Grit & Grace

535 Liberty Ave. Pittsburgh, PA 15222 • (412) 281-4748gritandgracepgh.com

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This was the best meal I had in Pittsburgh, not that my time there has been of any impressive duration that you should ever misconstrue my minute sampling as extensive. But in those four short days I managed to pack in a few highs and lows, with Grit and Grace taking pole position.

The winning performance of which I speak takes place in a narrow, subway car-shaped dining room decorated with a minimal contemporary touches so as not to distract you from the small plate army about to descend on your table. From dim sum to sandwiches and then sum, Grit & Grace fills your plate with anything goes. But that’s what makes this place a blast, especially for larger parties so you get to try a little of everything. And per the list below, you will soon see, I truly mean everything.

So, listing them in hierarchical fashion, here we go…

The Brisket Sandwich: It’s all you could ever hope for in a sandwich. Moist. Beefy. Contrasting textures and brightness from the kohlrabi slaw and pickled red onions. A little kick from the horseradish cream and thousand island sabayon. All on a wonderfully fresh baguette that would make any Frenchy proud.

The Mortadella Bun: No. Not a sandwich. A bun. As in dim sum. As in get some. Because this is definitely the best Mortadella sand- er, “bun” I’ve ever had. Loaded with the additions of chicken thigh meat, kimchi and bread & butter pickles, then sauced with coriander mustard and chili aioli. It’s definitely not your usual suspect, but hot damn does the road less travelled taste good!

Pot du crème: I’m normally not a huge fan of the Pot, but then again, I had never eaten at Grit & Grace before. And now I’m a changed man. Probably an Ultimate in the category since the competition is all but non-existent in my eyes. And note to Crème brulée, eat your crème out, ‘cause you’ve got nothing on this.

Lettuce Wraps: Okay, not exactly the sexiest of names, nor is it much of a looker to be honest, but look deeper… and open wide, because the duck confit piled on top of these leaves is loaded with flavor, along with even more kohlrabi (of the fermented persuasion), peanuts and cilantro.

Pork belly bites: Anything that starts with the words “pork belly” is already halfway to the promised land by default. Which can be both a blessing and a curse, because it’s that much harder to stand out in land where the bar is pre-set to high. Nonetheless, these “bites” had a favorable showing, glazed with orange, chili, garlic and a nice kiss of ginger.

Roasted octopus and mussels: This was the most conflicted dish of the night, being both good and bad at the same time. The octopus itself being the good, done nice and tender, as are the potatoes, which soak up the lemongrass broth like a champ. On the flip side, the mussels are the Bad. Tiny and overcooked, tasting like shriveled up wads of mollusk.

Carrot salad: In the midst of such culinary wizardry, it’s a bit hard for salads to make a lasting impression, but I do have to say that this one has a nice Asian kick to it.

Tomato salad: Conversely to the Carrot Salad, this one takes a decidedly Mexican approach to its flavors, which, while good, didn’t fare quite as well with the overall theme of cuisine.

Kimchi: It’s fine, but to present it as its own dish is a bit remiss. It’s a gloried condiment to be fair and that’s all you should use it for, to add some nice kick to the other dishes you find lacking.

Meatballs: I’m not sure if these were the ones normally served with ramen, but perhaps they should’ve been, because by themselves they were a tad underwhelming.

Pastrami sandwich: I wanted to love this one so much more than I did, but compared to the Mortadella bun or the Brisket Sandwich it’s an ugly stepsister. But not for a lack of trying, with accouterments like broccoli rabe, roasted garlic aioli and provolone cheese whiz you’d think it was Philly’s second coming. Sadly though, it’s just a false alarm.

Short ribs: Like the pork belly, this is another one of those dishes that usually has me at “hello.” And when you place it on a biscuit smothered with friggin’ béchamel, you’re definitely going for broke. But that’s what happened. It broke. They pushed this little dish so far, it overshot decadent and landed right splat on the face of “I wish I hadn’t done this.”

Soba noodles with crab: Remember that kimchi I mentioned? Save it for this dish. It’s crazy bland and in dire need of some kimchi lovin’, which is the worst name ever for a Korean porno.

Peach cake: Speaking of worsts, this was the most unfortunate of recommendations from our server and easily the lowest point of the meal. Dry, bland and unworthy of the term “dessert,” bringing no joy and only caloric guilt in its wake.

Other than that final transgression, the service really was excellent and the wine choices by the glass, while minimal, were fantastic. I had one white and one red and both were much better than your average bear.

So now that you’re done reading my novel about Grit & Grace (I told you we tried everything) you can certainly see that there are some land mines to be avoided. But with so many highs and two Ultimates, I find it hard to dole out anything lower than a quad.

