s a wonderful and beautifully executed tribute. It takes the large slices of pork and replaces it with slow cooked, wonderfully seasoned roast pulled pork, takes the rabe and adds far more stalk and crunch, takes the chunks of sharp provolone and brings it down far more mild into deli slices, and brings the hoagie bun down to more manageable and softer territory. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an outstanding sandwich on its own and it does a wonderful homage to its predecessor. Where they win at Streets is with their house french fries. My goodness these fries. Perfectly cooked, slathered in garlic and herbs and cheese, these fries threaten to outshine some of the sandwiches. Easily my favorite thing at Streets are the Confit Chicken Wings. Cooked to perfect consistency and temperature, the meat is held onto the bone with only the most tenuous of ties, threatening to leap off and into your mouth at a moment’s notice. They’re seasoned with a wonderful combination of garlic and jalapeno and finished with lemon for a beautiful citrus acidic bite to help elevate the roasty toasted garlic and onion flavors. It’s a beautiful preparation and I only wish more places offered confit wings. Streets on Carson does its part to elevate Southside cuisine (along with Carmella’s, Stagioni, and a few others) and I want to recognize that achievement.

 

6. Teppanyaki Kyoto / 1-21-17 / Highland Park

Making its way back onto the list from 2016, I had to recognize Teppanyaki Kyoto once again. Subsequent visits have allowed me to enjoy nearly the entire menu and there really isn’t a bad dish in the bunch. The takoyaki are easily one of my favorite dishes in the entire city and no one else does them as well as Teppanyaki Kyoto does. Wonderfully light batter, studded with sweet and slightly chewy octopus, deep fried and topped with kewpie mayo, green onion, and the star of the dish (as far as I’m concerned) the dried bonito shavings. Beyond the snacks, their whole grilled teriyaki eel is all of the best parts of Unagi without the rice getting in the way. Incredibly sweet and smooth fish, wonderful oceanic saltiness and just the ever so slight bitterness of the skin and deep caramel of the sauce, it’s a wonderful seafood experience. Every course, all of the pacing, all of the plates and preparations and organization is executed wonderfully. Time and again, Teppanyaki Kyoto never fails to impress with their wide array of offerings and continual success plate after plate. I could eat those takoyaki every single day and never get tired of them.

5. DiAnoia’s Eatery / 9-17-17 / Strip District

5 Dianoia's benedict

We dined with them for the first time last year for New Year’s Eve and have visited multiple times both just as a couple and with friends. Consistently, time and again they have provided outstanding food, exceptional drinks, and exemplary service. For dinner, their cacio e pepe was second to none, perfect housemade noodles, beautifully balanced seasoning, gorgeous and velvety creamy cheese sauce. We’ve had so many of their breakfast offerings, but my favorite is the Prosciutto Eggs Benedict pictured above. The true definition of eggs benedict, with hollandaise and a poached egg, but a wonderful twist of creamed spinach and prosciutto. They don’t go for fancy or challenging food. It’s all delicious, it’s all straightforward and approachable and above all, consumable. A friendly place with a wonderful open floor plan, beautiful fixtures, and a true homey cafe feel, I cannot recommend DiAnoia’s enough for a simple and elegant Italian meal.

4. The Vandal / 6-3-17 / Lawrenceville

My favorite inventive and adventurous meal this year was enjoyed with another lovely couple back in June at The Vandal. A comically small restaurant (I think there were 6 tables?), each course feels like it’s being personally prepared and delivered by the chef herself. Though the menu has changed multiple times over, there are still hints of the dishes we enjoyed. The smoked fish crepes was an outstanding explosion of salty, smoked whitefish with the salty roe, light and fluffy crepes, and crunch scallions. I still think about that smoked fish. The take on fish and chips, raw thin slices of red snapper, crispy translucent slices of radish, crunchy fried potatoes, a drizzling of citrus and olive oil. It was the perfect crudo and the mild beauty seemed a world away from the boldness of the smoked fish. The carpaccio was easily some of the best I’ve ever had, with pickled vegetables, bright and vibrant olive oil and sea salt. The most basic of additions to help isolate and elevate the natural and raw flavors of the protein. The Executive Chef, Csilla Thackray is one of the best in the city and I look forward to seeing what she comes up with next.

