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fl. 2 with Camila Kauer Garcia

Fl. 2 with Camila Kaurer Garcia

Fl. 2: Where the Culinary Magic Happens

fl. 2 with Camila Kauer Garcia

When the Fairmont Pittsburgh decided to close their restaurant, Habitat, which opened at the time of the hotel’s opening in 2010, I was surprised but understanding.  I was told by the Fairmont’s director of operations, Meghan Earnshaw, that 7 years for a luxury hotel restaurant concept is a long time, and that a new restaurant is necessary to stay competitive and profitable.  I find this to be especially true in a market like Pittsburgh, where competition in the Pittsburgh restaurant scene has been fierce over the past few years after dozens of new openings throughout the city.

fl. 2 with Camila Kauer Garciafl. 2 with Camila Kauer GarciaWith the closing of Habitat in June, the Fairmont spared no time or expense in getting their next concept up and running.  The entire space closed from June to late October, and all hands were on deck to get “fl. 2” (pronounced “floor two”, the location of the restaurant on the second floor of the hotel) up and running.  The result is a beautifully sophisticated space with a delicious menu to match and a lot of local collaboration.  I’m glad I could share the experience of fl. 2 with veteran reviewer Camila Kauer Garcia.

Atmosphere

The atmosphere of fl.2 is both gorgeous and at the same time a little confusing.  The space has a lot of simplicity and modernity in its fixtures, with lights, mirrors, and soft colors like beige and cream that don’t distract yet from the experience.  However, some choices like the floral-patterned plating and the color of the upholstery reminded me more of my grandmother’s house than a luxury restaurant.  That being said, there was obvious intention in these choices, I just wish the story that fl.2 was trying to tell would have been a little clearer.fl. 2 with Camila Kauer Garcia

Service

The service at fl. 2 was of course excellent, and even with the high expectations that I had set for the Fairmont, they managed to meet and exceed them.  Our server was prompt and pleasant, engaging us in conversation and entertaining our questions effortlessly.  I also need to do a huge shout-out to Meghan again for being an excellent host and channeling true hospitalitarian vibes in the style of Danny Meyer and Union Square Hospitality.  Top marks!

Quality

fl. 2 with Camila Kauer GarciaOnce again, top marks for quality on pretty much every level.  There is a fairly robust raw bar available and on the whole, everything was tasty.  I probably went a little overboard with the raw bar, but I did want to try a variety of dishes.  The beef tartare was good, but you definitely have to be in the mood for it.  I also really enjoyed the flavors of the cured kampachi.

In my mind, the stars of the show lie in the main courses, and between pork belly and the chickpea fricassee, they were both packed with flavor and extremely pretty to look at.  The weakest of the bunch was the pork terrine, but I suspect that was due to overloading on the raw bar items.  It was just a little bland in my mind, despite the pesto and mustard sauce, which instead of adding flavor, made the dish a tad salty.fl. 2 with Camila Kauer Garcia

In addition, I would like to say that there were several dishes I wish I could have tried, including the cast-iron ribeye, which has been praised as one of the best items on the menu, and some of the desserts like the Japanese cheesecake.  Overall the menu is eclectic enough to have variety but not so broad that it doesn’t communicate a modern flavor palate.fl. 2 with Camila Kauer Garcia

Value

fl. 2 with Camila Kauer Garcia

Dining at the Fairmont isn’t a cheap experience, but the value is pretty impeccable: superb service, quality food at fair portions, and in a setting that exudes luxury without the hoity-toity attitude.

Rating

8.4/10

Translation

Once again, for a new restaurant with certain kinks to work out, this is a great score.  Advice from me would be to work on the story that fl. 2 is trying to tell, and once the themes of that story are established, weave them into the “plot” (the specific dishes and interactions with guests which create their experience).  Fl.2 can only get better in my opinion.

Camila’s Take

Best part of the experience?

I absolutely loved the attention we received.  From the minute we walked in and the staff took our coats, to the waiter being super personable and speaking Spanish to me, to the staff walking over to our table to check in and see how we were doing, it was all fantastic.

