(TBT) 9-3-16 / Roost / Pittsburgh, PA

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-27-16 / Butterjoint / Pittsburgh, PA

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

8-23-16 / Altius / Pittsburgh, PA

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Another incredible meal from the folks high atop the Mount. In a neighborhood full of places that are fine to rest on their name and laurels alone and never change their menu or push themselves (looking at you Le Mont, Tin Angel, Grandview Saloon, Isabella on Grandview, and Monterey Bay Fish Grotto) Altius is a shining oasis. I am so invigorated and inspired to see restaurants like this open up, do well, and maintain that high level of quality and consistency. I am so, so impressed that they’ve managed to top the magnificent meal that I enjoyed last year. I’m going to have to do some heavy research and investigating if I’m going to find somewhere that I’d even consider going to next year for my birthday that could top Altius.

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.

8-5-16 / Spork / Pittsburgh, PA

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I decided to try a new place that I’d read a lot about, Spork located between Garfield and Lawrenceville on Penn Avenue. Not to be confused with Spoon (another excellent restaurant in Pittsburgh), Spork offers a dynamic menu comprised primarily of small plates, an outstanding cocktail program, and top-notch service. This is a place I am so excited to see thrive in Pittsburgh and I cannot wait to return.

On the left was my choice, the English Garden. A vodka cocktail, with nasturtium (the edible plant you see on top), and a whole lot of muddled cucumber and mint. It was like a far-more-refreshing mojito, bursting with refreshing cucumber and the sweet and tart mint. It was more than welcome on a hot, humid day. On the right is the house featured aperitif, the Cocchi Americano Bianco. A throwback style of apertif wine with Moscato steeped with cinchona (the source of quinine) and lots of citrus and herbs. Very drinkable, smooth and tart, the moscato’s sweetness was kept in balance by the woody cinchona and herbs. The perfect aperitif.

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From the “Sharing” section, we chose the cured meats, as our waitress informed us that it contained many elements of other dishes we were interested in. The meats and olives are all cured in house, which was extremely impressive. The bread was crusty and lightly griddle toasted on the outside and wonderfully fresh and soft on the inside, the perfect bread for dipping and running across a board such as this. The pickled onions were devoid of any onion flavor at all and instead carried a wonderful aroma of caraway seeds and garlic. The bread and butter pickles weren’t particularly sweet but still had a nice buttery crunch and bite, which was a nice departure from the standard. The violet mustard was outstanding and complimented the bold flavors of the terrine beautifully. The spicy lomo wasn’t very spicy at all and almost indifferentiable from the pork belly brasciole. The terrine was my favorite of the meats, offering the most intense notes of meat and that porkiness that you get from a very well-cured cut. The other meats were acceptable and enjoyable, but not a high-note of an evening overwhelmingly filled with all-stars.

The arugula salad, with pancetta, pickled mushrooms, and the soft egg was an outstanding forway into the menu itself. Fresh greens, diced tomatoes, and crispy pancetta were all tossed in a nice and tart lemon vinaigrette. The dressing was unnecessary due to the gorgeous soft poached egg on top. The velvety golden yolk did more than its fare share coating the slightly wilted arugula and bacony pancetta. I can’t overstress the simple perfection of the combination of bacon and egg over a lightly dressed salad. What’s not to like?

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An absolutely homerun for me, was the hummus (from the “Jars”) section of the menu. The still-chunky hummus was generously topped with dates, honey, and smoked almonds for a sweet garlicky crunchy dip that could have just as easily been offered on the dessert menu. The perfect consistency of smooth and soft blended hummus and tahini, dotted with those crunchy smokey nutty almonds and soft and sweet dates and honey made the jar into an outrageously magnificent spread for the incredible bread. I could eat a bathtub full of this stuff and still want more. Can’t miss.

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From the “Bites” portion of the menu, we decided on the arancini. A lightly-fried risotto ball, filled with mushrooms, prosciutto, and provolone, it was outstandingly rich with a light crispy texture. The house-made tomato sauce dotted with freshly shaved parmigiano reggiano combined together sweet and salty, tart and earthy, to elevate the mushrooms and cheese within. An outstanding dish and the arancini we’d been hoping for since our meal at Wooden Nickel (not linked because that place is awful).

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We enjoyed the chestnut gnocchi from the “pasta” section of the menu. The slices of prosciutto, crispy bits of kale, and wine reduction all carried the extremely dense and heavy chestnut gnocchi. Soft and dense, the gnocchi were far more substantial than I’ve seen in other dishes, but were welcomed alongside such strong flavor profiles as the bitter and tart kale, the red wine, and the salty and fatty prosciutto. A very filling and well-composed dish, I look forward to trying this again in the colder months ahead.

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My pork cheeks unfortunately fell short of the mark. Overcooked and tough, the usually tender pork meat had a very strong bark on the outside and became my least favorite part of the dish, composed nicely with a crispy fried polenta cake that was light and delightful, and a sweet apple slaw. I wanted to like it more and it could have just been the cut or how it was sitting while our other plates were coming out, but I will definitely be trying other dishes from their “composed” section before returning to this one.

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By this time, it was getting very late, so we decided to share a pot of their French Press Coffee (extremely affordable by the 10oz or 26oz serving) and a dessert. We decided on the affogato, a very strong espresso shot, poured over a ladylock and homemade sweet cream vanilla ice cream. I think my error was ordering and enjoying the coffee alongside this dessert. It just became a muddled mess of strong coffee bitterness without enough sweet. The cookie was beautifully light and airy, but easily dominated by the strong coffee. The ice cream, too, quickly admitted defeat and even more quickly melted to create a pool from which to spoon from. I’m confident this was error on my part and possibly not knowing what to expect from this classic Italian dessert.

