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.

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(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.

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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.

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.

7-22-16 / Butcher and the Rye / Pittsburgh, PA

While waiting for the Music of David Bowie with the Pittsburgh Symphony  to start at Heinz Hall, my wife and I realized we’d yet to make dinner plans, so I quickly called across the street to Butcher and the Rye and made some late-night reservations. I’d never been there before, but my wife had, and she’d greatly enjoyed the few small plates she’d sampled. In my two previous trips to Meat and Potatoes, I’d left feeling disappointed in the ambiance, food quality, and variety of their menu, so I hadn’t really placed their sister restaurant Butcher and the Rye that high up on my list. That turned out to be a great mistake, as the drinks and dishes we enjoyed were overall excellent, unique, and delicious.

Our affinity for cocktails tend to run quite parallel (sour, sweet, gin, honey, lemon) so we were quite happy to see very similar cocktail offerings. On the left is the Bee’s Knees (Hendrick’s Gin, Lemon, and Honey) a perfectly light, crisp, and refreshing drink with bright acidity and a sweet finish. On the right is the Vesper (Belvedere Vodka, Beefeater Gin, Cocchi Americano [an apertif wine similar to Kina Lillet], and Angostura Bitters). Definitely stronger and more full bodied, the Vesper was a great pre-meal drink, opening up the palate with the Cocchi Americano and sharp bitters.

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We ordered the charcuterie board and I wasn’t positive on the bread situation, so I decided to order the rustic bread as well. It came with a wonderful black pepper and sage lardo, a melted pig fat butter to spread on the fresh, hot, crispy bread. The bread came pre-sliced which was greatly appreciated, especially in a sharing situation. The misstep came in the form of the “pan gravy”, a small saucer of chicken gravy topped generously with black pepper. Unfortunately the saucer itself didn’t retain heat very well and even on the sweltering summer night, the gravy soon found itself approaching room temperature, which as everyone knows, does not a good gravy make. We had to abandon it soon after it was delivered, as a cold gravy is very unpalatable. The bread was generously slathered with the lardon and used to further enjoy the generous charcuterie platter, but the gravy sat alone on the bench, abandoned and forgotten.

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The charcuterie platter was excellent, with some very unique standouts. The pork terrine was studded with large chunks of pistachio and was surprisingly light for how heavy and dense it looked. The two lovely cuts of cured pork, the bresaola and prosciutto were feather light and buttery, salty and smooth. The duck salumi on the top right of the board was heavy and dense, earthy with a heavy mouthful begging for an acidic bite from the amazing vegetable offerings.

The house-pickled vegetables at the bottom left, top right, and top middle of the board were all incredibly unique and vibrant. The pickled onions were far more sweet than salty or tart. The pickled peppers were roasted and pickled, soft and earthy on the inside with a crunchy vegetal skin. The cauliflower was less Italian and more Greek in its just barely-there pickle, softness, and earthiness. The cornichon pickles were sharp and sweet, crunchy, and cut through the fatty meats like a hot knife through fatty butter. Speaking of which, the maple lardo was an ingenious replacement for the standard honey, worked incredibly well with the sweet and salty meats and the crispy sourdough slices. Underneath it all were a violet mustardo and figs. A truly excellent charcuterie board.

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The crispy pig “wing” was an amazing feat of technical ingenuity and creativity. A large pork rib, trimmed, seasoned, coated, and deep fried, then tossed in a sweet and spicy thai chili sauce. Served over a pickled mango salad for even more sweetness and topped with chopped peanuts and cilantro. The pork was perfectly roasted and then fried to a deep golden brown crisp, with a coating that clung to every bite of tender and succulent pork meat. The pickled salad was a nice light element in a dish that was heavy with fatty pork meat and deep fried coating. The best part of ribs and chicken wings, forced together by a mad genius back in the kitchen, this was one of my favorite bites of the night.

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I still had a strong craving to revisit the shishito peppers we enjoyed at Carnevino  and I was left unsatisfied with those from Mezzo, so I decided to try again here. I am so glad that I did. Huge, fresh Shishito peppers (even bigger than those in Las Vegas) were grilled to perfection to provide a smokey, tart, spicy bite with a wonderfully deep and earthy pepper flavor throughout. Topped with cilantro, lime, slices of radish, miso salt, and sesame seeds, the peppers provided that powerful foundation to an excellent vegetable snack. Pools of sriracha mayo lined the bottom, allowing even more creamy spice to be added to the deep smoke of the grill and bite of some of the peppers. The tartness from the radish, cilantro, and lime all worked to pull this dish back from the border of richness it was flirting with. More bar snack than vegetable side dish, I was so glad I took the risk again and would gladly order these every time I returned.

