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?