3. Gaucho Parilla Argentina / 4-27-17 / Strip District (Downtown)

I am an unapologetic carnivore and no place in the city makes me face that fact head on like Gaucho does. Not only do they butcher, prepare, and masterfully cook their meats over a wood-fire unlike anyone else, but they’ve created these dipping sauces that you can enjoy, ad infinitum with said meats. The chorizo (both hot and mild) is stunning in its simplicity: the perfect snap, smooth and rich ground sausage throughout, but with their garlic ajo or chimichurri, it’s another level. You’ll wish for a whole loaf of their toasted bread to go with the sauces, blistered peppers and onions that come with the meats.. Their chicken is next level, with that incredible spice rub of  garlic, scallions, lemon, lime, jalapenos, and even more incredible flavor  from the slow wood-fire barbecuing that they receive. The chicken is only slightly crispy on the outside, where the rub has started to char and burn into the skin perfectly, with that explosive smoked chicken meat within. It’s a salacious, carnivorous mess, but one which you’ll come back for time and time again.

 

2. Spork / 4-14, 8-26-17 / Garfield

Also returning for the second year in a row is Spork, the magical small-plates restaurant helmed by Christian Frangiadis. This year, they added Spork Pit right next door in the empty lot. It’s a small BBQ operation, but the best part is that some of the items made their way onto the regular menu inside at Spork. The gorgeous BBQ chicken wings were perfectly smoked, with that unbelievably crunchy lacquer on the outside and beautifully pink smoked meat within. I was so impressed with these chicken wings and I cannot wait to try more from Spork (and Spork Pit) next season. Even greater than the wings (can you imagine that?) is the smoked brisket weck. Their take on the beef on weck, with perfectly smoked beef brisket, cooked so low and slow that most of that connective tissue had broken down to barely hold the meat slices together, but still with enough chew to keep it as a cohesive sandwich, topped with pickled onion, Dijon mustard and horseradish, all on the perfect salt encrusted hard-roll. This was easily the best sandwich I had all year and I look forward to returning and enjoying it yet again with one of their delicious house-made cocktails.

1. Honest John’s / 9-30, 12-3, 12-16-17 / Homestead

What makes a good restaurant? I’d argue that it’s good service, good food, in an appropriate setting, all at an appropriate price point. I know that’s one of the most subjective sentences that could ever possibly be, but follow me here for a second. Honest John’s is located off of the madness that is the Waterfront on 8th avenue (across the street from where Smoke used to be and right down from Dorothy 6). So for me, it’s a neighborhood restaurant, check. Walking in, they’ve got a nice breathable space with a couple of side rooms with a few tables and a main dining room with a full bar and 4 four tops set up and spread out. For me, that’s a nice amount of room to spread out and not feel like the couple next to you is sitting right on top of you. Appropriate setting, check. The menu is only one page long (with a huge $8-$10 cocktail list on the back) with all items ranging from $5 for bread with oil/rosemary honey butter to $29 for the steak, so check and double check. The entire staff is wonderful, friendly, willing to have a conversation even if they’re swamped, and gracious throughout, so check. I could belabor the point, but I think Honest John’s has cracked the secret formula: make good food and don’t be shitty and you’ve got a winning restaurant. My favorite item that I’ve ordered for lunch so far has been the smoked blue cheese wedge with homemade smoked blue cheese dressing, enormous lardons of bacon and strips of acidic green apple to help cut through that incredible richness of the fatty pork and dressing. Just a note, I added some of their grilled chicken to the entree and it as perfectly filling and a very generous portion. I’ve had their fish specials twice and each time the fish was perfectly cooked, fresh-tasting and wonderfully balanced in seasoning. I’ve had filets pan seared with that excellent crunchy layer on the outside and that melty soft and beautiful flake of a fresh fish within. The pimento mac and cheese is another grandslam, an enormous portion of noodles with the perfect zing of ancho chili and all topped with toasted garlic bread crumbs. I’ve also enjoyed the black bean soup, which is a meal in and of itself, an enormous bowl of creamy pureed black beans, wonderfully seasoned with a light hand as to not make it too salty, but still bring it out of a drab bowl of beans, and a beautiful dollop of sour cream on top. All of the best parts of black bean dip, with a spoon. I’m consistently impressed by the quality of the offerings from the kitchen from Honest John’s and I hope to see them thrive for years and years to come.