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In a surprise twist of the night, the waitress misread her own handwriting (“cauliflower” for the “candy” in “pig candy”) so we ended up with this dish in addition to what we’d already ordered. Not something I would have normally ordered on my own, this again was more of a vegetarian main dish than a small plate/side as described. Roasted cauliflower, heavy with middle eastern spices, tossed with roasted farro, romanesco, baby carrots, and pine nuts in a brown butter and tomato sauce. Served between to heavy dollops of harissa infused greek yogurt, this was something I’d far more expect on a winter menu than a summer menu. It was far too dense and heavy, too warm, too deep in its earthiness for the stifling humidity of the night. The coolness of the yogurt was a swimming fin in the ocean of deep roasted vegetables and chewy grains. I think some vibrancy of lemon in the sauce or another acid in addition to the yogurt would have helped convert this dish to at the very least late-winter, rather than the stick-to-your-vegetarian-ribs stew quality of it all. Delicious overall, but for something we didn’t order in the first place, I wish it hadn’t come to us at all.

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The aforementioned “pig candy”, a dish my wife remembered fondly from a previous visit, was a nice salute to the pork belly madness currently sweeping the nation. Far sweeter than the standard braised belly, this was coated in a miso caramel, cilantro and radish, and served over a bed of an extremely mild apple kim chi. The pork of course was extremely sweet and made even sweeter by the caramel sauce and glaze upon the pork itself. This was far more of a dessert than an entree, so far as pork can be a dessert. I wish the apple kim chi had more spice to it, more funk, more of a counterbalance to the caramel and pork, but it turned into one big delicious caramel apple and pork, A to B to C dish that worked altogether very well in small amounts, but could never grow up and be an entree.

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Along with the pork, we enjoyed the Mac and Cheese (a perennial favorite choice of my wife’s). This take was made with shells, enrobed in a velvety taleggio, fontina, cheddar, parmesan, and goat cheese sauce, tossed with and topped with baked bread crumbs served in an all-clad pot. Ridiculously rich and creamy, it was a wonderful, heavy as a brick, pasta dish. I could only do so much of the thick cheese and shells, but that’s why you get married. It’s called teamwork. It makes the dream work.

 

I am very excited to make a return visit to Butcher and the Rye and try some of their larger plates (these were all small plates). I’m equally excited for whatever changes they make to their menu (whether for seasonal reasons or otherwise). Whatever the changes, even if there are none, I’m certain a follow-up meal will be excellent. With the ridiculously good tako and upcoming opening of Pork and Beans downtown, I’m very optimistic about the future of the Richard DeShantz restaurant group. Who knows, maybe it’s even time to revisit Meat and Potatoes?

6-5-16 / The Commoner / Pittsburgh, PA

The next day, my wife and I went with my parents to go see Matilda at the Benedum Center as part of the PNC Broadway Series.We decided to all grab an early dinner afterwards at The CommonerMy wife and I had previously been there and enjoyed the meal, so we decided to take my parents and see if that quality could be repeated with their new menu. We were very impressed with all of the dishes and had quite an enjoyable meal.

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We all got our own cocktails and I opted for the Fortunato. Made of Milagro blanco tequila, fresh lime juice, Cherry Heering, Lustau amontillado sherry, cream soda, and served with a fortune cookie clipped to the side of the glass, it was smooth and creamy, sweet and tart. There wasn’t too much tequila, which was good due to the inclusion of the heering liqueur and sherry. It was delicious and refreshing, without being overly sweet.

 

My father and I shared the Mussels as an appetizer, but it could have been a meal. It was at least 30 huge, meaty, fresh mussels served with large chunks of homemade mild chorizo, fresh corn, fennel, and an outrageous white wine butter sauce. The mussels were all perfectly cooked, with large open shells filled to the brim with the chorizo, corn, and sauce. The mussels themselves were only slightly briney, with that wonderful oceany, creamy texture, and separating easily from the shells leaving only the smallest neck. The meaty and porky chorizo went excellently the sausages bff fennel, as well as with the mild mussels and super sweet corn. The waiter brought over a plate of grilled bread, which we allowed to soak up the sinfully rich white wine that had collected at the bottom of the pot. Easily shareable by 3 or 4 people, this was a magnificent portent for the rest of the meal.

