Sunday, September 19, 2010

Spoontastic!

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.


Cliffs Notes:

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).

Spoon on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Oktoberfestivities

Let me start off by admitting something.  I am the product of three Irish grandparents and one German one. So March 17 of every year is a very happy time for me. People from every culture and background put aside their differences and congregate in green to celebrate...well, let's be honest: drinking.

Now again, on this day I revel in the fact that I get to wear a pin that says "Kiss Me, I'm Irish -- No Really" instead of "Irish for a Day."  But I have to admit that I've always felt it should be this way for ALL cultures!  Here in Pittsburgh, St. Patty's day is the most widely celebrated drinking holiday aside from Steeler Sundays. However, throughout the world, Oktoberfest is the most heavily attended celebration of it's kind without question. I'm told by Beth at Hofbruhaus that 22% of the local population is of German decent.  And to that I say: WHERE IS YOUR PRIDE, PEOPLE?

With this principal in mind, I am proud to post the Oktoberfest events across the city of Pittsburgh.



Traditionally, Oktoberfest is a 16-day festival with roots in Munich, Bavaria Germany.  Essentially, it began 200 years ago as a wedding celebration marking the reunification of Germany, so naturally it's largely based around drinking.

I've done the research.  From what I can tell, authentic German restaurants in our region are few and far between. So while your choices are limited, it simply means you don't have to do as much thinking when planning your Oktoberfestivities.

Dates/Times:  September 17-19 and 24-26, 5 p.m. to midnight (4-10 p.m. on Sunday)
Specials:  Penn Brewery is the closest you'll get aside from a $2,200 ticket to Munich itself, so the  award winning M├╝nchener/Bavarian Oktoberfest brew (4.5% alcohol) that they serve is special in it's own right. 
Food:  Their deliciously authentic German menu will be available as always.
Entertainment:  Heimat Klang, Autobahn Band, Kevin Solecki, and a very special new local group, Gaudi Buam, (translated literally from Bavarian, "fun young men") will be performing in the restaurant throughout the course of the celebration.
Come find me:  I will be there checking things out on Sunday the 26th!
For More Information:  Follow them on Twitter and Like 'em on Facebook


Dates/Times:  Friday October 8, 6-11 p.m. and Saturday October 9, 10 a.m. - 11 p.m.
Specials:  Free admission. Free and plentiful parking. Sam Adams Oktoberfest and 13 other import and craft beers on tap.  Imports not your thing?  Choose from their unprecedented selection of bottled beers!
Food:  B&H famous Brats & Kraut will be bringing the culture home while South Pittsburgh's (in)famous Rowdy BBQ will be cooking up their famous pulled pork and chicken.
Drink for a Cause: A portion of procedes to benefit Huntingtons disease research. 
Entertainment:  Hen House Roosters will crow and croon followed by the Billy Oats Band.
Come find me:  Sadly, you won't.  I'll be out of town enjoying the farm-fresh goodness of Bob Evans Farm Festival that weekend but I encourage those who can't make the trip to Rio Grande, OH to celebrate with Ray and Jeff at Barley's & Hop's!


Dates/Times:  Sept. 17-18 and Sept. 24-25
Specials:  Things kicked off today (sorry, we missed it together) with a ribbon cutting a 7 p.m. where a larger than life 60-foot-tall work of art in the form of the traditional Bavarian Maibaum was revealed outside restaurant doors.  Go check it (and their delicious, house brewed German biers) out this week!
Food:  These guys do right by German cuisine.  Their menu stays true to the German palate and I personally suggest the pretzels and bier cheese.  But outside, under the tents they're offering meals of brats and kraut, pulled pork sandwiches and an array of German inspired desserts.
Entertainment:  Tons.  Check out the line up on their website.
Come find me:  I'll be there Friday night singing on tables, doing shotskis and enjoying kraut by the barrel. 