What needs the most improvement?

fl. 2 with Camila Kauer Garcia

Nothing stood out to me as needing improvement!

What kind of place is this (who would you bring here, for what purpose, etc.)?

Fl. 2 is a posh place.  This is the kind of place you take people who appreciate food and are willing to spend a little more for the attention in service and culinary innovation that you experience and taste.

Describe your meal for us.fl. 2 with Camila Kauer Garcia

It was here that I tried beef tartare for the first time.  It was excellent.  I tried it with a kind of cheese and crackers which was a type of appetizer I could see myself coming here for regularly.  I also had a hummus dish and I was blown away that I was tasting garbanzo beans in a whole new way.  They were the best chickpeas I had in my life and its creamy and smoky flavor my favorite dish that night.  I also had the pork belly, which is a dish for people who don’t think twice about eating a layer of pork fat.  Unfortunately, this wasn’t entirely for me, and I wasn’t able to enjoy the flavors that the pork fat provided because there was simply too much of it.

Camila is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh who hopes to learn as much as she can in the business school.  Once she graduates, Camila wants to work in the nonprofit sector to make this world a better place…one delicious meal at a time of course!

fl.2 is one of the newest and hottest restaurants in Pittsburgh, taking residence in the Fairmont hotel in downtown.  A local, seasonal menu is the focus, combining the best of the region with bold deviations that reinvent traditional American fare.  Check out fl.2’s menu and make reservations here: http://www.fl2pgh.com/

 

 

or, The Whale with Lydia Grubic

Or, The Whale with Lydia Grubic

Moby Dick; or, The Whale?  Definitely The Whale.

Restaurants have an important first step in choosing the name they give themselves.  To an extent, a restaurateur build’s his concept around the name: what food is going to be served, what furniture and fixtures are going to be utilized, even what the uniforms are going to look like and how the staff is going to interact with the guests.  A name can command respect or bring on instant derision if the restaurant is tied up in bad food or service.or, The Whale with Lydia Grubicor, The Whale with Lydia Grubic

However, setting the right tone with a name can make all the difference.  Or, The Whale does this brilliantly.  Anyone familiar with the famous American novel by Herman Melville will understand most of what the restaurant is about from its name: fantastic seafood, set in a nautical-themed atmosphere with hearty service characteristic of the book’s protagonists, quiet and approachable Ishmael and brazen Ahab.  This is at least what I had hoped the goal of the name would be, to set the tone for the experience in but a few words, and with Lydia Grubic as my featured reviewer, I suppose you may call me Ishmael as I recount for you my dining experience.

Atmosphere

The atmosphere of or, The Whale, recently built in the new Distikt Hotel in downtown Pittsburgh, is quite magical.  You walk in to a terrace with seating surrounding the main dining room.  Staring you in the face on the wall opposite is a giant mural depicting the famed battle between Moby Dick and the whaling ship Pequod.  It’s quite a sight to behold, but what I appreciate even more than the flashiness and grandiosity of the space are the subtle touches that bring the nautical theme together.  The ceiling’s draped ropes, the menu written with and including excerpts from the book, plus, as one would expect, a lot of whales, all tie the theme together without being tacky.  Presentation wise, this is one of my favorite restaurant spaces in the city.

Service

Of the four categories I looked at, service here was the weakest.  It wasn’t terrible by any stretch of the imagination, but for a restaurant of this caliber, I did come in with higher expectations.  There wasn’t the connection that I had hoped to have between our server and us, and our interactions with the maître d’ were limited and somewhat distant.  As I keep emphasizing with my last few reviews, there just wasn’t a dialogue in place between us and the staff.  On a technical level everything was well executed, it’s just missing the charm and warmth of truly great service.

