Wednesday, August 25, 2010

My Birthday Dinner Surprise

This post comes to you two weeks delayed.  I've been a busy 'burgher!  But I have a story to tell about the second half of my beautiful birthday adventure with PID.

After a fun filled morning in the Strip District and a delicious trip to DeLuca's, we weren't quite done!  It was on to my first trip to The Warhol and my third to Phipps before my big dinner surprise!  Oooooh the anticipation was building!!

So, though the soles of my feet were sore, my soul was filled with joy after a beautiful day with my beau.  But it STILL wasn't over!  PID assured me I had time for a quick siesta before our fiesta.  So I took serious advantage before we headed out to dinner.  Luckily, he HAD let me in on a part of the secret:  there was a formal dress code.  So I'd purchased attire for the occasion.  Formal dress code? WHERE ON EARTH WERE WE GOING!?

Why Monterey Bay Fish Grotto, of course!  I'd been hinting to PID for ages.  I love Seafood and I love Mount Washington.  This was definitely the place for me!

Valet parking was convenient, but $4 plus tip. Who charges for valet anymore when the minimum your diners are paying half a month's salary on dinner?  But PID tells me it wasn't a big deal and he's the one who paid, so I digress.

I  half expected to walk directly in to the restaurant from the bottom floor -- that's how the other Mt. Washington restaurants are.  But Monterey Bay Fish Grotto is not located directly on the mountain.  It's on the other side of Grandview Ave on the top floor of what appears to be an apartment complex.  So you have to take an elevator all the way up.  Though yes, the valet booth is right there the elevator boasts no direction -- we even had trouble finding the button. I was confused and it had nothing to do with my being blond.

Anyway, we made our way to the top.  An absolutely breathtaking elevator ride (Literally. I'm scared of heights so I held my breath the whole time...but it was beautiful) with a perfect view of Heinz Field and downtown Pittsburgh. But when the elevator doors opened on the top floor, the view got even better!

The dining room was festive and beautiful with impossibly high ceilings and painted columns depicting palm trees reminiscent of the real Monterey Bay.

 (I'll tell you now that in a dress on the arm of a man wearing a tie as we're paying $54 for a $17 bottle of wine -- I was a little too intimidated to take a lot of pictures.  So many of these will come directly from their website and not from my lens.)

I felt welcomed immediately as we passed the bubbling fish tanks.  By the hostess and staff, not the fish.

Our waiter was a bit on the slow side.  Non alcoholic drinks came 10+ minutes after we'd ordered them and went dry on a few occasions.  But the manager on duty was extremely pleasant and helpful in choosing both a wine and an entree.  She was very conversational and seemed genuinely happy to have us.  US, not just our money. Which she was certainly getting.

And so, it was on to the wine...

We ordered a Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Cab Sav.  I love Mondavi wines. At $54 for the bottle it was the cheapest on the Cab Sav portion of the extensive wine menu, but it was better than anything I'd had in a long time!

And then the appetizier...

My FAVORITE part of the meal, I have to say.  Though I hate raw oysters, I sure am a sucker for Oysters Rockefeller. So far, oddly enough, the best O.R. I've had was at a tiny middle-of-nowhere roadside diner just east of Seven Springs.  Until now.  I of course gasped in elation when I saw they were offered and had to think no further, while PID seemed far from indecisive as he ordered his staple: calamari.  The apps came almost as fast as the drinks (this would be a good thing if it hadn't been because the drinks took so doggone long to arrive).  The cheese was still bubbly and after one bite I discovered the hard way that "bubbly" was synonymous with "not quite ready to eat."  My tongue was burned and I actually wished it'd taken a bit longer to arrive. But once they cooled down, they were DELECTABLE.  Absolutely impeccable balance between the spinach, cheese, garlic and whatever else was thrown in there. It was a hefty portion as well with 8 on the plate.  I even let PID try one. Ain't I sweet? His calamari was good, but not the best I've had.  I suggest getting an appetizer you can't get at Red Lobster if you go.

Next, it was time for the entree...

Here, I was stumped.  I stared at the menu for what felt like hours, battling back and forth between the Sashimi style Ahi Tuna entree and the Caribbean style Chilean Sea Bass before finally settling on...neither. Instead, I went with the Jumbo Sea Scallops.  PID was once again conventional in choice, but I let him slide on this one.  Apparently their crab cakes are highly acclaimed, so he went with those.

