I have to say, I originally sang the blues the curtains closed on East Liberty’s Red Room last year. But when I heard that a man from my hometown (Dave Anoia) was playing sous chef to Brian Pekarcik’s farm-to-table movement of epic proportions to replace the space, I knew I had to put aside my biases and give Spoon a shot.
It took a little longer than I’d hoped, but PID and I finally committed an evening to an East Liberty trip. Even though there is an Open Table link on their website, I felt compelled to call to make a reservation on Friday afternoon, just in case. I’m glad I did. They had two slots available at the time of my call: 5:30 and 9:30. So for fear of inaccurately reviewing the food due to starvation, we begrudgingly accepted the earlier reservation and kept our fingers crossed that I’d have enough time to make myself presentable after a morning full of dog walking and soccer games.
We arrived a mere eight minutes late (which would have been only five if not for the construction on Centre Avenue and the fact that we didn't realize they offered valet parking for $3) and our table was still waiting for us. I still hate close-quarters seating which is what we got, but I'm happy to report that only one wall of the dining room is set that way. The rest boasted a warm, contemporary (appropriately placed) design. And get this -- the tap water comes in totally cool (literally, they're chilled) branded bottles kept at your table throughout the meal.
I have to tell you, things only go up (way up) from here. We started with the bread...
Normally the bread is a place saver. Not even substantial enough to be called an opening act, the bread basket is best metaphorically compared to house music before the lights even dim. But let me tell you, at Spoon, this house music just might get a Tony nod.
Crackling baguette slices were taken up a notch by delicious whipped butter. And my taste buds couldn't award a winner between the cream cheese and green onion biscuits or the dill infused cornbread. I've never done this before at any establishment (aside from The Olive Garden), but I was forced to request a second basket.
And then it was on to the...well, the opening act.
I had a difficult time choosing between two eye-catchers: Ahi Tuna Two Ways and Lobster Cake with a Pickled Beet Salad. PID expressed interest in the tuna and so tuna we got. He also ordered a bowl of the butternut squash soup. And I have to tell you, if the bread got a Tony nod, this first course took home the award without so much as a gasp of shock from the audience. Never has an appetizer won my heart the way both of these dishes did. It made my taste buds tingle in excited anticipation for the rest of my meal, though I never wanted it to end.
The Butternut Squash was a perfect seasonal dish. It screamed of fall flavors -- squash and apples with a hint of bourbon -- with a few surprise delicious bites confit'd duck inside.
But it was the tuna dish that hogged the spotlight for me, both ways. I dug right in to the raw ahi and soba noodles with a chili aoili that married the flavors together in such a way that hoped my marriage turns out half as happy. Moving on to the tuna wrapped crab roll and avocado puree I didn't feel any less satisfied. Though if you forced me to play favorites I'd give more face time to the noodle salad.
This dish alone is worth a visit, though I can't say there's nothing more to be said about our meal.
Though it was hard to move on from the tuna-tongue-tango I'd just danced, it was time for our entree...
Here again PID and I battled back and forth amongst ourselves between menu options that all sounded equally delectable. The waitress happily informed us that all of the poultry and beef items were raised cage free and grass/milk-fed (respectively) at locally based Kennedy Farms, so PID ordered the Veal Duo with enthusiasm as I chose the Horseradish & Crab-crusted Salmon. If the tuna took home the Tony, these entrees cross-pollinated to piss off the pop-stars by winning both Tony and Grammy awards.
PID loves a good meatloaf, but admittedly has a bit of trouble letting go of mama PID's recipe as his unbeatable favorite. He smiled as he took his first bite and assured me he'd found her some competition (but of course, nothing will ever TRULY beat mama PID's meatloaf). For those who love meatloaf, you won't be disappointed. It still maintains the comforting meatloaf consistency but flaunts a surprising burst of chipotle flavor. The "duo" came from the meatloaf's braised counterpart, wrapped in bacon and served atop of Napa cabbage and forest mushrooms. Juicy and satisfying. To say the very least. Even the carrot puree was a shining star.
I'm truthfully having a hard time coming up with what to say about my dish, mostly because my mind exploded when I took my first bite. The salmon, perfectly cooked and falling apart on my fork, donned a bonnet of jumbo lump crab meat that melted in my mouth with the horseradish and bearnaise singing not-to-be-ignored backup. But the shock of the dish was the homemade crispy gnocchi which took on more of a mashed potato ball feel. I felt obligated to incorporate salmon, crab, sauce and gnocchi all together in every fork-full because it simply tasted so darn good. And although I separated the haricot verts (fancy word for French green beans for those of you who don't watch Top Chef or attend Le Cordon Bleu), they also were perfectly complimented by the bearnaise.
I really and truthfully did not want this meal to end. None of it. And so, PID agreed that we didn't have to let it. To my delight, he asked for a dessert menu. And so, it was on to the final act.
The waitress read us the list of daily house-made ice cream and sorbet selections but we had our eyes on a few other things. PID opted for the angel food cake without so much as a second glance and I the pound cake with berry sorbet (sadly, the berry sorbet was not offered as a stand-alone item -- I asked).
The angel food cake's supporting cast of hand-whipped vanilla cream and almond brittle with raspberry puree stole the show.
While I apparently am better at eating than reading, I still enjoyed my dessert aside from the fact that the pound cake was infused with an essence of citrus (which, to someone like me who can unapprovingly smell an orange being peeled from 8 cubes away, the "essence of" more closely resembled "drowned in"). The berry sorbet won me over. I wanted more of it.
Drinks: 2 diet cokes @ $1.75
Appetizers: Butternut Squash @ $4.00
Tuna Two Ways @ $14.00
Entrees: Salmon @ $24.00
Veal @ $28.00
Desserts: Pound cake @ $6.00
Angel food cake @ $6.00
Tax: @ 7% (Allegheny County only) $5.99
Tip: (since Erica was quick, informative and overly patient) $18.00
Total for Two: $109.49
Overall Opinion: I have a new favorite restaurant. My parents, when in town for a visit, are constantly bugging me to take them to the places I hold in highest regard and I've always had difficulty choosing. This trip etched it in stone. I can't think of a single negative thing to say about the restaurant's ambiance, waitstaff, or - most importantly - food. I absolutely cannot wait to go back and try the other menu items which caught my eye. And neither can PID -- which is the truest test as he doesn't like to try anything twice as he often considers it a waste of time and money. Spoon, you deserve a standing ovation and I cannot wait for the encore.
An aside: Starting September 27, be sure to check out BRGR, opening next door in Spoon's hip lounge section featuring gourmet burgers that already have the town talking. (OK well maybe it's just me, but I'll talk with my mouth full of those things any day).