or, The Whale with Lydia Grubic

Quality

On the whole, everything we had was of superb quality.  I ordered a mixed drink, the Broken Arrow, which I thought was very tasty and strong enough to have one and be done.  I then chose two seafood dishes which are some of my absolute favorites: escargot and scallops.  I thought both were very well done, with the escargot being done exactly right in butter and garlic, and the scallops trying something new with a butternut squash sauce that added a sweet and zesty flavor to what would otherwise be somewhat underwhelming alone.or, The Whale with Lydia Grubic

or, The Whale with Lydia Grubic

My only grievance I thought was the dessert which Lydia and I split: a bienenstich cake, which resembles a crumb cake but made with a very sweet yeast dough.  I simply thought it was too dry, but on a second visit I would try it again to confirm and compare from the prior experience.  Overall, a really good showing for a new restaurant.

Value

Slightly expensive, but the flavor and atmosphere was worth it.  I did not necessarily think the service paid for itself but I think that can always be a work in progress to any restaurant, and I do factor that into this value category.  However, I’m willing to be lenient to a new restaurant in Pittsburgh, especially one that I think has the right intentions.or, The Whale with Lydia Grubic

Rating

8.1/10

Translation

For a first go, I think this is a great score.  There is lots of room for improvement, since I think any deductions were due to the easily rectifiable category of service.  If you haven’t been to or, The Whale in 2017, I would make it a 2018 priority.

Lydia’s Take

or, The Whale with Lydia Grubic

Best part of the experience?

I really liked the atmosphere of the restaurant and the décor.

What needs the most improvement?

I think they could be more adventurous with their food.

What kind of place is this (who would you bring here, for what purpose, etc.)?

I would recommend it for special occasions since it’s on the pricer side!

Describe your meal for us.or, The Whale with Lydia Grubic

Overall I really enjoyed my meal and would order it again.  Both dishes I got, the macaroni and cheese and the mussels, were flavored very well and nothing was too strong or overpowering.

Lydia has been featured before but she is now a graduate at Case Western University who is always up for a culinary adventure!

Or, The Whale is one of Pittsburgh’s newest and hottest restaurants located in the Distrikt Hotel.  They feature fresh farm (and fisher) to table fare with great seafood, chops, and drinks with seasonal flare.  You can find their website with menu items and reservation instructions here: https://www.orthewhalepgh.com/

 

 

 

Sienna on the Square with Camila 2

Sienna on the Square with Camila Kauer Garcia

Market SquareMirroring the Italian Piazza with Sienna

The Italian piazza is famous for bringing people together.  It combines the traditional safety and logistical aspects of a town square, protecting pedestrians from motor vehicles, with the comfort and refinement of shops, restaurants, and entertainment venues surrounding the square.  The Piazza itself can make a beautiful atmosphere where one can enjoy a great meal, which to me conjures images of the great side walk cafes of France or Britain.

Unfortunately, I’m not currently in the great cities of Paris or London, but Pittsburgh happens to have its own wonderful piazza in the form of Market Square.  The entire piazza was redesigned and redeveloped in 2009 after years of neglect and now is flurry of activity throughout the year, hosting farmers markets, concerts, and even a pop-up holiday market in the German style.  And of course, the entire square is encircled by great restaurant concepts like the one our featured reviewer Camila and I visited, Sienna on the Square.

Sienna on the Square with Camila

Atmosphere

As I mentioned in the introduction, a piazza is the perfect backdrop to a restaurant, especially an Italian restaurant where the fit is both cultural and atmospheric.  Sienna is perfectly positioned on the corner of the square, with enough seclusion and distance from the main activity of the square as to no experience sensory overload but with the full view of the plaza as to enjoy people watching and other visual spectacle.  Sienna made use of what was already right in front of it to create a great experience, and they were rewarded for this move by our feelings of good will from the moment we sat down.