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My mother went with the Butter Lettuce Salad and opted to add the shrimp as a protein. Huge leaves of fresh Bibb lettuce, julienned green apple slices, dotted with grape sections, toasted buttery cashews, strong pungent blue cheese crumble, and lightly dressed with an aged sherry vinaigrette. The shrimp were huge and wonderfully cooked, standing up to the boldness of the blue cheese and the sharp crisp apple. The grapes stood in the for more standard cranberries and provided a nice vibrancy to the dish that was further elevated by the dressing. The cashews, again a stand-in for the common walnuts were a welcome addition, adding depth of flavor and even more buttery notes initiated by the lettuce and bleu cheese. Each note worked in a lovely symphony to create a cohesive dish, when many salads are happy to be a conglomeration of ingredients tossed together and bonded only by the lettuce they sit upon. This was a salad that cared.

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My father went with the Shepherd’s Pie. A classic pub dish the savory stew of ground lamb, peas, carrots, and gravy were topped with a luxurious layer of whipped and broiled potato mash. The mixture within was nice and thick, but still close enough to a traditional savory pie filling to invite, but not rely upon, the binding of the mashed potato crust. The vegetables were nicely crunchy and not overcooked, which is difficult to do in a savory pie, and held up nicely against the nicely herbed lamb and salty gravy. Not my first pick for a Sunday supper in Summer, but still enjoyable overall.

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My wife went with the Vegetarian Tikka Masala and opted to add grilled chicken breast to it. Composed primarily of sweet potatoes, with a sauce of tomatoes, onions, and chilis, studded with chickpeas, and topped with yogurt, cilantro, rice, and some homemade naan/flat bread. An overly generous portion of onions made up the body of this dish, which sometimes clashed with the creamy, stringy sweet potato. The spice mixture of the traditional garlic, ginger, turmeric, garam masala, coriander, and cumin came through the competing root vegetables and worked in harmony to create the cohesive traditional British dish. Far more Oxford Center than Oxford, I would have liked some stronger flavors or a different take on the vegetable mix, but it was still very enjoyable and tasty. The spice was a welcome addition, daring to be far bolder than most “Americanized” ethnic dishes.

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My entree, naturally, was the Amish 1/2 Chicken. Magnificently roasted, the meat just fell right off of the bone. I was especially impressed with the leg, prepared confit, with the traditional fat and gristle sections melting into the meat and becoming a soft and tender piece of meat when many 1/2 chicken dishes choose to toss it to the side with the wing. While advertised as having and orange and chili brined breast, those flavors unfortunately didn’t come through all that strongly, forcing me to resign myself to a delicious and fresh plate of beautifully roasted chicken. The roasted fingerling potatoes were lovely and crispy, with a soft, mashed potato inside, holding up to the generous jus drizzled over the plate. The bitter greens (I believe collard, possibly kale) had crunchy stalks and leaves tossed in the jus and chicken stock for a saucey and crunchy bite, very similar to a well-cooked bok choy. An excellent dish that honored its protein, it was everything I want in a Sunday dinner and more.

Absolutely unheard of in the usual population, the Commoner is actually located in the lobby of the Hotel Monaco, a chain of 65 boutique hotels located in 35 cities around the country. Far be it from me to look down on restaurants located in hotels, there’s definitely a certain stigma that comes along with the locale. Please leave those preconceived notions with the hipster doorman. Top-notch, well-paced service, from a personable and attentive waiter with a delicious meal to match, it was disappointing to find the restaurant a ghost town on a Sunday early evening. I recommend it highly and look forward to exploring the rest of the adventurous and varied menu.

6-4-16 / Mezzo (2nd Floor of Sienna Mercato) / Pittsburgh, PA

A couple of weekends ago, my wife and I were Downtown to see a show Saturday night at the Arcade Comedy Theater. We decided it’d be ideal to head to a restaurant and utilize their valet service rather than trying to negotiate the ballet that is parking, enjoying dinner, and seeing a show Downtown. We had previously enjoyed Emporio and found it quite competent in style/substance, so we decided to head up the steps to their “showcase of gourmet Italian fare” upstairs at Mezzo. While it certainly was Italian, I can guarantee that, I found many of the dishes, elements, and concepts to be muddled or under-executed.

