Best Plates of 2018

Here’s a quick list of the best plates and meals I had while dining out in Pittsburgh and the surrounding region this year. I’m going to be publishing another list to recognize more of the restaurants that I don’t feel get the attention that they deserve. As always, please reach out through e-mail or my Facebook page with any feedback (positive or negative). I always enjoy hearing back from you, whatever your feelings on my food writing or reviews. I had a list of 30 before I cut this down to the top 10 and it was very difficult to trim down. Without any further ado, here we go.

10. Godfather Chili – Pittsburgh Food Truck Park – 10/05 – Millvale

When we visited the Food Truck Park in Millvale, the Revival Chili, Pittsburgh Smokehouse, and Steel City Chimney trucks were all set up and we took the opportunity to enjoy them all. The Revival chili itself is outstanding, very rich in flavor and full of well-seasoned meat and beans. I went with the bowl (with both rice and cornbread underneath) and found it extremely satisfying and filling on a chilly fall day. The brisket and the pulled pork from the Smokehouse truck were nicely smoked for hours until fall-apart and bound together nicely with a homemade BBQ sauce. The “chimneys” in question are actually Kürtőskalács cooked to order and covered with your choice of sweet toppings (we went with pumpkin pie spice and vanilla sugar). It’s like the outside of the cinnamon roll, but thinner and crispier, and in pull-apart strips like a croissant or crescent roll. The best part was being able to be out on a nice night, enjoy the weather and the sounds of some guy strumming along on an acoustic or whatever-the-hell, families around all enjoying the space and coming together in a community atmosphere to support these smaller businesses that don’t have a permanent location outside of the food truck park. A definite recommend for when the Food Truck Park reopens in the Spring.

9. All the Tacos – Bea Taco Town – 3/12 – Downtown

One fish taco (lightly fried cod filet) and one tinga de pollo taco (pulled chicken cooked in chipotle pepper sauce)

A regular choice for me on my lunch breaks, the tacos from Bea Taco Town are consistently delicious and unique. There are TWO on Smithfield Street so be careful making plans to meet someone. They have 11 options for protein so I like to mix it up from the spicy chicken tinga, to the mole chicken, to the carnitas or the barbacoa, and don’t sleep on that chorizo either. I like to get aggressive some days at lunch and see if they have the lengua (beef tongue) or cabeza (head meat), but they’re usually out. You can’t go wrong with any of the proteins, diced onion and cilantro, a wedge of lime, and rice or beans (optional). Their corn tortillas are sturdy enough to hold the abundance of fillings and two is usually enough to last you the rest of the day and not put you to sleep in the afternoon. Another can’t miss is the Tortilla Soup, especially on the freezing days we’re sure to have this winter.

8. Damn Hot Chicken Sandwich – Bird On the Run – 7/21 – East Liberty

(clockwise from top left) Hot Chicken Sandwich, extra hot sauce), Waffle Fries, chicken strips (untossed)

Easily the best Nashville Hot-style chicken sandwich I’ve had in Pittsburgh. This beats out Kaya’s version for me personally and I think they have sprinkled a bit of magic in their hot sauce, as I just can’t get enough of it. An excellent chicken breast brined and marinated and fried and tossed and delivered on the most perfect bun (soft and chewy but still substantial enough to hold up to all of the hot oil and juice from the chicken) with a couple of pickles. Paired with one of their frozen alcoholic cocktails and you can’t go wrong for a late night bite (open until 1 on Fri/Sat).

7. Shelly’s Traditional Pizza – Shelly Pie – 10/13 – Turtle Creek

Whole Pepperoni and 1/2 onion Pizza

Picking your favorite pizza in Pittsburgh is like picking your favorite child or favorite star in the sky. Hell, I can’t even pick my favorite pizza on this list of 10 restaurants that don’t all serve pizza. Pittsburgh is just ridiculous with good pizza and Shelly Pie is that holdover from the hard-working, real steel in the blood Pittsburgh that I hope never goes away. A true neighborhood red-sauce Italian joint, Shelly Pie is everything that was right with the Pittsburgh food scene in the 80s and will never be demolished. All the players are here (soup or salad with your entree, fresh bread, fried zucchini, chicken parm like you wouldn’t believe). But these pizzas, good lord these pizzas. These pizzas are overloaded and then some: enormous slices laid down with robust sauce, stringy mozzarella and provolone, and
with enough toppings for at least 3 or 4 more pizzas and some to spare and somehow beneath it all a crusty, crispy, yeasty crust. Huge pillows of chewy and crunchy crust surrounding this valley of the greasy damned and yet somehow below it all, the crust maintains and delivers a satisfying crunch. Get your T-ball team together and go celebrate here after a hard-earned loss.