Service

Sienna on the Square with Camila

I rarely do a shout out to the name of our server at a restaurant, mostly for the reason that very rarely am I so blown away by the standard of service set that I even remember the name.  This time is different.  Our server Anthony was funny, knowledgeable, professional, yet approachable.  He was able to fluidly bring and remove dishes while seamlessly conversing with either one of us and not miss a beat.  This is a hospitalitarian who knew his job inside and out and loved every moment of it.  Anthony’s service was a conversation with us, a dialogue that we both benefited from and left one of the most positive impressions in my mind of a server ever.  There was a small issue with a plate that was brought to us with bacon on it (Camila is a vegetarian) but other than that I was utterly delighted.

 

QualitySienna on the Square with Camila

The quality of the food at an Italian restaurant can be very uninspired, especially since it is my opinion that many Italian restaurants in the United States are a dime a dozen.  While Sienna wasn’t something completely original or mind-opening, it was a solid menu with some great choices.Sienna on the Square with Camila

There was a delicious bread and butter provision (the butter had a creamy tomato and spice flavor) and I enjoyed my gnocchi with asparagus, pancetta, and creamy corn sauce very much.  The stuffed meatball was also very good and something I would go back to have again.  But I wasn’t dazzled by anything.  The fact that everything is made “fresh and in-house” shouldn’t be the bar to reach; that should be the standard.  Nevertheless, Sienna still has one of the best Italian menu’s in the city, and the seasonality of the menu keeps things fresh and interesting.

Sienna on the Square with Camila

Value

Again, the value for what we received was adequate but also not shocking.  If your standard is 60-70 dollars a meal for drinks, appetizers, and entrees, then you won’t bat an eye after dining at Sienna.

Rating

7.7/10

Translation

Sienna’s rating in my opinion relied slightly more on the service and the atmosphere than the food, drink, and overall value.  The food was good, but if I’m going to return, I am coming back for the service of Anthony (and hopefully anyone else who works there) and the feelings of relaxation which come from the piazza of Market Square.

Camila’s Take

Best part of the experience?

I felt like I was in Europe.  I loved enjoying every bite of my food, with great company, and everything from the aesthetics of my food to the atmosphere around Market Square was great.Sienna on the Square with Camila

What needs the most improvement?

The only thing perhaps was that the vendor didn’t remember I was a vegetarian after we had joked about it and brought out my salad with bacon on it.  So although I should have paid more attention to the special description, to improve as a server, he could remember the small details like having a customer who can’t eat meat.  That way mistakes are kept at a minimum and his careful attention would have been noticed.

What kind of place is this (who would you bring here, for what purpose, etc.)?

This place is definitely fine dining.  I would come here for a romantic date, to reunite with a friend and make it special, or come with a loved one.

Describe your meal for us.Sienna on the Square with Camila

I had vegetarian pasta with carrots.  I though it would be such an odd combination, but it was one of the most unique pasta dishes I ever had!  It was fantastic!

Camila is a senior at the University of Pittsburgh who hopes to learn as much as she can in the business school.  Once she graduates, Camila wants to work in the nonprofit sector to make this world a better place…one delicious meal at a time of course!

Sienna on the Square is an ode to classic Italy with seasonal dishes, an extensive wine list, great for pairings, and located in the scenic Market Square area of Downtown Pittsburgh.  You can check out their menu and make reservations here: http://www.siennaonthesquare.com/

 

Pork and Beans with Rebecca Zhou

Pork and Beans with Rebecca Zhou

Two Lesser-known Classic Comfort Foods, One Great BBQ Joint

We all know the classic adage of surviving off of “Meat and Potatoes” (which, capitalized as it is, is another great restaurant by the same owners as this one.)  However, for those of us tired of meat and potatoes but still married to the idea of a protein and a starch, let me invite you to try this lovely little venue in the heart of the Cultural District in Downtown Pittsburgh.  Pork and Beans, as the name implies, serves a variety of southern comfort food, based on the swine and legume from which they come.  Best of all, the food and drink can be as refined as you are that night, so whether you are dressed up or dressed down, you’re all set for Pork and Beans!  Becca and I were certainly all set when we sauntered in after a night exploring the Three Rivers Art Fest, and therefore this amazing friend is the featured reviewer for this installment of Famished with Friends!Pork and Beans with Rebecca Zhou