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For cocktails, my wife went with the Bella Ragazza (Sobieski, Brachetto, Lime, and Orange, the tall red glass on the left) and I went with the Words Once Spoken (Meletti, Lemon, Apricot Liqueur, and Maraschino). Sobieski (the Polish Vodka, not the 90s actress) was very strong in terms of an alcoholic kick and easily overpowered the light strawberry finishes of the Brachetto and citrus notes. It was strong and tart, but not much else. My drink, in addition to being far more dramatically titled, was a far better cocktail. The light aromatic Meletti Amaro blended with the tart sweetness of the apricot, maraschino, and lemon to form a very smooth and sweetly sour drink. Very similar to an Italian sour, I was impressed and would have ordered a second if I’d had the chance.

We decided to take advantage of their premiere offerings and went with the Cheese Board (when presented with the option between “local” and “Italian” we chose “Italian”) and the Castelvetrano Olives. Easily the best part of the charcuterie board, the Castelvetrano Olives were meaty, fresh, and had that perfect, almost-mushroom texture of the beautiful olives. The cheeses fared far less successfully. A combination of 2 identical aged cow’s milk (Reggiano Parmesan and Grana Padano), 2 identical soft sheep’s-milk (Robiola and Taleggio), and a forgettable and overly mild Mountain Gorgonzola. The spiced and sugared walnuts, as well as the prune jam added nice elements to an otherwise mild and bland cheese plate. I admittedly had my expectations set very high before even ordering, as Mezzo advertises themselves as a locale for Charcuterie, Italian Charcuterie specifically. Perhaps it was an off-night, maybe they’d run out of better options earlier in the night (we were there at 7:30 on a Saturday) or perhaps there was a mix-up in the kitchen. Whatever it was, I felt very let down by the lackluster offerings.

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The hits kept coming with my entree, the Pork “Cut of the Day” (in this case the boneless loin), with horseradish whipped potatoes, roasted broccoli, and rosemary jus. We’d also ordered a side of Shishito Peppers as well as a side of the Charred Broccoli (served with Parmesan), but the waitress came over and asked if we’d rather substitute the Spaghetti Squash for the broccoli since I was already receiving broccoli with my pork. We opted for the substitution and the broccoli was delivered only on my plate, sans parmesan, which is desperately needed. The pork, especially for being the special cut of the day, was dry and overcooked. The chef recommended Medium and while I usually go for Medium Rare, I always trust in the chef’s recommended temperature when it comes to lamb/pork. The jus was necessary to provide some kind of flavor to a tough piece of pork. The plate found itself with a vegetable that had long since been forgotten in the oven to go beyond roasting and approach burnt, and a potato whipped beyond any hope of retaining any of the spicy bite of the horseradish or literal chew of the potato that comes from homemade whipped potatoes.

The two Contorni (side dishes) as mentioned above were the Shishito Peppers on the left and the Spaghetti Squash on the right. I had such fond memories of the Shishito Peppers from Las Vegas at Carnevino that I had to order them to see if that magic could be captured again. Gone were the smokey, soft, charred, roasty flavor of grilled peppers and instead they seemed to be tossed in just a little too much olive oil and topped with a little too much parmesan (there are vegetables under there, I swear!). The red onion and cherry tomatoes didn’t add much, especially after you roast them until they’re soft and limp. The spaghetti squash, shaved and served with a heavy hand of black pepper truffle honey, fared the best out of all of the dishes. Just slightly undercooked, the noodles of hashbrown-like squash were tossed with the thick sauce, creating almost a truffled alfredo of sorts. It was the pasta course I never asked for, but accepted wholeheartedly nonetheless.

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My wife, opting for something unique from the wildly uneven menu, went with the Homemade Sausage Panini. I don’t know what the goal was, or even what the vision was, but I have to assume it missed the mark. Accurately described as being served with mozzarella, there certainly was a lot of the heavy, gooey cheese. Also described as being served with a peppernota, but it instead seemed to have a handful of greasy onions and yellow peppers instead. Finally, in the strangest move of all, the “homemade sausage” was, hand-to-God, some kind of bologna. Tasting of garlic and not much else, the pink, meat loaf was cut in slices far more akin to a spam or caseless hot dog. To be 100% fair, bologna is a traditional Italian sausage, but I would have much rather it be advertised as a fried bologna sandwich instead.