6. Brie and Pear Toast – Bitter Ends Garden Luncheonette – 10/07 – Bloomfield

Nationally recognized for a reason, this small luncheonette in the heart of Bloomfield shows what a localvore brunch spot should be. The most delicious ingredients (farm-grown vegetables in Verona by the restaurant themselves) picked at the perfect time, cooked wonderfully, and delivered to hungry patrons to enjoy either within the cozy space or out on some picnic tables set up on Liberty Avenue. Everything’s just wonderful with the seasonal brie and pear toast really shining through, melty brie, buttery and sharp, paired with the most perfect d’anjou pears, sweet as honey while still firm and crunchy. The breakfast sandwiches and salads are great, on homemade crusty bread, and the challenge of enjoying them is far worth it as they fall into smaller and smaller pieces on your plate. Grab some extra napkins and some dessert.

5. Brisket and Wings – Spork Pit – 8/23 – Garfield

The famous Spork smoked wings that they used to feature when Spork Pit was just a backyard endeavor have survived the trip over to their new permanent location on Penn Avenue in Garfield. My 2nd favorite plates of last year (the wings and the beef on weck sandwich from Spork) have made their way onto the menu at Spork Pit and I could not be happier. Perfectly smoked, melty, fatty, rich slices of beef brisket with that outrageously good rubbed bark make that brisket some of my favorite bbq I’ve had. Smoked wings are some of my favorite foods and these are the best of the best. Long hours, hard work, dedication, and focus make Spork Pit one of my top choices for smoked BBQ in the city.

4. Chonqing Dumplings and Mala Chicken – How Lee – 5/25 – Squirrel Hill

With so many competing Sichuan restaurants in Pittsburgh and Squirrel Hill alone, it can be hard to navigate the excellent offerings from each of my favorites (Chengdu Gourmet and Sichuan Gourmet additionally and only if we’re staying hyper local). Easily my favorite Chongqing dumplings in the city can be found at How Lee. Light and slippery dumpling wrappers, surrounding a wonderfully spiced ground pork mixture, all enrobed in this spicy chili oil. My goodness this chili oil, it’s earthy and rich, spicy and tangy, but with a deep roasted flavor of garlic and fresh chives. The sauce is so addictive and perfectly complements the simple and delicious dumplings. The Mala Chicken dish is also unique to How Lee (though it may be on other menus under a different name) and provides simple pieces of white meat chicken, wok steamed with big slices of halved baby bok choy and long slices of green onion. The chicken is in a sauce that’s similar to the chili crisp with Sichuan peppercorn flavors that are traditional to Sichuan cooking, but roasted peppers and strong notes of a vinegar and fish sauce high end tanginess elevate this dish beyond simple approachable Sichuan cooking. How Lee is consistently delicious and impressive with all of the dishes I’ve tried, but I absolutely agree that as with most other authentic restaurants your mileage may vary when it comes to the American-Chinese dishes.

3. The Daily Specials or the KFC – Bae Bae’s Kitchen – 11/07 – Downtown

Ever since first trying Bae Bae’s back in February and multiple times since then, my meals have been excellent. Even though they offer a very small, well-curated menu. I have not had a single misstep. Their Korean Fried Chicken (KFC) is an incredibly crunchy chicken breast coated in panko and deep fried to a delicious golden brown. Served with your choice of noodles, rice, or more of their lightly-dressed salad, the KFC also comes with this heavenly wasabi honey that is ideal for their fried chicken. I always love to expand my horizons and I’ve tried nearly everything on their menu (the spicy chicken stir fry special is an aggressively spicy and delicious option) and most recently I’ve been able to enjoy their chicken meatballs and their Galbi Jjim  with their take akin more to beef stew with more Korean-inspired flavors than what you might have had grown up but with the familiar stand-by’s of carrot and potato and gravy that you would expect. Their side dishes (banchan) are all excellent from the different types of kimchi to the seaweed salad to tempura fried vegetables and everything gets served in their iconic and huge paper to-go containers. An excellent lunch or dinner spot, with options for vegetarians as well, Bae Bae’s offers a unique and neighborhood vibe for a restaurant on Liberty Avenue Downtown.