Atmosphere Pork and Beans with Rebecca Zhou

At the time of our arrival, the Stanley Cup Finals were in full swing.  In accordance with the game, the atmosphere was buzzing, with flat-screen TV’s surrounding us with and everyone joining in on the excitement.  There was also soft pop music playing, which added only a little ambiance over the din of the diners.  In addition, I really liked the variation in seating and tables: there were high tops, low tops, booths, bar seating, outside tables, even standing tables, which gives everyone the choice of where or how to sit.Pork and Beans with Rebecca Zhou

Service

Service at Pork and Beans was fairly consistent and well timed.   I say fairly consistent because although we received our appetizers really fast, it seemed every other item that came out was much slower.  Not to the point of complaining, simply noticing.Pork and Beans with Rebecca Zhou

QualityPork and Beans with Rebecca Zhou

The meal aspect of dining at Pork and Beans was sort of up and down for me.  We started with fried pig ears, and for me the dry, spicy-ness wasn’t all that appealing, and only slightly cooled by the Alabama white barbecue sauce.  Next up was my sandwich, a special which combined a fried chicken patty, pulled pork, and crunchy coleslaw into an amazing creation.  I suggest pairing it with one of the sides, like the fingerling potato salad or the mac and cheese for some additional goodness.  However, we also came down from this high in terms of Rebecca’s sandwich, a traditional pulled pork, which came out slightly cold.

Pork and Beans with Rebecca Zhou

 

In addition, I absolutely loved the selection of barbecue sauces and the special dessert, pecan pie a la mode, which made for a fantastic ending to the evening!Pork and Beans with Rebecca Zhou

Price

Even though this is down-to-earth cooking, these are not down-to-earth prices.  Come with your parents or someone willing to treat you well.

Rating

7.5/10

Translation

I have most definitely seen worse BBQ places, but I can guarantee there are better ones in places known for the cuisine.  Pittsburgh gave it a good shot with this one, but it did just miss the mark, if only slightly.

Rebecca’s Take

Best part of the experience?

Definitely the atmosphere.  The restaurant bolstered this fun, relaxed air to it, allowing us to feel like we could go around and have a good time!  Because it was informal, I definitely didn’t have a pressure to feel “serious” and could just enjoy the company.  You could see this at the standing table, which is super informal and something you don’t see at any other restaurant – definitely allowed for a sense of just “hanging with a friend.”Pork and Beans with Rebecca Zhou

What needs the most improvement?

A little bit more lighting?  Or at least in our section, because we were way to the side with little lighting fixtures.  Also the timeliness of our server.  It felt like he could’ve been a bit faster, but also I understand that they were busy.

What kind of place is this (who would you bring here, for what purpose, etc.)?

Definitely a relaxed place.  Somewhere you might bring friends or colleagues if you wanna relax and dig right into a hearty pork sandwich.  NOT where to bring your boss for a business meeting.  Maybe bring a first date if you’re feeling a fun, light-hearted date but still wanna impress them (it ain’t the cheapest).

Describe your meal for us.Pork and Beans with Rebecca Zhou

I got the pulled pork sandwich.  Was TOTALLY delicious!  My only complaint is that it was kind of cold when it came out, so had it been hot, I’d give it a 9/10 (nothing’s perfect)

Becca is an ice cream maker for hire. And that’s about it!  [For the record, that’s all I was given for her bio, but Becca is an amazing, kind, and intelligent rising Senior at the University of Pittsburgh with a double major in Urban and Environmental Studies from York, Pennsylvania.]