4 teeth

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Bar Symon

1000 Airport Blvd. Coraopolis, PA 15108 • (412) 472-5067unitedconcessionsgroup.com

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I know many of you probably feel like airport food should either be removed entirely from my blog or receive some type of special dispensation, but I have had enough good airport meals in my day to respectfully disagree. Sure it’s the exception to the rule, but the purpose of my blog isn’t to review the top restaurants of the now, it’s to help you, my readers, know which places are all that, or all hype. Especially when you’re a captive audience like at an airport.

So, should you find yourself with time to kill and hunger to satiate, upstairs in the Delta Terminal in Pittsburgh you will find Bar Symon, which looks more like a burger and shake joint from the 50’s than a bar if you ask me, but I cared little about such things since I was gunning for a burger and a shake.

On the menu you will find loads of options, mostly in the way of burgers, two of which apparently won awards at the SOBE Food & Wine Festival. So, naturally I went straight into the eye of the storm, ordering up one of the two, the Fat Doug Burger (pictured), topped with pastrami, Swiss, coleslaw and stadium mustard, all on a challah bun. And while it sounds hillacious, it is more SOSO, if you ask moi. However, I got a little tip for ya… On your table is a bottle of their homemade coffee barbecue sauce and if you put that on your burger, look out! Hell, if you accidentally get some on your finger look out, because you’re liable to gnaw the thing off. Easily one of the best BBQ sauces I’ve ever laid buds on. Goes on everything. Even the rosemary fries, which are good, but in the BBQ sauce- amazing.

But Symon says don’t stop there. They also make a crazy good homemade ketchup with some serious heat to it. Another worthy addition to both the burgers and the fries, but not quite at the same level of wowness as the coffee sauce.

And while we’re on the subject of coffee, the other thing I had was their espresso chocolate shake mixed with a little vanilla because that’s how I roll. The good news is that it’s served up insanely think. So much so that they need to use a straw so big it’s like wrapping your lips around a PVC pipe. Sadly though, both the creaminess and sweetness are a bit lacking, making it surprisingly bland, which is not something you want in a shake. After all, if you’re gonna be putting your waistline out there, you want it to be worth the ride.

So I am quite torn here. Without sauce this is undoubtedly a two knifer. But with the sauce it’s easily a three. Decisions…decisions…  Am I feeling generous today? Or ferocious?

2 teeth

 

Proper Brick Oven & Tap Room

139 7th St. Pittsburgh, PA 15222(412) 281-5700properpittsburgh.com

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Proper indeed. I mean I knew they probably had game when I saw that a Brooklynite had given them five stars on Yelp, but I gotta give mad props to Proper for a slew of killer pies. Not to mention good salads and their candy bacon, which is to die both for and from. We only did take out though, so I can’t speak to the décor or service, but resounding praise is in order for the crust, sauce, toppings and sides.

Starting with the highs of the pies, I’d rank the prosciutto with Turkish figs and feta right at the tippy top, and that’s not just the honorary Turk in me talking. It really was harika (Turkish for “The Best”), so maybe it is the Turk in me talking.

A close second would be the Yelp revered Carnivore made with ample helpings of meat, obviously. But this pie is more about quality than quantity, which is why it was so good. Also, a pie with sausage and pepperoni is normally about as oily as the Exxon Valdez, but not this one. The Carnivore knows how to keep it under control. Respect.

In third I’d go with the Mediterranean pie, made with whole olives (not sliced), artichokes, arugula and feta. It’s like a Greek salad on top of a pizza and it’s, like very good.

And bringing up the rear for me would be the old staple, the Margherita. It’s good, but compared to the other pies, it’s a bit of a snooze. And I’m not just saying that because I’m incapable of appreciating the simple beauty of a Margherita. It’s just that when you distill a pizza down to just sauce, cheese and crust, all three have to be that much more impressive to impress.

But speaking of impressively simply things, Oh Lordy was the candy bacon that and then some. Two boxes of it disappeared no sooner than they hit the table, like dipping a cow in the piranha-infested Amazon River. Which will only make my next sentence laughable, because the salads were actually very good too, but after candy bacon, what are we talking about? Well, what we are talking about is an apple, walnut, dried cranberry and feta salad that far surpassed most pizza joint expectations. In fact, Proper did that handily across the board, and I’m not just saying that because it’s in Pittsburgh… Okay, that’s a flat out lie. I am TOTALLY saying that because it’s in Pittsburgh. Nicely done Proper. Consider me officially stupefied.

4 teeth

Sienna Mercato

942 Penn Ave. Pittsburgh, PA 15222(412) 281-2810 siennapgh.com

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This place has got a lot of balls. Sorry. Couldn’t resist. But in all fairness, it is true. Three floors of them. Meat balls. Turkey balls. Veggie balls. Risotto balls. Even pecan balls for dessert. All served up in a create-your-adventure style menu broken down by ball, sauce, Panini, hero or just plain ole saucy balls. They have other stuff too, but balls are easily 90% of the menu.