2. The Sandwiches and the Soup and the Salads and the Pizza(!) – Driftwood Oven – 11/30 – Lawrenceville

The perfect new pizza restaurant if there ever was one. From the moment you enter and get in line (because there will be a line), you feel welcomed and at home in this cozy neighborhood pizza joint.

The mortadella sandwich, with its huge portion of thin sliced ham and pistachio magical meat with this incredible garlic aioli and spicy pickled peppers all on this aggressively crispy and crunch toasted sourdough bread that makes this whole place possible. The key is in the dough and the magic is welcomed and present in nearly all of the dishes. The mushroom soup is perfectly smooth and creamy, rich and deeply earthy from the fresh mushrooms. The addition of fresh mushrooms on top adds a lovely chewy element to the excellently balanced and composed dish. The side of toast is (of course) crunchy and delicious and only further elevates the wonderful soup. The Kale Caesar salad is incredible, if only for how it deftly balances anchovies and Parmesan in a way I’ve never had on a salad before. Ridiculously rich and cheesy, the salinity of the fish and the vinegar of the dressing are complemented perfectly by the rich and salty cheese of the dressing and shaved Parmesan reggiano.

The pizza is in a class by itself, unrivaled in this city due to their incredible sourdough crust in addition to their light, balanced hand. The pizzas are perfectly cooked and composed, with hints of sweetness from the addition of honey to their white pizza and wonderfully provola cheese on their pepperoni pie. It’s new-Italian at its finest and with their front of house staff in conjunction with these incredible recipes coming out from the kitchen, the Driftwood is sure to be a standout on the Pittsburgh dining scene for years to come.

1. Plantain Chips with Chimichurri and Double Cut Pork Chop – Musa – 9/29 – Dormont

Easily the best dish I had this year was the couple cut pork chop that I had at Musa in September. Small and unassuming from the outside (you’ll drive right by it if you’re not looking out), but bursting with life on the inside. This place is an island oasis right off of Broadway Avenue in Dormont. The small, well-curated menu hits all the right notes. Musa has a few appetizers, with the star being their holy-crap-it’s-so-good-I-am-trying-not-to-eat-this-with-a-spoon garlic chimichurri served alongside crispy, not greasy, fresh fried plantain strips. The sweet long strips of plantain were substantial enough to scoop the perfect paste of parsley, cilantro, oregano, and roasted garlic magic or just to crunch on alone. I could have made a meal out of those alone. However, the best was yet to come.

The constantly-rotating menu has soups, salads, and sandwiches, in addition to their entree features. I was lucky enough when we visited to be offered the double-cut porkchop. A absolute behemoth of a cut, this pork chop towered over the entire place and was served alongside sauteed mixed greens, red beans and rice, and topped with a mixture of bacon and quick-pickled red onions. The pork chop I enjoyed at Musa rivaled that of the double-cut pork chop that we enjoyed at Toups’ Meatery in New Orleans in 2017. It was perfectly cooked, with that lardon crispiness seared on all sides, providing a salty, smokey, sweet crust that surrounded the juicy, perfectly medium-rare of the pork throughout. I devoured that chop all the way down to the bone and have been thinking about it since then. This was easily the best pork chop I’ve ever had in Pittsburgh and the talent in the kitchen truly shone through this and all of the other dishes that we enjoyed. I am very excited to tell friends all about this hidden gem in Dormont and I look forward to much more success and press for them in the coming year.

While this was my top 10 plates and bites of 2018, I’m not done yet. Look for my list of “Places You Should Visit in 2019” in the coming week, featuring many of the smaller restaurants that are out there doing some incredible work but might not be receiving the public attention or praise that I feel they deserve. In the meantime, please reach out and let me know what you thought. What did I get wrong? What did I get right? Comment below or just send me an e-mail and let me know. Here’s to many more shared meals in 2019, full of love, laughter, and good food with those most important to us.

Best of Pittsburgh (2017)

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

 

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

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

 

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

14-kaya-fried-chicken.jpg

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

 

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

13 ting's kitchen spicy pork ribs

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

 

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

12 Huszar steak

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

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

11 Butterwood bake consortium brownie

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

10. Pallantia / 5-13-17 / Shadyside

10 pallantia meat fiesta

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

 

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

9 tan lac vien chicken rice noodle thing

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

 

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

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

 

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

7 streets on carson philly sammy

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

 

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

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

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

5 Dianoia's benedict

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

8-23 and 10-03-17 / Casellula @ Alphabet City / Pittsburgh, PA (North Side)

Blue, Pressed & Cooked, Washed, Bloomy / Soft-Ripened, Fresh cheeses

Over on the Unplanned Comedy Podcast “Food Weirdos” you can listen to me chat about cuisine with hosts Steve and Josie. It was a wonderfully fun time and I reference this very review in it. I wanted to get it up before the podcast went live, but it was their diligence and my busy schedule that resulted in the situation ending up like it did.