 

So another year has come and gone and while my updates haven’t been as consistent, that doesn’t make the food scene in Pittsburgh any more thriving. I am so lucky to be a part of this growing community. I hope we can all embrace the changes and help support those local restaurants that we all love so much.

I’ve attempted to keep my records accurate and as I remember them, but please don’t hesitate to e-mail me at DavidTheGastronome@gmail.com in case you’d like to discuss any of my list with me, also be sure to follow my Instagram and Like my page on Facebook. I would not exist without you, so please let me know what I can do to make this blog a more enjoyable experience. Thank you so much!

Best of 2017 (non-Pittsburgh category)

This year held some incredible meals both within and outside of Pittsburgh. I took one of the best (food) trips of my life with my wife to New Orleans and we also hit some wonderful places along the way. I’ll try not to spend too much time on each place as to not entice you too much to leave this magical food city we live in. That being said, if you’re looking for more information (or even suggestions) feel free to e-mail me at DavidTheGastronome@gmail.com. I tried hard not to overload this list with New Orleans, but that city is seriously ridiculous with their food history and offerings.

Stay tuned for the Best of 2017 Pittsburgh edition tomorrow!

10. Waterstone Pizza / 3-6-17 / Lynchburg, VA

I’m a sucker for a good wood-fired pizza and Waterstone is some of the best I’ve had outside of the city. We went simple sausage for the red pie and the sausage was a delicious house-made spicy and bold italian sausage with a blend of beef and pork. The sweet fresh tomatoes worked in great harmony with the earthy wood smoke of the crust and cheese. The Wild Mushroom pie had a basil pesto base, featuring crimini, portobello, and shiitake mushrooms, as well as goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes. The smoke of the pizza was outstanding with the mushrooms and sweet creaminess of the cheese and acidic bite of the tomatoes to cut through the richness of the pesto and the cheese. A lovely find in such a small city as Lynchburg, Virginia.

9. Buddy Lou’s Eats Drinks & Antiques / 3-5-17 / Hancock, MD

Located right off of the turnpike, I’d wanted to find a stopping point for a meal on our trip down to Virginia and this place came up consistently on most lists I’d checked. Even before stepping inside this roadside destination, you can tell it’s going to be special. Kitsch and ephemera is all over this place, inside and out. This is like Cracker Barrel if Cracker Barrel was good. Handmade, local art and affordably priced antiques are all over the multiple floors of this enormous cabin restaurant and it’s wonderful. The food is exactly as it’s supposed to be, homemade, hearty, enormous portions, and in wild excess. the Cinnamon Walnut French Toast is buttery toasted and like two slices of brown sugar cinnamon crumble cake. The Big Breakfast is everything you need for a road trip meal: two eggs, white sausage gravy, red potatoes, bacon, and a biscuit. Enough to keep you full, no matter where you’re headed to.

8. Central Grocery & Deli / 6-19-17 /New Orleans, LA

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First off, if you’ve ever wanted a real, tried-and-true muffuletta, you’ve got to go to the Corner Grocery. These folks literally invented the sandwich in 1906 and I doubt it’s changed much since then. It’s a behemoth of a sandwich, a quarter is all you need for an entire meal (and I mean it). The bread is like a focaccia, but far less dense and much more like a sandwich loaf. Still crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, it has to be substantial to hold in all of the oil from the olive salad. That’s all the liquid you need for this Italian sub on steroids. Countless layers of salami, ham, and mortadella are interspersed with layers of swiss and provolone cheeses and pressed almost like a cuban (but still served cold). These sandwiches were so good, I ordered two for my Dad online and had them shipped to him for his birthday. One of the best sandwiches I’ve ever had in my LIFE.