So, being that I was meated out from hedonistic culinary pursuits in the days prior, I decided to go with the veggie balls on a Panini with smoked mozzarella and arribiata sauce. And like the knight says toward the end of The Last Crusade, “he chose…poorly.” Which I did. Very lack-luster at best. But I’m not about to throw Sienna under the bus, after all, I was master of my own domain (not the Seinfeld version).

On the flip side, I made up for it with the pecan balls which are essentially three very large balls of Turkey Hill vanilla ice cream rolled in chopped pecans and places on a bed of hot fudge. Crazy friggin’ simple and really friggin’ good. Granted I’m not so sure the ice cream itself was so good that it needed a special credit on the menu. I’ve had far better from the supermarket, like Steve’s of Brooklyn for example, which blows the feathers off Turkey Hill.

For cocktails, they do a solid Manhattan, albeit a touch on the sweet side (I know what you’re thinking, ice cream and Manhattans? This is how you cut back on the gluttony?). And speaking of sweet, the servers are all very warm and friendly, taking great pride in the bevy of balls they bestow.

2 teeth

NOLA

24 Market Sq. Pittsburgh, PA 15222(412) 471-9100nolaonthesquare.com

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No, not the one actually in NOLA. The one in Pittsburgh. And sadly there’s no relation. Emeril has nada to do with this one. That said, strangely enough, this one held its own for a place not exactly born on the Bayou.

Inside, the décor is heavily influenced by that Memphis-meets-garish 80’s style with bright blues and purples mixed with vibrant triangular details that seem to make no sense other than to scream “Rules? We don’t need no stinkin’ rules!” Of which I beg to differ. But cutting them some slack, I get the theme. I mean, after all, it’s not like Mardi Gras is laced with subtleties. But apart from the walls and the dated ambiance, the service is friendly and lightning quick having us, a party of five (without the parental tragedy), in and out in under 30 minutes during the height of the lunchtime rush.

And in those 30 minutes they managed to pack in a few head-turners like the kale salad with chunks of cantaloupe, Cajun sunflower seeds and ricotta salata all dressed in a grilled watermelon vinaigrette.

Or better still, the turkey Cubano, piled high with warm roasted turkey breast, home brined pickles, Jarlsberg, sweet pepper jam and creole mustard. I’m not too sure how Cajun a Cubano is, but I’m pretty damn certain it was fabano. And so were the generously seasoned fries served with it, but be sure to ask for their honey mustard to dip them in. It’s homemade and homazing.

But then NOLA pulled a NO-NO when it came to the highly recommended blackened catfish, a dish I normally love the whiskers out of. But this one lacked the true kick any self-respecting blackened dish should have. And while it might’ve been deemed spicy by local standards, it is a true bottom-feeder amongst dishes by the same name.

All in though, I have to give NOLA props. Not necessarily on its Cajun cuisine per se, but for the little creole influences that yielded dishes way better than I ever expected from Steel City.

3 teeth

The Commoner

458 Strawberry Way • Pittsburgh, PA 15219(412) 230-4800 • thecommonerpgh.com

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Located in the basement of the tastefully done Monaco Hotel, lies an equally tasteful restaurant with an industrial loft vibe about it, cool lighting fixtures and elephant-sized steel beams, showing off the pride of Pittsburgh.

Unfortunately the taste doesn’t go much beyond the décor however, serving up some of the worst pancakes I’ve ever had. I know they look cool, stacked high and thick with a huge knife stabbed through the center, but they taste doughy and sad. Equally disappointing is their Arnold palmer which gets too tricky for its own good, yielding floral notes and other hints while leaving behind the flavor of lemon and tea. So what’s the point?

On the plus side, the green juice is made fresh to order and you can really taste it. And I mean really. For better or worse, because if you’re one to like your juice with a little sweetness or chill, you won’t find it in this glass of celery.

But in The Commoner’s defense, they do serve up a few things that aren’t so common (or average). For example the Messi Benny is pretty darn tasti. Made with chorizo, potatoes, peppers, onions and stewed tomatoes, all topped with a pair of perfectly poached eggs. It’s a tad on the oily side, but way on the kickin’ side. Good heat, great flavor and by far the best thing on the menu.

Back on the missy side though, the French Onion Soup Burger does everything right but taste good. Topped as the name suggests with caramelized onions, gruyere and aioli, but then stacked on a brioche bun way too big for its britches, overthrowing the burger and causing you to abandon ship, going open face just to get the balance back in order.

And last but not least, the final nail in the coffin is the painfully slow service. There were only six tables seated in the entire restaurant at the time and yet it took over an hour to get our food. Which I blame mostly on the kitchen, but then again, our server did little more than apologize as opposed to compensate. So I will do little to compensate on their knife count and give them what they deserve, two.

2 teeth