I chose to go to Casellula this year for my birthday as I’d read a lot about it’s fascinating background and also the story behind Alphabet City. I wasn’t too concerned with making a meal out of cheese, but I quickly found myself enthralled with their incredible small plates and cocktail offerings. Our waitress and their in-house fromagier (like a sommelier but for cheese) both provided top-notch service during a wonderful meal enjoyed in a socially-conscious and modern respite on the border of the Mexican War Streets on the North Side.

Rose Colored Glasses
ROSE COLORED GLASSES – GIN, APEROL, ST. GERMAIN, LIME, CIDER, ABSINTHE, LEMON

Casellula has a great cocktail menu, with very inventive modern twists on classic cocktails. We enjoyed a few, but I only captured two of them. Front and center was my second cocktail, the Rose Colored Glasses. Made with Gin, Aperol, St. Germain, Lime, Cider, Absinthe, and Lemon this was the perfect summer spritz with a delicious sharp citrus bite and sweet finish from the Cider. I also had the Death Will Tremble, which was Bourbon, Ancho Reyes, Lime, Basil, and Celery. It had a wonderful smoke and earth notes from the basil and celery without being too strong or heavy-handed on the balance of bourbon and smoke from the chili. My wife enjoyed the Longhand which was Vodka, Ginger, Lime, and Lustau Sherry. It was also delicious, as were all of the cocktails, a wonderful balance between flavors of the herbs and fruit additions as well as the natural complexities of the liquors themselves.

With our cheeses, we ordered the assorted olives as well as the housemade pickled vegetable of the season (dilly beans). The olives were a nice mix of my personal favorite Castelvetrano (the huge meaty green ones), Kalamata, and various others. The dilly beans were super fresh, really crisp and with a wonderful vinegary tang to cut through the rich and creamy cheeses. Speaking of which…

The cheeses. Goodness me the cheeses. If you haven’t already, take a quick gander at what they’re currently offering. It’s a (positively) overwhelming list of ~30 rotating cheeses, the likes of which I haven’t seen anything close in Pittsburgh. They separate the cheeses out into 5 distinct categories: Fresh, Bloomy/Soft-Ripened, Washed, Pressed & Cooked, and Blue. The list, as well as how they were served (from right to left) is in order of complexity and depth of aging and flavors. We left it up to the fromagier to choose one cheese from each category and expected a delivery of five cheeses. A wonderful and dear friend knew that we were planning on dining there for my birthday and paid for one of our cheeses ahead of time so we enjoyed 6, with two from the Bloomy/Soft-Ripened list. It is with deep sadness that I can’t recall (and foolishly didn’t record) which cheeses they were, so the best I can do is talk about their paired side and the general flavors of what we enjoyed.

The far right was a fresh cheese, smooth and creamy-rich, with a sweet carrot puree. The earthiness of the sweet carrots was a nice low note to the high end of the heavy mouth feel of the creamy fresh cheese. Next was another wonderfully creamy milky cheese, with a beautiful gooey rind served with a strawberry jam and a gorgeous soft-ripened brie with sweet pickled red onions. Only slightly funky, with a wonderful gooey mouthfeel, the sweet and sour pairings helped bring them down to a beautiful creamy/acidic balance. The washed (rind) cheese was similar to a piave with a nice soapiness and good hard bite similar to a good cheddar. The pairing was an incredible pesto with powerful garlic and basil notes, joining together with its paired cheese to create the ultimate flavor (garlic bread, of course). Moving further left and deeper into the aged cheese category, the magically funky and melty-gooey Pressed category cheese were served with a far more vinegary and pickled onion, crunchy and bold enough to cut through that deep funk of a good aged pressed cheese. Finally, the blue was a jump-in-the-air-and-roundhouse-kick-you-in-the-face bold. Enormous veins of that outstanding bleu mold intertwined this incredible pile of cheese so creamy and crumbly and impossibly old that it couldn’t be properly sliced or hold any shape. It was served with house-made caramels and was so incredibly bold and rich, I was ready to be done right there. That would have been foolish, however as we hadn’t even received our main courses!