Pork and Beans is a unique and down-to-earth BBQ restaurant, serving the best meats and sides available in the region.  For reservations and a peak at their menu, head over to their website http://porkandbeanspgh.com/#

 

 

Talia with Amanda Deitch

Talia with Amanda Deitch

Mambo Italiano in Downtown Pittsburgh

It’s amazing what you discover when you’re just walking around without a plan or any direction.  I had intended to meet a good friend downtown for dinner, but we really couldn’t decide on anywhere to go.  I decided to get down there a little early and just started to walk around, strolling around the Union Trust Building with its beautiful Flemish-gothic architecture and sitting patiently in the quiet plaza of Mellon Square.  Indeed, I was surrounded by restaurants, and I was looking for something modern but not stuffy and expensive.  I finally settled on a restaurant in the old Alcoa Building, one that I had my eye on for some time as it was being constructed but that I never had the opportunity to experience until now.  And so with this discovery that Talia Cucina & Rosticceria had opened and fit my criteria, my good friend Amanda and I decided to check out this sleek new establishment.  Of course, the discovery paid off handsomely.

Talia with Amanda DeitchAtmosphere

The atmosphere of Talia was very dark and very loud and differed significantly from what I would normally be comfortable with.  However, I understood the modern style and essence Talia was trying to convey, and after my eyes adjusted to the light and the din subsided as people left, the atmosphere became quite enjoyable.  I particularly enjoyed looking at the interesting fixtures and art pieces around the room, including jarred oranges and twinkling lights of all different sizes above the bar.

Talia with Amanda DeitchService

Talia had some of the best service I have ever received in Pittsburgh.  Definitely a grandiose statement but any uneasiness about the atmosphere was put to rest by our server, Ben.  He was funny, personable, caring, and knowledgeable in all aspects necessary, a perfect ribbon to tie our entire experience together.  That is, after all, the point of great service: to facilitate all other aspects of the dining experience.  This Ben did with grace and precision of an experienced and authentic waiter.

QualityTalia with Amanda Deitch

The quality in so many ways was fresh, unique, and artfully crafted.  The latter is definitely the case with the roasted octopus, displayed in whole tentacles with a spicy and tangy sauce spraying out on the plate like ink.  Another fantastic menu item was the fresh bread with a selection of butters, including one with mascarpone that just blew me away.  I ordered a pork chop for my entrée, and it was exquisitely cooked and easy to detect the freshness of the meat.  Finally, we shared a Torta Della Nonna, a cheesecake-esque Italian dessert with citrus, candied hazelnuts, and honeycomb.  Needless to say, I was over the moon about it.

Talia with Amanda DeitchPrice

I think for what we paid for, the value was fairly good.  My pork chop was a little pricy, but it did satisfy my appetite and each bite was truly enjoyable.

Rating

8.5/10

Translation

I’ll definitely be coming back again soon, if only in an attempt to replicate the fantastic service we had and the delicious meal we shared.

Amanda’s Take

The best part of my experience was definitely our awesome server, and of course the company too!  Turning down the sound system would do wonders!  Everyone was yelling the entire time, which does not help with hearing your company at all.Talia with Amanda Deitch

As for the type of venue, I would bring friends or someone special, but not kids.  It’s definitely an acquired experience so anyone over 21 would be perfect.  For my meal, being over 21, I had to order a drink, and chose the lovely Amari.  I would have preferred wine honestly, but completely due to personal preference.  I tried octopus for the first time!  It was good but a bit dry…maybe it is supposed to be that way?  The Ricotta Gnocchi was my main course choice.  I’m not a tomato fan but it was wonderful.  Besides, there is no rule that you have to eat the tomatoes!  Samson and I split the Torta Della Nonna and out of the citrus, honeycomb, and candied hazelnuts, the honeycomb complimented it the best.

Talia with Amanda DeitchTalia Cucina & Rosticceria is a modern Italian restaurant in the heart of downtown Pittsburgh, serving up fresh food and inspired cocktails in the old Alcoa Building.  Find some incredible pictures of their stunning cuisine here http://www.taliapgh.com/social/ and make a reservation here http://www.taliapgh.com/home-1/

 

 

 

Butcher and the Rye with Judith Cassel

Butcher and the RyeChoice Matters

The choice to go to a restaurant, to order a specific dish or drink, or to ask your wait staff a question can make or break an experience at even the fanciest and grandest restaurant.  If you go at the wrong time, order the wrong menu item, or ask the wrong question, your experience is diminished, and at times diminished so significantly that it makes you wonder how a restaurant got the recognition in the first place.  I found that to be true at Butcher and the Rye in downtown Pittsburgh.  This is a top ranked restaurant in Pittsburgh, and there were many attibutes that definitely spoke to that ranking.  However, a few specific choices that my parents and I made took away from the experience, which I’ll detail below.