The service was outstanding all night, with perfect pacing between plates, always full water glasses, and checking on us once we’d been able to dig into the plates delivered during that course. I was impressed by the whole front and back of house with their ability to work as one, cohesive, dynamic team. Service is one of those things that you don’t notice unless it’s absolutely awful or absolutely amazing. I was impressed the entire night. Again, as before with even some of the weaker dishes, the promise and skill of this menu keeps me excited to return and try an all-new variety of plates from all of the various sections (and of course more of that hummus!).

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.

5-16-16 / Carson Kitchen / Las Vegas, NV

Now that I’m all caught up with the memorable meals I’ve had in Pittsburgh recently, I’m going to head back to Vegas and finish up those meals (there’s approximately 4 more including this one). The meal at Carson Kitchen was excellent, truly a special evening, and was even recommended to me by a local (thanks Steve!). Easily one of the best meals we had as an entire group the whole trip. The service was outstanding and it was evident the small menu played to the kitchen’s strengths without any fluff. Kudos to the entire staff.

Two of the cocktails we enjoyed were the Super Tuesday (barsol pisco, rhubarb, lychee, fresh lime, egg white) and the Daaaammmmnn, Daniel! (new amsterdam vodka, sage, fresh lemon, ginger simple syrup, fresh and muddled mint, powdered sugar). The Super Tuesday was nice and creamy but still light, very crisp with the citrus bite, like a strawberry lemonade spiked at a fancy-ass party. The DD was like a beautifully drinkable Moscow Mule, nice mint and ginger spice, with the kick of that vodka, freezing cold and refreshing.

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Shut Up and Jam!

We shared a lot of appetizers at the table (the crispy chicken skins with smoked honey were like chicken pork rinds times 100) and the bacon jam (pictured above) was sweet smokey magnificence. The gooey strip down the middle is baked brie, which worked to mellow out the sugary sweet bbq bacon jam, as we piled spoonful upon spoonful on those wonderful little toasted baguette pieces. If I had any complaint (goodness me) it would be that there was SO MUCH BACON JAM. If we’d asked for more bread, I’m positive they would have brought it, but as it was, we just overloaded those poor little discs until the jam was falling over the sides. It was decadent, it was delicious, it was smoky porky magic.

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It’s not often, when you go out to eat, that you get to eat something “fun”. The Hot Oysters, were for me, a very whimsical, adventurous dish. I apologize for the discoloration in the remoulade, as I quickly ate one without thinking and dipped it in the creamy, herby, light sauce. It was like a less garlicky, fresher ranch than a tartar sauce, and worked with the habanero kick of the deep fried “oysters”. I say “oysters” because in that lovely silver cylinder were not just deep fried and hot sauce tossed traditional oysters, but also pork oysters (cut from the eye, no fat, pure meat) and chicken oysters (arguably the best part of the chicken, these oysters are oval pieces of dark meat that lay on either part of the chicken’s backbone). You didn’t know what you were going to get before you picked them up, so to the rest of the table that meant “they’re all yours, Dave”. It wasn’t until I’d bitten into them and revealed the protein that I could know what I’d be eating. It was a nice mixture, not relying too heavily on the cheaper, traditional oyster to fill out the bucket. The hot sauce was bold and full-bodied, far from the vinegar snap one gets with Frank’s Red Hot or cayenne. Perfect, fun, bar food.

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Their “standard” baked mac and cheese was listed as being a secret on the menu, which didn’t really come up as a red flag, until we dug in. Intermixed between the al dente noodles, the rich, creamy mixture of cheeses, the sharp tangs of the cheddar and smooth mellow of the fontina, was the unmistakable flavor of truffle. Expertly mixed throughout, this homestyle baked mac and cheese was anything but. Superb mastery and talent of flavor, this was like going to take a bite of your favorite cupcake only to realize there was another, smaller cupcake already inside of it. Kraft can kiss this dish’s ass.

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My entree was the bone-in lamb chops (you can see the curve along the top of the rightmost chop), topped with a crunchy pecan crust, and served over a mint chimichurri. These gorgeous chops were butchered beautifully, with hardly any fat other than the gorgeous charred crust around the entire pieces of meat. The crust was beautifully broiled and added a wonderfully nuttiness to compliment the chimichurri almost like a meat pesto, with the smoky lamb singing through. Perfectly cooked to a medium rare, this was the best lamb I had the entire trip.

Finally, but certainly not least, oh god nowhere near least, were the unbelievable desserts. We decided on the Bourbon Fudge Brownie, served with a brown butter bacon maple ice cream and a slice of bacon on it as well as the Rhubarb Sammy, a stunning rhubarb macaron filled with rhubarb sorbet, and elderflower whipped cream. Unbeknownst to us, we had ordered to perfectly complimentary desserts. The first, the brownie sundae, was like diving head first (toddler style) into a chocolate cake. Fudge layers packed with butter packed with chocolate brownie, topped with a crust that was out of this world, mixed with bourbon, next to melty, sweet, salty brown butter bacon ice cream. It was rich, it was decadent, it was ALMOST too much. Almost, I say, because of the tart, sharp, crisp citrus bite of the rhubarb macaron and sorbet and that soft, pillowy bridge between the two, the elderflower whipped cream. Smooth and herbal and lusciously creamy, the whipped cream was the key to unlocking that dish. Perfect ends to a perfect meal.