It’s very safe bet that when you see a menu that features something as half of the menu (be it small plates, sushi, steak, or in this case cheese) that the other half is probably going to be just alright. No one is going to Capital Grill for their Fish if they’re looking for good fish. That all being said, if you’re looking for amazing pasta and incredible large plates, Casellula hits the grand slam with that one. The mac and cheese (an easy no-brainer at a restaurant that can do the sauce with expert precision) was outstanding. Studded with large chunks of pork lardon and baked in a cast-iron skillet, the incredibly creamy and cheesy sauce was filled with fresh-made gigli (bell-shaped) pasta. Wonderfully al-dente, the corn ravioli was equally outstanding. The sweet corn both outside and within the ricotta filling of the ravioli perfectly matched with the savory herbs and broth. The roasted grape tomatoes and the clams in the spaghettini elevated the rich and complex lightly salty seafood broth, definitely enjoyable as the ravioli was with both fork and spoon. Finally, the Pig’s Ass was bold in both nomenclature and flavor. A wonderful take on the classic cuban with pork loin, gooey melty emmentaler and cheddar cheeses, bread and butter pickles, and a chipotle aioli (on the side in case it was too spicy). The aioli was wonderfully creamy with heavy notes of garlic and smoky chipotle pepper without much of the spice from their seeds. All in all, four outstanding entrees from a restaurant that had already proven itself so much in their cheese selections.

The stunning selection of cheeses and pairings from that day. It was a marvel just to behold and I knew we’d have to return soon.

In October, my wife and I returned for an American Cheese tasting class. It was a treasured experience and led by an extremely intelligent graduate student. We learned about the history of cheese and how the American cheese movement started and grew through the exploration of 5 modern cheeses.

The cheeses were introduced and plated in order of age/complexity from left to right. We started with the Chevre from the Vermont Creamery in Vermont (naturally). A young cheese (aged only 2 weeks to up to 6 weeks), this chevre is one of the finest goat cheeses available. The perfectly light and milky, grassy flavors fall away to a wonderful richness and just the slightest almond end-notes. Aged around 6 weeks, the much bolder Harbison from Jasper Hill Farm in Vermont was wonderfully stinky, but gooey and salty as a good soft-ripened cow’s milk should be. While the rind was edible, there were pieces that had spruce bark still connected to it which were very fibrous and woody. Up next, the wonderful triangle of Dirty Girl from Prodigal Farm in North Carolina. It was a goat’s milk washed-rind cheese, with a soft buttery texture and flavor. Still less than a year aged, it wasn’t very strong or pungent at all, very mellow and similar to a good havarti. The Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Creamery in Wisconsin is one of my favorite cheeses of all time. Not surprisingly, it’s the most awarded American artisan cheese currently available. Wonderfully aged, crumbly, salty and sharp in its crystallization, deep and rich, and tastes like an 14-20 months aged raw cow’s milk should. Finally, the Big Woods Blue from Shepherd’s Way Farm in Minnesota rounded out the plate. Powerfully sharp with complex notes of barnyard, grass, wet hay, and a deep saltiness, it’s the dictionary-perfect blue cheese. The mold in the Big Woods Blue was modeled after the original blue cheese Roquefort, so it’s not surprising the tastes are so similar.

The wines and beer were good, but nothing I would seek out on my own. The Matchbook Tino Rey (red) was a mix of Tempranillo, Syrah, and Cab from Lake County in California. It was dry but had a good balance due to the firm tannins. The Cave Spring (white) was a Riesling from Beamsville Bench in Ontario and had a nice balance of citrus and minerals due to the limestone clay soil that it’s grown in. The beer was a Troeges Solid Sender from the Troegs Brewing Company in Hershey. Made with mosaic and cascade hops, the IPA was perfectly fine, but I wasn’t crazy about the dry finish or heavy caramel hop flavor.

It was fascinating to learn that while other countries may have specific varietals of cheese protected by AOC or DOC (Parmigiano Reggiano, Camembert, Roquefort, etc) we can name our American cheeses pretty much whatever we want due to lab-created cultures and different affinages. Hence cheeses with names like “Dirty Girl” and “Rowdy Gentleman” from Prodigal Farms. I was so happy to have the opportunity to spend the time after class was over talking with the instructor and learning even more. If you’re a cheese lover, go subscribe to their newsletter  to find out when their next classes will be offered. You may not love your classmates, but I bet you’ll love the samplings and the instructor.