 

All in all, we either severely ordered incorrectly or they missed their mark. I feel like a lot of the issues I had can be attributed to an attitude that comes along with being an established restaurant downtown. They know their clientele (happy hour crowds, bachelorette parties [we saw 4]), they can deliver at a price point with a wine/cocktail list large enough to keep them drinking long enough to serve mediocre food and come away looking like a far better restaurant than they are. Stick with the first floor and the meatballs. I don’t think I’ll be venturing up to Il Tetto (their rooftop beer garden), mostly out of a fear that the further I get from the street, the further I get from good food.

5-28-16 / Poros / Pittsburgh, PA

Friday afternoon I had the pleasure of joining an old coworker down in Market Square for lunch. We chose Poros, a new restaurant in the Y Group (which includes Perle, Ceviche, Nola, and Sonoma). It was a beautiful day, so they opened up all of the exterior walls to their patio area. They’ve got an open floor plan, so it made for a bit of confusion (walking through the dining area) to get to the hostess stand, not a huge deal at all. Right behind the hostess stand is a huge deli case filled with all sorts of fresh seafood (I saw a few fish, shrimp, and clams). It really adds to the authenticity that this is fresh-caught seafood you’re about to enjoy. We chose to sit outside and enjoy the weather in anticipation of this great meal. It did not disappoint. The prices are extremely affordable, but I can only speak for the lunch offerings. I will definitely return to try dinner. I chose the three course tasting lunch for $19.

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To start off, I chose the baba ghanoush, tzatziki, and homemade pita. The baba ghanoush was an extremely garlicky but obviously homemade version of the traditional pureed eggplant dip. The house-made pita had a very strong chickpea flavor, so I’m thinking they’ve got chickpeas actually blended into the dough itself. They were nicely herbed and sprinkled with sea salt and provided a nice vehicle for the baba ghanoush. Of note were the pomegranate seeds sprinkled on top of the baba ghanoush, which I’ve never seen before in my Mediterranean eating. I asked the waiter about it, but he was unable to provide much background or guidance as to why the sweet seeds would be sprinkled on top of such a savory spread.

There were also two slices of grilled wheat bread underneath the four pieces of pita which provided a nice textural break from all of the soft pita and dips. The bread was simple, crusty, and dressed with a nice light olive oil. It paired beautifully with the bright and creamy tzatziki sauce. Far thicker than I’m used to, it was more like a dip than a sauce as I’m used to with tzatziki. It also had some kind of grain within it which I couldn’t place, that added mostly texture (and difficulty with dipping) than flavor. It was quite a large portion for an individual appetizer course, but it was all delicious, so I’m not complaining.

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For my main course, I chose the fish of the day, which was an Arctic Char. Seemingly identical with salmon in preparation, flavor, texture, and consistency, so much to the point that I asked the waiter if this was, in fact, salmon, but he assured me it wasn’t. The only obvious difference I could tell was that the skin was more of a copper brown color than the silver I’m familiar with in salmon. Confusion aside, it was an outstanding piece of fish. Extremely moist, flavorful, and mild in its fishiness, it was cradled wonderfully by the cracker crispy skin. It was served atop a mixture of roasted cauliflower, a mediterranean bean salad with cannellini beans and house-cured black olives, and a roasted chickpea spread. It all worked together very nicely, the bright acidity of the salad paired with the vinegary olives, the smooth earthy spread, and the earthy creaminess of the cauliflower with the piece of fish shining above and beyond as the star of the dish. An excellent plate from a restaurant touting to specialize in Mediterranean Seafood.

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My third course choice was the Baklava Ice Cream. There seemed to be some confusion in the kitchen as to whether or not the freezer was working, so we’d “resigned” ourselves to greek yogurt, honey, and walnuts, but were pleasantly surprised when this arrived instead. Unfortunately after tasting, the surprise lost some of its appeal. The cinnamon-based ice cream was creamy and delicious, but unfortunately the honey-coated pieces of phyllo dough within the ice cream itself turned soggy. I would have much rather been served a “deconstructed” baklava ice cream, with their tasty cinnamon ice cream, walnuts, and honey, with the tasty and fresh-fried phyllo dough served on top. Nonetheless, it was only a small misstep in an otherwise excellent meal.