Butcher and the RyeAtmosphere

The atmosphere of Butcher and the Rye is certainly rustic.  Antler chandeliers, mounted animal heads, and lots of wooden fixtures create a pastoral feel which is calming while also instilling a sense of wonder.  I couldn’t help myself as I looked around and tried to identify all the different features of the interior design.

Butcher and the RyeService

The service was one aspect that was seemingly impacted by the choices we made.  The order of our meal came out unexpectedly; half of our appetizers showed up nearly right after we ordered, and the rest came out right as our entrees showed up.  In addition, the wait staff seemed a little rude and aloof to our needs, not so much that it bothered us, but enough so that we noticed it.

Butcher and the RyeButcher and the RyeQuality

Again, our choices mattered.  I personally liked several items on the charcuterie board, including the chorizo and the pickled red onion.  The “pig candy” (pork belly with an apple kim chi) was also crispy and smoky.  However, the rabbit and dumplings dish that I ordered really wasn’t flavorful at all.  In fact, it was quite heavy and so bland that I found it difficult to finish.  I was also really let down with the dessert choice, the cinnamon sugar doughnuts, only because of how few doughnuts came out for the $9 we shelled out for them.

Butcher and the RyePrice

The price I didn’t think was good for the specific selections we made.  Like I said, $9 for three tiny doughnut holes and $28 for a dish of rabbit and dumplings with barely any rabbit in it was really disappointing.

Rating

7.9/10

Translation

By all means, this isn’t a bad restaurant.  I think the fact that our expectations were set so high, combined with the poor choices we made when ordering and interacting with our servers, contributed to our disappointment.

Butcher and the RyeJudith’s Take

The food, and in particular my scallops, was the best part.  They had a caramel brown outside with a slight crunch, and a chewy but not rubbery inside, which is exactly how scallops should be cooked.  On the flip side, the wait staff was slightly aloof, as if they were too good for us or that we didn’t belong there (which is certainly ridiculous).  This is a great place for parents or other people you want to impress with really unique and different food but in a more upscale setting.

Judith Cassel is a partner at Hawke McKeon & Snicak LLP and practices regulatory law, including representation of medical marijuana clients.  You can find the websites for each practice here: http://www.hmslegal.com/ and http://cannabislawpa.com/

Butcher and the Rye is a downtown Pittsburgh restaurant and winner of the James Beard award (the “Oscars of Food”) for their excellent bar program.  The two-story restaurant serves creative rustic meals with contemporary flair and a whisky list so overwhelming I just stopped trying to count.  You can find their menu and make reservations here: http://butcherandtherye.com/

täkō with Camila Kauer

täkō with Camila Kauer

Pittsburgh has a lot of great restaurants, indeed some of the best in the country.  However, one of the most under-represented types of restaurants, as far as I know, is the Mexican and Latin American eatery in the city.  The closest one can usually get, without paying a pretty penny, is Chipotle (which we also know is delicious but definitely not traditional Mexican food).  However, if you have the cash to burn and are interested in a twist on the classic Mexican fare, täkō in downtown Pittsburgh is the place to go (and yes the “t” is not capitalized!)  My long-time friend and lover-of-food Camila joined me for a Sunday rendezvous to this tiny but flavor-packed establishment.täkō with Camila Kauer

Atmosphere: täkō has the atmosphere and look of a “hole in the wall” from the outside.  However, the inside has a young, hipster feel, with really cool murals, neon red lights, and neat little knick knacks and props to enhance the experience (like the “newspaper” menu).täkō with Camila Kauer

Service: Because we sat at the bar, the minutiae of the service we received were slightly different, which resulted in some miscommunication at times.  For example, someone took our drink orders while a different staff member took our food orders.  We were really confused if our orders were actually taken after waiting for a considerable time period for everything.  Other than that, everyone was attentive and pleasant, so I suppose there isn’t too much more we could have asked for!