Dates/Times:  Sept. 17-19
Specials:  Continuously ranked one of the nations top 10 Oktoberfest celebrations by aol.com.
Food:  One block is devoted to German cuisine and beer along with a variety of American and ethnic foods and the Vendor Concourse.
Entertainment:  An outstanding array of both authentic German music mixed with a little much needed rock n' roll, the streets of Canonsburg will certainly be jammin'.  You can find the full list on their site, but this event is family friendly as well. Bring your kids and let them enjoy the amusement rides, face painting and games while you enjoy the bites and brews.
Come find me:  I'll be at the street stage and  in the beer garden on Sunday the 19th.
For more details: Follow Washington County on Twitter




Venue: PUMPtoberfest at the Pittsburgh Opera
Location: 2524 Liberty Avenue, in the Strip District
Date/time: October 8, 7 p.m. - Midnight
Details: PUMP is celebrating their 15th straight year of striving to make Pittsburgh a more dynamic and diverse place to live and what better way to do it than with an Oktoberfest themed party?! German beers will be flowing and a Root Beer garden will be available for anyone who wants to experience the fun without the hangover.  Prices include admission, food and beverages and, dependent upon cost point, a one-year PUMP membership.  There is a special discount for designated drivers.  Anyone who purchases a ticket will receive a code good for $5 off admission to their 40 under 40 party. Admission + Investor Membership*:  $120
Non-Members/PUMP Associates*:  $35
Current PUMP Partners/Investors:  $25
Designated Driver: $15
*Includes One Year PUMP Membership

Entertainment: TBD but they're working hard on booking a German band!
For more details:  Follow them on Twitter or like them on Facebook




Oktoberfest one of the largest fairs and events in the ENTIRE WORLD. So why shouldn't it be widely celebrated in Pittsburgh?!  Let's get to work. So yinz should don the yellow, red and black and develop a taste for heavy hops and  kraut.  It's time for Oktoberfest!


If you know of another celebration or I missed yours, please e-mail me at tasteofpittsburghblog (at) gmail (dot) com.
 

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Taste of Virginia Beach

This week, ToP and PID went coastal.


A trip originally designed as a Rock 'n' Roll 1/2 Marathon adventure turned in to a seafood marathon in it's own right. PID and I ate like kings of the sea for six straight days without waning. I just about turned in to a scallop myself.

My goal in life is to tell ya'll all about Pittsburgh dining at it's finest, but even a burghaholic like myself needs to spread her wings every once a while!  So PID and I flew down south to expand our palates to a bit of southern cuisine, Virginia Beach style.

In case any of you are planning a trip to VA Beach in the near future I'll give you a few hints as to your dining destinations!  If you're considering places to vacation, think about this family friendly location as a great place to catch some rays and lick your lips!

Our 4-5 Star Recommendations:


Name: Tautog's


Location: 23rd St. between Atlantic and Pacific
We ate: Oysters Rockefeller and Corby's Original Crab Dip as appetizers, PID the Crab Cakes and I the Scallops Barca for dinner.
We thought: Absolutely outstanding! I was moderately disappointed in the ORocks.  I've had better.  They had a slightly fishy scent and way too much spinach.  But the scallops and crab cakes were broiled to perfection. We walked right past the restaurant twice before having to ask where it was. Keep your eyes peeled! Hidden in the form of a beach house with no sign of a...well...sign anywhere, this establishment is a fine piece of trickery that keeps tourists at bay while catering to the locals and tourists-in-the-know like PID and myself. We were told we'd have an hour wait and were seated in 20 minutes. What a fine evening!
The price: $$


Name: Baja Cantina



Location: 23rd St. between Atlantic and Pacific
We ate: PID ordered the mahi mahi famous fish tacos and I went for the tuna flautas
We thought: WOW.  Relatives of mine had been raving about this place for years. I finally took the step since we noticed it across the street from Tautog's the evening before.  PID and I rented bikes (yes, we did it) and rode our way down from our 36th Street hotel for lunch on Sunday afternoon.  Though we were joined by a few fellow racers, there was no wait for a well shaded outside table.  Mahi tacos and tuna flautas were TO. DIE. FOR. The Cantina's queso sauce and homemade pico de gallo made the dishes truly stand out.  Don't wait as long as I did to put this place to the test for yourself.
The price: $