My scallops melted in my mouth as they should and while some places scallop entrees leave me wanting, Monterey Bay's portions were just right. I felt satisfied, but not over served.  They were stuffed to perfection with fresh shrimp and crab meat with a delicious Lobster Newburg Sauce and coleslaw-esque garnish.  I have to say, I loved the garnish and wanted more.  It redefined edible-art in to "art I want to keep eating." I have nothing bad to say about this entire dish.  From first bite to scraping my plate I was in heaven. All too often I find myself wondering "what-if" after I've made a difficult menu decision.  My mind was nowhere near my other alternatives at this point. I was, simply put, satisfied.

PID's crab cakes were excellent as well.  Large chunks of fresh crab (flown in that afternoon like the rest of their fresh fish on the daily menu) drowned in a light and sweet remoulade with a perfect brown crust.  Not a hint of char in sight.  I still gave him heck for ordering calamari and crab cakes at one of the most elite restaurants in the city -- but who was I to criticize the man who gave me this beautiful day?

Finally, as we were waiting for our check, I caught our chatty manager whispering to our waiter and moments later, he appeared at our table with a HUGE slice of what appeared to be their chocolate truffle cake!

And would you believe it? The raspberry sauce spelled out a special message, just for me!

 (this one was really mine -- I didn't steal it.  I snapped the shot with my phone before quickly throwing it back in my purse...slightly embarrassed but mostly over excited to try this cake!)

They made up for charging for valet by not surprising PID with an involuntary dessert fee.  I've seen it happen: you mention your birthday but don't ask for a cake. They bring it anyway and BAM!  $12 on your check (Ahem....Red Lobster rises again). But not at Monterey Bay!  They really treat you on your day.

It was a sweet conclusion to a perfect evening. I could not have asked for more.

Cliffs Notes:

Drinks:  2 diet cokes @ $1*
           Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon @ $54
Appetizer: Oysters Rockefeller @ $11.95
                    Fried Calamari @ $11.95
Meal:  Stuffed Sea Scallops @ $35.95
           Maryland Crab Cakes @ $34.95
Tax:     @ 7% (Allegheny County only) $10.45
Tip:     $35
Total for two: $195.29
*i'm still checking on that $1 drink thing. after adding everything up that's certainly what it looks like to me!

Overall Opinion? 
Extremely delicious -- if I could afford to eat here once a week, I would.  But I can't.  I say LET THIS BE A LESSON TO YOU SIGNIFICANT OTHERS OUT THERE:

Don't forget about the other end of the Grandview block.  Monterey Bay is the perfect romantic dining option if your sweetheart likes seafood.  Of course it's pricey.  What did you expect? It's Mount Washington! You're paying for the view, the ambiance and some of the most sought after chefs in the city.  In this instance, I say it was worth it.  But you should ask PID. His wallet took the hit.  I'd love to take PID here on my dime sometime (anniversary? holiday? promotion?) but I'm sure we'll visit infrequently.  Definitely a special occasion type of joint and rightfully so.  Might wind up being too much of a good thing if it wasn't...

Monterey Bay Fish Grotto on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, August 17, 2010


This past Saturday, I celebrated my CENSORED birthday with PID.  He done good.

He woke me up with my gift and a smile at 8 a.m. and let me know that there was more to it than the (already a.b.c.d.) scrapbook he'd made for me.  He was taking me for my (shockingly) first Strip District Saturday experience! For four years, I'd spent every single Monday through Friday in the Strip so my desire to trek down there on a Saturday had been slightly less than glaring. However that was merely due to its location.  Not what it offered.  I'd been jonesin' to check out the farmer's market, the Pennsylvania Macaroni Company, Wholey's and all of the other local vendors that Penn Avenue had to offer.  So we started at Farmers@Firehouse adjacent to Firehouse Lounge on Penn and 23rd and worked our way down.  I have to tell's all good stuff. I mean, really good stuff. But until I get to the REALLY REALLY good stuff, I'll spare you the tedious text and tell my story in photographs.

Farmers@Firehouse was voted best Farmer's Market in Pittsburgh for a reason: local. fresh. FABULOUS!

eggplant and peppers and zucchs, oh my!