7. Green Eggs Cafe / 11-18-17 / Philadelphia, PA

I am a sucker for a good breakfast to get me set for the rest of the day and Green Eggs Cafe in Philly (they have multiple locations) was the one to do it. Enormous portions of original and imaginative dishes are served alongside whimsical coffee creations (I got mine on nitrous!). I went with the Kitchen Sink, which was no joke: eggs, crumbled sausage, potatoes, peppers, onions, all topped with a biscuit and sausage gravy. The vegetables were a welcomed oasis of freshness in a giant skillet of heavy, dense and rich flavors and textures. It was easily enough for two people. While YMMV, Green Eggs provided a super friendly staff, a lovely building, and even with a packed house, the restaurant turned over quickly enough to get us in and out with plenty of time to enjoy the rest of the city. We had some wonderful meals in and around Philadelphia (quick shout out to John and Kara!) but this was one of the most memorable and easily the most filling.

6. Han Noodle Bar / 10-8-17 / Rochester, NY

6 han noodle bar singapore rice noodles

While in Rochester, NY (twice this year) we found a very highly recommended Asian noodle bar in the same lot as a highly recommended gourmet hot dog shop. While the hot dogs were nice, Han Noodle Bar was outstanding. A tiny little 10 table restaurant, I was blown away with the breadth and quality of the dishes we sampled. Although I know it’s not authentic in the slightest, my Singapore Rice Noodles were the best I’ve ever had. Bright yellow curry notes, with nice deep spicy red chili flavor, large plump and fresh shrimp, juicy coal grilled chicken, fatty unctuous chunks of red pork, egg and vegetables all intertwined within a heaping pile of fresh vermicelli noodles. A lovely hole in the wall kind of place off to the side in an unassuming parking lot, but if you’re only in Rochester for one meal, I have to recommend 1 other place..(#2 on our list this year).

5. Compere Lapin / 6-24-17 / New Orleans, LA

Without a doubt, the best brunch/breakfast I had all year was at Compere Lapin in New Orleans on our last day of the trip. Led by the incredible Nina Compton (one of Food and Wine’s Best Chefs of 2017) this simple but incredible menu had many treasures to discover, but easily my favorite was the Smoked Hamachi / Everything Doughnut. Stunning just to behold, this was truly a piece of art to be devoured with both the eyes and literally. The cake doughnut was just on the right side of sweet, with that wonderful density that a good New York bagel has, without any of the difficult chew or crispy outside that a bagel sandwich struggles with, The cream cheese, with the magical blend of “everything” spices (garlic, onion, poppyseed, salt, sesame seed, etc) was placed on top with some fresh salmon roe so that the delicate insides: thin slices of smoked hamachi, tomato, slivers of translucent pickled white onion, and capers, were able to shine independently. Altogether though, this was a symphony of all of the perfect flavors of a smoked salmon bagel, wood smoked fish, sweet tomato, salty pickled capers, bitter garlic, crunchy onion, earthy seeds and spices. A magical creation I will never forget.

4. L’Albatros / 1-8-17 / Cleveland, OH

One of the first trips we took this year was to Cleveland and I was delighted to discover a restaurant on the campus of my alma mater that had not been there when I graduated. Part of a larger restaurant empire, Zack Bruell has made an impact on the city of Cleveland, but being an outsider it’s hard to say if that’s for better or for worse. Amongst his 9 (!) ventures, L’Albatros is the French fine-dining excursion and I was absolutely the better for having experienced it. Very traditional in dining, in a stunning design with active fire places and a very modern open kitchen design, I was really taken with this lovely oasis in an urban setting. The cheese offerings were really what put this restaurant on this list, though. Nothing I’d seen before (until Casellulla) was as extravagant or as deep of an offering as far as what they had. A wonderfully friendly fromagier and outstanding offerings really put a wonderful button on this incredible meal.

3. Toups’ Meatery + Toups’ South / 6-20 + 6-24-17 / New Orleans, LA

On an extremely rainy night, my wife and I made a trek to the best meal we had in all of New Orleans, Toup’s Meatery in the heart of mid-city. This was real Cajun cooking from a guy born, bred, and batter-fried in it. The double-cooked pork chop that my wife enjoyed was one of the finest examples of that specific cut. Absolutely gargantuan, cooked perfectly both within to maintain the flavor and integrity of the meat, as well as the outside with that unmistakable cracklin texture. My lamb neck was very similar to an oxtail it its low-and-slow preparation, but the tender meat and wonderfully intense gamey flavor shone through the entire dish.