Name: Pocahontas Pancakes



Location: 35th and Atlantic
We ate: Strawberry Belgian Waffles to share, PID the Eggs Sampler and I the Gyro Feta Omelet with diced tomatoes.
We thought: We were pretty darn lucky to be staying across the street, or else we may not have discovered this gem. Though we were slightly cramped against our neighbors, it only proved a problem as we became embarrassed about the fact that we ordered three large breakfasts and scarfed down every single bite. The staff was extraordinary, it kept the place flowing regardless of the mega millions waiting outside for their delicious morning treat.
The price: $


Our 3-4 Star Recommendations:

Name: Catch 31 Fish House and Bar



Location: Laskin and Oceanfront
We ate: Steamed clams, crispy fried calamari, PID had the Catch "Ciopino" and I had the Bronzed Yellow Fin Tuna
We thought: Delicious, but not worth the three hour wait.  We arrived at 6:15, about an hour before hunger pangs kicked in, anticipating a long wait.  As expected, we were told to expect an hour and 15 minutes.  So we waited in the beautiful white rocking chairs and took in the setting sun and sea breeze.  But an hour and 45 minutes later when we still weren't seated, I had to ask what was going on. I was then told 10 more minutes. Thirty minutes later and still, we waited.  Finally, at 9:05 we were seated. Though I had complained at the wait and the notable occurrence where a couple who arrived 20 minutes after us were seated before us, we were offered no complimentary...anything. Luckily the service was swift and the food was tasty, but PID was less than impressed and though the Tuna was perfect, my rice was slightly overdone. I say check it out for the ambiance and fresh fish alone, but go in the off-season.
Price: $$$


Our 1-2 Star Spots to Avoid:

Neptune's
Location: 29th & oceanfront
Why: Most of the buffet food had been sitting out for hours. The clams were watered down. The butter tasted like...mystery liquid. The stuffed mushrooms were the only saving grace.

Fish Bones
Location: 12th and oceanfront
Why: Just....blech.

Waterman's Surfside Grille
Location: 5th and oceanfront
Why: SUCH A BUMMER!  This place had been recommended to us numerous times. But we were sorely disappointed. My "Just Seafood" platter consisted of completely unseasoned scallops, watered down lump crab meat and tough shrimp. The "veggies" offered me a steamed carrot or two, one quarter of a sprig of asparagus and about 30 slices of squash. BORING! PID got the fried seafood platter and quickly regretted it. It was way too much, even for him. If you claim to have the best crab cakes on the beach you'd better back it up. They did not. Don't listen to the hype. A seafood specialist who can't properly season seafood?  Not worth the trek to the inlet.


I will post a few more (coming soon) but for now, these are the best and worst of our vacation! 

We had a delicious time, but we're certainly glad to be back in the 'burgh!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Moonliting

I'm sad to write this post.

I'd thought I might have discovered a gem.  PID and I searched for something very specific for this week's date night.  Inexpensive and on our side of town. I used the Urbanspoon application on my iPod Touch to try to find the perfect spot. I must have spun the reel about 105 times before I landed on the Moonlite Cafe on Brookline Blvd. 

I read a number of reviews that all said the same thing: don't judge a book by its cover, it has a dive appeal with delicious cuisine.



I was excited to experience it for myself and tell you all about this hidden treasure in the South Hills.  But sadly, I was far from impressed.  We walked in to a half-full dining room. There were many empty tables throughout and we were seated in a booth adjacent to a family with two screaming crawling children.  Really? We couldn't have had one (or two, or three) booths in between?

Sean looked at me the moment we sat down and abruptly admitted "It smells like the 70's in here."  Which oddly enough, he was right.  It did have a Partridge-Family aroma.

But I was still overly optimistic.  Our waiter, Robert, was prompt, polite and adorable.  Our drinks came in a flash.  And then it was on to the wine...