Millions of peaches, peaches for me.

I call this one: Don't Cry for me Oniontina

Fresh herbs galore -- peppermint is my favorite!

The bread was already mostly GONE by the time we got there... at 9 a.m.!

Awww, honey. You shouldn't have!

Strip District Meats on Penn and 22nd gives you the opportunity to get creative on the grill!
Holy Canoli! This private vendor outside Penn Mac sold canolis the size of my forearm!
And inside Penn Mac was just as exciting as dozens of shoppers clamored for their pick of gourmet cheeses.
Olive you, too!

After a jaw dropping jaunt through familiar turf with a foreign feel, we walked outside of the Pennsylvania Macaroni Company to find my next surprise: Breakfast at DeLuca's! PID and his family have been telling me about DeLuca's and the glory it upholds for a long time.  It was a tradition PID and PapaPID shared years ago and neither could fathom a bad thing to say about the place. But as excited I was to be introduced to their beautiful family tradition, I was skeptical.  I've been incapable of being overly impressed with a breakfast joint since my days as a waitress at the Porch & Pantry Cafe back in Mt. Gretna, PA. My loyalty lay with Barb and her sticky buns. And, let's be honest:  to me, bacon and eggs are bacon and eggs.  So when we stepped outside and saw this line...

I was half tempted to turn around and snag a canoli for breakfast!  But PID and PapaPID spoke so highly of this place for so long (and believe me, it's adorable to see your significant other light up in excitement over something - big or small as it may be) I knew that I owed it to him to stand in line.

DeLuca's has it's claim to fame as the "Best Breakfast in Town" -- a title proudly displayed with an ancient sign on their storefront.  Best breakfast, eh?  I'd be the judge of that.

 We stood in the summer heat, yammering about soccer and work and wine and the Pirates.  But the longer we stood the more my mind wrapped around the rumbling in my tummy.  I was getting HUNGRY! We got in line about 10 a.m. and I'd say we were in it for about 45 - 50 minutes.  An admittedly long wait to be seated at any restaurant.  We had been excited get in to feel a blast of A/C, and were slightly disappointed when we realized that if it had air conditioning, it wasn't turned on. It was cooler of course.  A surprisingly wide open dining room allowed for decent airflow and being out of the sun was cooling enough on it's own.

But the place was quite charming which was uplifting.  A huge wall mural that looked like an Italian history book spanned the entire left side of the restaurant and gave life to the tiny diner feel.

PID and I were seated at the bar on slightly uncomfortable bar stools, but we were actually pleased. It allowed us to engage in conversation with our neighbors (I was in the mood today) who were both first-timers and quite enjoying their experience.  We stared at the menu for almost as long as we stood in line, awestruck by the array of combos and gourmet options.  Though I was sure he'd choose the Body Builder's Bionic Breakfast, PID went with the classic approach: the Blissful Beginnings farm fresh eggs (sunny side up), bacon and homefries with toast. He took one bite and said I had to taste.  I reminded him that bacon and eggs are bacon and eggs, but he insisted.  His bacon was cut as thick as a tree-stump and perfectly crisped. I was actually impressed.

We decided to split a sweet crepe, the Chocolate Covered Strawberry, merely because it sounded too good to pass up.  It was. It may look overdone and massive, but believe me: if you order this crepe you won't be sorry. The massive part was right, but we managed to put back almost all of it even with ordering our own individual breakfasts.  After a few minutes of focusing our hunger efforts elsewhere, the whipped cream melted.  But we didn't mind.  PID appropriately referred to it as "a soup of awesomeness" -- which is exactly what it became.

I decided to take a risk.  A huge one.  Which is part of the reason I'd OK'd the order of the third menu item.... just in case.  Right there, staring me down from page 2 of the menu, was the Seafood Crepe. Lobster for BREAKFAST?  It's just not my style.  I couldn't... but I had to. "Stuffed with lobster, shrimp, crabmeat and roasted red peppers with scrambled eggs with our signature remoulade," it said.  It taunted me.  Best breakfast in town?  This will be your true test, DeLuca's.  And so... I ordered.

It came to me just a simple thing. No beautiful presentation tactics, just a fat blob of starch on a plate.