Whether for dinner, a quick drink, an informative class, or enough cheese to sink a small shipping vessel, make it a priority to get down to Alphabet City over on the North Side and check out Casellula.

 

 

Quick Bite 11-21-16 / Wiggy’s / Pittsburgh, PA

The Monday before Thanksgiving found my father, my wife and I on the hunt for some BBQ. It’s astonishing how many restaurants are closed on Mondays. We found this out as we struck out at location after location (initially intending to head to Yinzburgh BBQ). Finally, I found in my notes a place that a few life-long local friends had suggested, so we loaded up the caravan and trekked it out to the West End (between Crafton and Greentree) to Wiggy’s . This place was small Pittsburgh through and through: walk up counter ordering, menu board with black block letters on a big white wall, too many televisions for how big it was, a couple of those “games of chance” machines, and some really delicious chicken wings.

I had heard nothing but good things about their chicken wings. Being the aficionado myself, I had to check them out. They have orders in multiples of 8, starting at $5.95. Huge, fresh (never frozen) chicken wings, doused liberally in the sauce of your choice. I requested them extra, extra crispy and they delivered. The buffalo garlic parm were easily my favorite, the pungent acidic bite of the vinegary hot sauce and parmesan cheese, with the roasted garlic finish. The cajun were standard and had a nice extra kick to them from the addition of a dark red bbq sauce. The roasted garlic pepper wings were good, but I didn’t realize until after they were delivered that they were just the standard garlic parm without the parm. Their signature hot of hot sauces, the Supersonic, was a nice robust heat, not purely from Frank’s or another vinegar based hot sauce, but also with additional chiles and spices. A good, front-end heat, with a slow burn on the back end, but nothing anywhere close to how spicy some places make their wings.

My father went with the ribs, with sauce on the side (which was abnormal for this place). I’d recommend getting them with the sauce on, so you can get some caramelization and char on the bark from the sugars in the sauces. The sweet bbq sauce was great, definitely homemade, and full of sweet molasses and brown sugar without too much of a peppery finish. My wife went with the chicken parm sandwich and that could definitely be skipped for something else instead. Go on a Wednesday to take advantage of their 50 cent wing night and (attempt) to try the majority of their sauces. You can’t go wrong with a well-cooked chicken wing and Wiggy’s does them as good as most anyone around.

 

Quick Bite 11-13-16 / The Abbey on Butler / Pittsburgh, PA

Later that week, I went with my family to The Abbey on Butler, a converted funeral parlor that is now a coffee bar, a bar, and a restaurant all in one. While it’s a beautiful space and the service is excellent, I still feel like they have a couple of kinks to work out with the kitchen and pricing.

I ordered one of the specials of the night, a seared Ahi tuna, with a side of broccoli. My father ordered the Abbey Normal Mac and Cheese with the addition of a protein (their beer battered fried chicken).

The tuna was delicious, really nicely seared, with some good Asian flavors in the broccoli and throughout. The major problem was the portion size. There couldn’t have been more than 6 oz of tuna, and maybe 10 broccoli spears. They also didn’t do themselves any favors by plating on a huge platter, making it look even more empty. The portion of mac and cheese (or in this case, cavatappi and cheese) was very generous. Big chunks of bacon and tomato were found throughout the velvety-smooth and rich pasta and cheese dish. It was finished in a cast-iron skillet, providing a lovely crunch from the browned top layer. All-in-all a great dish for  any restaurant or bar or restaurant bar. Unfortunately, the tuna came out to be around $22 and the mac and cheese (with the chicken) also was around $20. I have no problem spending that kind of money at most restaurants, it’s just very difficult to equate the two dishes in terms of ingredients, portion, time spent in preparation, and delivery to the table. It was disheartening to see such a small portion size in their special of the evening and I hope in the future that the size/cost would increase to be equitable with the rest of their menu offerings.

All the above being said, I definitely recommend the Abbey for a drink, a visit to their coffee bar, or even a meal. It’s a very unique space converted into a unique concept and I hope to see them succeed and thrive along with all of the other new restaurants in Lawrenceville.

9-21-16 / Morcilla / Pittsburgh, PA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

8-31-16 / tako / Pittsburgh, PA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8-28-16 / Bakn / Carnegie, PA

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

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

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

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

 

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

8-27-16 / Butterjoint / Pittsburgh, PA

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

8-23-16 / Altius / Pittsburgh, PA

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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