I ordered the house Cab Sav which came before I could finish saying "savignon" and was filled to the absolute brim.  I like that. I like it a lot.  It was slightly cheap tasting but it was also cheap.  Not a horrid trade off.

And then (very quickly) came the bread.


Your typical Italian bread.  Possibly bought at one of the local markets on Brookline Blvd.  Very light and fluffy, not too hard. But nothing to write home about. Or keep writing here for that matter.

We then moved on to the appetizer...

We chose the Crab Cakes.  Are you shocked?  I didn't think so.  But we were.  When two chicken-patty wanna-be's were placed down right in front of us.

It looked, and eventually tasted, like these crab cakes (composed of imitation crab meat) were picked up from their local grocers freezer.  In a box. For $8.50/dozen.  I wish I could say better things.  But I truthfully can't.  The cocktail sauce felt store-bought also as the horseradish was nowhere to be seen in the texture of the sauce.  Overall, the crab cakes were a major disappointment.

We moved on to the soup and salad after that...











I was pleased to see that the the Chicken Noodle Soup looked authentic.  Big, hearty noodles and a foamy broth made the soup pretty tasty.  The salad was made of (GASP!) iceburg lettuce and I only received two olives, two tomatoes and one pepper. Yikes.

And finally it was on to the entree.  I was hoping -- HOPING -- this would be Moonlite's saving grace.  I'd ordered the Shrimp Fettuccine Alfredo.  Many of the user reviews I'd read had praised Moonlite's alfredo.  It was my time to decide.


Upon delivery (which Robert assured happened in a very timely fashion as we'd happily discovered was his MO) the dish looked promising.  Shrimp looked cooked to perfection with a slight pink hue.  However I noticed a poor ratio of pasta-to-alfredo on the plate.  The shrimp seemed right at home swimming in a sea of sauce.  One of my biggest pet peeves is a shrimp pasta dish where the shrimp tails have not been removed.  There's nothing more messy and difficult than attempting to remove the tails from a shrimp when they're already in a pasta...especially THIS pasta. I had to hold my shrimp over the plate for 45 seconds to let the excess sauce drip off before pinching off its tail.

Once I got the tails off it was finally time to dig in.  This was it.  The moment of truth.  I took a bite and couldn't quite make out what the flavor reminded me of... so I asked PID.  He didn't even finish chewing before he blurted out "popcorn."  And...once again...he was right.  It tasted just like popcorn.  Mostly because of the outlandish amount of butter that had been incorporated in to the sauce. It was overwhelming. There was a slightly chalky aftertaste as well which made me wonder if the sauce had been birthed from a powder mixture which was not properly executed. I was devastated.

I asked PID how he felt about his meal.  He definitely had a better experience than I did.  He chose the New York Strip steak at a very reasonable price.



But it was only juicy on the fatty end where it rendered in to the meat.  He said after that it was stiff and chewy.  He was pleased with the flavor the mushrooms added, and his Italian green beans were soaked in a very delicious herbal marinara sauce, but the star of the show  seemed to forget it's lines.

Cliffs Notes:

Drinks: 2 Diet Pepsis @ $2.25
            1 Cabernet Sauvignon @ $5
Appetizers: Crab Cakes @ $4.50
Entrees:     NY Strip Steak @ $16.95
                 Shrimp Fettuccine Alfredo $13.95
Tax:     @ 7% (Allegheny County only) $2.79
Tip (the service was the saving grace): $9
Total for 2:  $56.69


Overall Opinion?

I wanted so badly to deliver the happy news of a new found favorite.  But instead I'm like Fox News. Delivering earth shattering news to the public without a glimmer of hope. I will say the service was outstanding.  Very quick and my drinks were refilled (without me asking) without my ever noticing they were gone.  The prices were more than reasonable and had I have to believe that if we would have tried for something slightly more traditional, it would have been an OK trip. I won't be back, but if you live in the Overbrook/Brookline area, go in and give it a shot if you're looking for an inexpensive break from cooking.  Let me know how your experience went!  I'd love to be proven wrong!



Moonlite Cafe on Urbanspoon

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