But this seemingly simple display of breakfast proved the age old argument in the food industry can be highly one-sided:  presentation is NOT ALWAYS a deal-breaker.  I sliced her open, allowing the entire sea to spill out on to my plate. 
 It looked a bit more complex now, but the real masterpiece was in the taste.  I was hesitant to believe that lobster and shrimp belonged in a thin pancake.  But boy, oh boy was I wrong.  It was by far the most delicious breakfast I'd ever eaten in all my CENSORED years.  Sorry P&P!

And so the lion fell in love with the lamb.

Cliffs Notes:

Drinks:  2 diet cokes @ $1.46
Appetizer: (if you can call it that) 1 Chocolate Covered Strawberry Crepe @ $6.99
Meal:  1 Blissful Beginning @ $6.99
           1 Seafood Crepe @ $9.99
Tax:     @ 7% (Allegheny County only) $1.96
Total for two (who ate for three): $29.91

Overall Opinion? 

I became a breakfast believer all thanks to a thick cut of bacon, a chocolate/strawberry soup and a couple of crustaceans in a crepe. If you're visiting for the weekend you ABSOLUTELY MUST check out our Strip District Saturdays and wait in line at DeLuca's.  If you're local, don't think you're above it.  Don't make my mistake.  Get up early, make the trip and don't be intimidated by the line.  It moves quicker than you think and is 150% worth the wait. It was a happy introduction to the PID family tradition of Italian eating.  I had a VERY delicious birthday breakfast.

Deluca's on Urbanspoon

Friday, August 13, 2010

Hot Dog! That's a good hot dog!

This afternoon, I was miraculously granted a break from the madness and decided to take full advantage by heading out for lunch.  My only problem? I hadn't put much thought in to where I was going. I found myself meandering about the sweltering streets of downtown Pittsburgh when I stumbled upon a most... heavenly discovery.

No, I didn't stop in for a confession (though I cannot confirm or deny that one is long overdue). I stopped in for the bread (and meat) of the earth.

Tucked away on the ground floor of the First Presbyterian Church is a little blessing called Franktuary.  I'd been lucky enough to notice a dear friend's Facebook post about his experience and I suddenly had beef...or at least wanted it.

I made the eerie turn from Wood Street to Oliver Avenue and immediately thought "ok, I'm lost."  There's not much on Oliver Avenue. At all.  In fact for a good part of my Pittsburgh life I didn't even know that Oliver Avenue even existed.  But ladies and gentlemen I tell you now...make your way there immediately. As I tip toed past the delivery trucks and mass schedules, I saw the sign. And it opened up my eyes.

Gourmet hot dogs were something of an enigma to me.  I'd never been much of a hot dog fanatic except for the occasional ball park frank.  But something told me this experience was going to be an enlightening one.

A charming little basement joint, this place screamed "hipster" in an absolutely outstanding way.

Another charming aspect of this place was their veggie dog and "Locavore" (organic locally farmed grass-fed beef) options.  They really make it so no one has any excuse to turn this place down!

With tantalizing menu options from classic ketchup and mustard to the complex and captivating Italy Dog with fresh mozzarella, fresh tomato, garlic, olive oil and basil, I had some serious trouble choosing. But I felt compelled to stay true to who I am (and what this blog is all about) by letting ya'll know my thoughts on a true Pittsburgh tradition: pierogies and coleslaw.  'Round here, we put these two things on everything. No seriously....everything. Being a Hershey native, though I was a bit nervous and not necessarily ecstatic about trying The Pittsburgh Dog featuring both. So I made sure to also toss in an order for the Mexican Dog (shredded cheese, guacamole and home-made mango salsa) to boot.

I ordered a Diet Coke and was told I had different options here and I could choose from the cooler behind me. My eyes lit up when I saw my choices.  Cream Soda? Orange Soda? Root Beer? Grape Soda?  I really was in heaven!  When was the last time you had a hot dog and a grape soda for lunch?  Can you say spandex and snap bracelets?  So grape soda it was.

I tried the Pittsburgh Dog first. And I have only three words to describe it:

Oh. My. Dog.

It was a truly sacred experience.