Before catching our flight home, we stopped at the Southern Food & Beverage Museum to walk around and see it. We’d have been remiss to not take the opportunity to have one last snack for the road and the cracklins were the perfect choice. Extremely crispy on one end where the skin had dried up and become like the perfect chicken wing skin, with a piece of that back bacon/pork belly tender and meaty, smokey and bacony still attached. Easily some of the best butchered and prepared meat I had in New Orleans and a shining example of why Southern cooking and cuisine has been such a source of pride and culture for so long.

2. Dinosaur BBQ / 6-7-17 / Rochester, NY

My favorite bite in the United States (outside of Pittsburgh) was at Dinosaur BBQ. Easily some of the best BBQ I’ve had anywhere, Dinosaur BBQ is a national treasure. It’s embarrassing how much I still think about this place and their offerings, especially considering this was just one of 9 (!) locations that they have nationwide. I don’t know if it was just the perfect storm of the right time and place, combined with me being really hungry and our server being absolutely perfect, but this meal was exquisite from start to finish. The combinations were all affordably priced and delivered above and beyond on flavor and variety. Overall we Enjoyed (with a capital “e”) the ribs, pulled pork, brisket, chicken wings, spicy peel and eat shrimp, and hot link sausage with sides of bbq baked beans, mac salad, macaroni and cheese, and cajun corn. These people have BBQ down to a science and it shows through all of their meats and incredible sauce offerings. Perfectly cooked and served at the right temperature, it may be a chain, but they got it right and that’s a very difficult thing to do when it comes to BBQ (I miss you Famous Dave’s).

1. Momofuku Daisho / 10-21-17 / Toronto, ON, Canada

My favorite meal outside of Pittsburgh required a trip across the border to our friendly hat to the north. An easy 6 hour drive, you could make it if you left right now. Just one of 5 (not 9!) retaurants in the same building, this three-floored magical food emporium was created and billed as the “Momofuku-plex”. Daisho on the third floor is the fanciest of the restaurants that still has a menu and offered a lot of the dishes that the momofuku empire has become famous for. The pork belly was on another level, with the caramel fish sauce and crunchy crispy skin, it was as thick as a pork chop and perfectly slow-roasted. The bone-in tenderloin from McGee Farms was expertly prepared and served with a velvety creamy rich parsnip sauce and beef jus sauce that would have thrown me out the third-story window were it not for the bright explosions of fresh citrus throughout. The service was impeccable, the surroundings sublime, and the company (my wife as always) was still the best part.

This year has been another exciting year in my life and I am so lucky to be able to enjoy it through these experiences and meals. Thank you so much for coming along with me on this journey around the country. I am so excited for tomorrow to share my Best of 2017 list for my meals enjoyed within Pittsburgh. See you then!

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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.

8-21-16 / Golden Eagle Inn / Bedford Springs, PA

The night of the meal at the Crystal Room, my wife and I checked into the bed and breakfast she’d made reservations for us at the Golden Eagle Inn. The room was spacious and well-accommodated, with  huge windows and high ceilings, a modern bathroom, and a wonderful king-sized bed. In the morning when we woke, we went downstairs to our brunch reservations. I was immediately intrigued by the original and unique takes on “traditional” brunch foods and after the meal, I can confidently say I will be making a concerted effort to return to the Golden Eagle Inn and their restaurant every time we’re in Bedford Springs, if only to try everything on their seasonal menu.

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My wife had the chicken and biscuits, the classic southern dish with golden fried cutlets of white meat chicken, dense as a brick biscuits, sawmill (sausage) gravy, and a basil, garlic tarragon oil. The chicken was light, crispy, fresh, and delicious. Perfectly seasoned with the absolutely vital crunch to break up the heavy, dense dish, each bite of the chicken was superb. The biscuits, peppery and buttery, were the perfect consistency to not fall apart amongst the herbal oil or the smooth, thick gravy, which had that wonderful deep, earthy, pork flavor, without being overly salty or overpowering the biscuits and the chicken. The herbed oil was a masterful touch, providing a light, bright note that helped balance out the heavy and dense biscuits and gravy. An outstanding, stick-to-your-ribs kind of brunch dish that keeps you satisfied all day without making you feel overly indulgent.