I proved myself wrong. The Pittsburgh was one of the best things I've tasted in quite some time. Home-made colelsaw and deliciously smashed pierogies crunched and squished together with the meat absolutely perfectly.  I wanted more and immediately wished I would have ordered two.

The move to Mexico was not a difficult adjustment to make in any way, either. Mangos + Avacados + perfectly cooked beef? A truly divine calculation.

While it seems its remote location is anything but a hindrance on  its popularity (Frantuary was voted best lunch spot in the 'burgh for the past 3 years straight), I feel I must preach to the few and far between who have not done the dog and make known their fare superiority.

In the mood for something sweet? Try one of their freshly blended smoothies or Dave & Andy's ice cream flavors. 

Restaurant Information:
Address: 325 Oliver Avenue, downtown
Phone: 412.288.0322
Reservations: Not taken or needed
Hours: Monday - Friday, 10 a.m. - 3 p.m.
Delivery: Yes, within the downtown area (but don't request a delivery after 2 p.m.)

Cliffs notes:
Drinks:     Boylan's Grape Soda @ $2
Meal:      2 Gourmet Franks @ $3.75
Tax:     @ 7% (Allegheny County only) $0.18
Tip:      $1.35 (all the quarters, dimes and nickles I could find in my wallet)
TOTAL FOR ONE:      $11.53

Overall Opinion?

 I often find it difficult to find a unique but quick spot for lunch downtown but by God I've finally stumbled upon greatness.  GO TRY A FRANKTUARY FRANK.  If it's the only thing you do while you're in town for a ballgame or a special trip the non down-town workers need to make, it's something I insist you do. Simple, yet delicious.  Simply delicious. That's all I can say. You must try this place for yourself.


Franktuary on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Wordless Wednesday: Munching in Market Square

A beautiful day like this one needs to be taken advantage of and with Market Square near completion, I couldn't resist!

A side note: I am NOT digging Bruegger's new Tarragon Chicken Salad sandwich.  Not that I have anything against tarragon... but it doesn't taste quite the same or quite as appetizing. Still love their sesame square bagels, though :)

Monday, August 2, 2010

Breaking the Habitat

Well hello friends.  It's been a while, hasn't it?  Budgets and workload have prevented me from bringing you my opinions on local restaurants for far too long, at least in my opinion.  I have to admit, I miss my addictive dining-out habit! I desperately need to get back in to the routine.

So we'll start today.  This afternoon I finally made the two-block-trek across 5th Avenue to check out the somewhat new sophisticated dining experience located in the Fairmont Hotel called Habitat.

Though I'd strolled by a number of times I'd never had a strong enough urge (or deep enough wallet) to stop for lunch.  But a few weeks ago I snagged a Groupon (no, I am not a paid spokesperson for Groupon, I just happen to think it's the smartest thing any Pittsburgher can be a part of) and decided it was time.

I'd been scoping out the menu for a few days, weighing my options and I have to say, I was beside myself with excitement.  It all came down to finding a day that I had an entire free hour to sneak out of the office and finally have a lunch away from my desk.

I decided, in order to assure a quick trip, that I would go early. I arrived around 11:30 and was the very first one in the restaurant.  Keep that in mind if you're in the mood for a quick and intimate lunch.  I was happily seated next to a window.  It was quite a pleasant view of the new PNC courtyard.

But my table had another interesting view.  The open walled kitchen allowed me to watch my meal being prepared right before my very eyes.  I love this approach to a dining experience.   Not only is there is no chance of any funny business going on in the kitchen (not that I thought there would be), but being a foodie I am completely enamored by watching people cook.  Just over the group dining table (which I was told is available to reserve for private parties, but also seats individuals over lunch hour when things get busy) was a wide open gaping hole in the wall with a view to the Habitat Chefs.

Once I was done ooh-ing and ahhh-ing at the set up, my waiter Raj greeted me with a fresh glass of ice water and a smile.  As I'd mentioned, I'd been studying the menu for a while and was already well aware of my order.  What had really impressed me was that this high end restaurant had a passion for sustainability.  They seemed to support locally grown products which has a special place in my heart.  I made a point to ask Raj what items from their Executive Express option were fresh and locally sourced.  To my satisfaction, he'd mentioned the wild beets which were native to Greensburg and drizzled with honey straight from Pittsburgh beekeepers.  I'd had my eye on that anyway, so I ordered up.

But first, came the bread.

I was given a beautifully whipped sweet butter with a choice of sourdough or a raisin walnut multi-grain of sorts and it really hit the spot as I waited for my beets.

I have to make a note that the diet coke that I ordered was poured fresh in front of me from an ice cold glass bottle (my favorite source).  So that pleased me as well.

Finally came the appetizer.

So, does this delicious root make anyone else think of Nickelodeon's Doug? Killer Tofu anyone?

Anyway... the combination of lettuce, goat cheese and beets is my new-found-not-so-guilty-pleasure. I've been obsessed with it since I threw the two together on a salad with almonds in a desperate attempt to finish off my perishables before a vacation in May. The beets came roasted and drizzled with the most delectable and obviously fresh honey I've ever tasted.  It was sweet as expected, but not too thick and not remotely overpowering. I assumed it was a combination of chard and typical red garden beets, but they melted like butter beneath my fork. I WILL go back and get this small plate again. Without a doubt.

But wait, there's an entree.

Now, the Executive Express lunch comes complete with four courses on one plate: soup, sandwich, salad and dessert.  However, even though the beets were one of my options (as a a salad substitute), the sandwich I'd been dying for was not.  So since I had my Groupon, I went for the gusto and ordered both. I have to say I wouldn't suggest this, but I had $30 to burn on my own since Groupons can't be re-credited. Doing this took a bit longer than expected and for the typical lone luncher would not have been a very economically sound decision.  I chose the grilled chicken breast sandwich with tomato, avocado, red onion, sprouts and a chipotle aioli.  Served with fries, this sandwich could (and likely should) have been a stand alone lunch option.  But you know me, I love to eat.  And eat I did.

The chicken was grilled to absolute perfection.  I haven't had juicy chicken in years.  Chicken is such a generally standard option, that it's so often overlooked and typically overcooked.  But not this breast!  I could taste the flavor in every bite.  However, it was an awful lot and the fries were sadly undercooked and soggy.  Also -- I have to say it.  WE ARE IN PITTSBURGH.  To NOT serve Heinz ketchup is a cardinal sin.  Some may say ketchup is ketchup, but I say no way jose.  Heinz is ketchup. The rest are only imitators.  Luckily the fries were the least important part of my lunch so I wasn't too disappointed.  However anyone who comes in ordering only a sandwich and fries would likely be left wanting.

I asked for my bill and Raj let me know that I still had a few dollars left on my Groupon.  He suggested I order dessert to go since I had the credit.  And when Raj makes a suggestion, by jove you listen.

And so it was on to dessert.

I ordered a chocolate nut cake which was not on the typical menu.  It sounded delicious and I'm sure it should have looked something like this:

But it ended up looking more like this:

 and tasting even worse than it looked.  Granted no food is ever nearly as good 5 hours after it's ordered, but I tasted more nut than chocolate and to me, the two didn't mesh overly well together.  It was also slightly chewy, which I guess I could blame on the refrigerator. You may have better luck. I would have chosen the Panna Cotta if I hadn't already reviewed a nearly unbeatable panna cotta.  So I say give that a shot!

Restaurant Info:
Address: 510 Market Street (downtown in the brand new PNC building)
Phone: 412.773.8848
Hours:  Breakfast
            6:30am - 11:00am 

           11:00am - 2:00pm

Reservations: Suggested

Price: $$$

Cliffs notes:
Groupon:   $30 worth @ $15
Drinks:     1 Diet Coke @ $2
Appetizer:     1 Roasted Beet platter @ $10
Meal:      Grilled Chicken Sandwich @ $11
Dessert:      1 Chocolate Nut Cake @ $6
Tax:     @ 7% (Allegheny County only) $2.03
Tip: (20% because I liked Raj and Grouponers always tip on the real total) $6
TOTAL FOR ONE:      $22.03

Overall Opinion?
I liked it quite a bit.  Sustainability and taste all in one place?  I'll take it.  It was kind of pricey, but certainly an outstanding option for a client lunch, dinner or after-work drinks.  With a friendly staff and an inviting atmosphere, it's definitely a place I'd suggest.  Just steer clear of the french fries and please, if you get dessert, eat it there!
 Habitat on Urbanspoon

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