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I went with the crushed meatball frittata, as their special of the day was a garden basil and fresh mozzarella frittata and I wanted to try some of their unique takes on protein (they also offered a meatloaf sandwich and a pastrami reuben, as well as a burger with candied bacon jam). The frittata was large and beautifully crispy on the edges, while perfectly cooked throughout. The melty mozzarella draped over the entire frittata added a lovely blanket of cheesiness, which as everyone knows is the best part of a meatball sub. Medium chunks of crushed meatballs, beautifully seasoned with a lot of garlic and fresh herbs (oregano, basil, and thyme) were dotted throughout the substantial open-faced omelet. The tater tots on the side were exceptional, hot and crispy, seasoned with some (well-appreciated restraint and) truffle salt and pepper.

Not pictured: the Build Your Own Bloody Mary that I built, or at least attempted to (100% my fault). The waiter brought me out a glass generously filled with Vodka and ice and I was free to add as much of the tomato juice, pickled vegetables (peppers, okra, tomatoes, gherkins), celery, bacon slices, and hot sauce as I wished. I really wasn’t thinking when I added those 4 shakes of the ghost pepper hot sauce, but that was completely on me and my inability to rationalize how far ghost pepper hot sauce goes in a glass. Next time, I’ll opt for one of their house-made cocktails and leave the cooking to the professionals.

5-14-16 / Lemongrass / Las Vegas, NV

For the morning of Saturday, May 14th we had reservations made for brunch at Bardot Brasserie in the Aria. Unfortunately, when we were in the car on the way over we received a call informing us that there was a problem in the kitchen and they would be closing for brunch. Forced with a quick decision, I suggested we go to Lemongrass (also located within the Aria Resort & Casino) instead. It wasn’t a traditional brunch, but it was still enjoyable.

We decided to take advantage of the rotating dim sum cart and ordered the above pictured BBQ Pork Bun, Pork and Shrimp Sui Mai, and Bean Curd Wrapped Pork and Shrimp. Also (not pictured) the BBQ Pork Ribs, and two Chicken Basil Buns. The BBQ Pork Bun were the highlight with big chunks of succulent pork in a sweet and vinegary sauce, encased in a sweet steamed bun. The bun was substantial enough to make the dumpling into an almost stuffed sandwich of sorts, with a far sweeter dough than I’m used to, but it was a welcome foil to the spicy and vinegary pork. The sui mai also fared well from a very rough chop, far from the usual sausage-like texture of most dumpling fillings. Large chunks of sweet shrimp and salty pork were held lightly by the egg noodle wrapper. The bean curd wrapper on the pork and shrimp suffered from over-steaming, causing the wrapper to be limp and reject most of the caramel sweet and sour sauce. The ribs were excellent, steamed and chopped up into small pieces to allow the gristle and bones to be separated and discarded, but far from the traditional “american” concept of a rib. The chicken basil buns were fairly standard flat discs of dough, similar to what you may see an open-faced pork belly bun served in, with an incredibly flavorful mixture of tiny pieces of ground, seasoned chicken, and large pieces of fried basil. They turned out to be quite difficult to eat, but well-worth the effort.

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After the heavy meal of the night before, I opted for something much lighter for brunch: the Thai Crab Omelette. Overstuffed with large chunks of jumbo lump crab meat, egg, and chopped with fried thai basil, this dish was simple, but effective in its goal. Extremely filling, the sweet crab and herbal basil balanced the crispy and salty fried egg omelette out beautifully. The garlic chili hot sauce (their homemade version of a sriracha) provided a nice zip of vinegar and punch to an otherwise sweet and salty dish. It was a huge portion and kept me full all day.

My wife enjoyed the Three Cups Chicken, a standard basil chicken hot pot dish far more familiar in Chinese cuisine than Thai. That didn’t stop the huge chunks of fresh white breast meat, ginger, basil, sesame oil, and Shaoxing wine from all working together in symphony to provide a harmonious and balanced hot pot. The sauce was so luxurious and thick, I was tempted to drink it from the bowl, but I opted for a Thai Iced Coffee instead. The heavy, powerful coffee drink with the thick, sweet syrup, was more like a coffee milkshake than a standard drink, but it was excellent nonetheless.

Overall, it wasn’t our first choice in dining for that specific meal, but it was a very enjoyable experience nonetheless.