Quality: Everything we had was prepared with a level of superb expertise and incredible freshness.  The tacos we had (Chorizo, Octopus, and Mushroom) were so delicate looking but were packed with flavors that combined in really interesting ways (the spicy chorizo and the chewy fried egg or the crunchy octopus and the sour lemons and cool lettuce).  My only complaint would be that the tortillas were much too small for their contents, which subsequently spilled out several times!täkō with Camila Kauertäkō with Camila Kauer

The chips and salsa we also ordered was warm and fresh, with a selection of three different salsas depending on how much heat you want.  Finally, I absolutely loved the drink I ordered, the Gunpowder Barrel cocktail, which wasn’t strong at all and had hints of cinnamon and mixes of two different types of rum.

Price:  Definitely pricey for a normal meal, but then again, you’re paying for a better experience than Taco Bell.

Rating: 8.6

Translation: This is still one of the best restaurants in Pittsburgh, as denoted by many different sources (including Zagat: https://www.zagat.com/b/8-hottest-restaurants-in-pittsburgh) and I am a fervent supporter of such a culinary haven in the city.täkō with Camila Kauer

Camila’s Take: The overall ambience was the best part.  You can tell they take their food and drinks seriously but create a fun atmosphere.  The waitress was also fantastic and you know that bad service can really kill the mood.  Communication for seating and getting drinks was a little confusing.  Without the confusion of when to sit and if they had taken in my order, there would have been a smoother “entrance to the entrance”.  This is the place when you are tired of going to your local favorite place and you want to surprise your taste buds.  Definitely a place you want to take someone you want to impress!  This is a place all foodies try to check off their list. täkō with Camila Kauer

As for my meal, I ordered the mushroom taco.  I was very impressed because the presentation was delicate but what I found out as I took a bite of my taco was that the mushroom was meaty.  It wasn’t the typical vegetarian meal (I eat mostly vegetarian).  It was good but I wish I had ordered a meat plate.  The taco had different textures: a balance between the light greens and the mushroom with a slightly richer sauce.

Camila is Junior Global Management major at the University of Pittsburgh.  She is originally from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania but just returned from studying abroad in Paris, France  and is hungry to explore all the food that Pittsburgh has to offer!

täkō is a bohemian and “south of the border” inspired Mexican restaurant in the heart of the Cultural District of downtown Pittsburgh.  They have an insane collection of drinks, tacos, and other authentic but twisted Mexican dishes, so head over to their website to see the full menu and make reservations: http://takopgh.com/

 

 

Sienna Mercato - Emorio with Jill Sylvester

Sienna Mercato – Emporio with Jill Sylvester

Sienna Mercato is a restaurant with three distinct offerings for its guests: a meatball and Italian-inspired restaurant on the ground floor called Emporio, a wine and charcuterie restaurant on the second floor entitled Mezzo, and a roof top beer garden on the third floor aptly named Il Tetto (“roof” in Italian).  For Pittsburgh, the concept of three distinct restaurants under one name is unique and really fascinating; these restaurants operate as separate entities, yet they synergize in a way that shares costs and increases interest for patrons interested in different flavors.  One weekend you could be having a meatball sandwich on the ground floor, and the next weekend you could enjoy a cold one on the roof.  I’ll definitely be returning to sample the other two restaurants at some point, but my first experience was at Emporio, and I was invited along by a very special guest visiting all the way from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Jill Sylvester!

Atmosphere:  The atmosphere of Emporio is much more casual than the other restaurants in Sienna Mercato.  The brick walls, metal furniture, and simple lighting give the impression of a tap room, while all the flat screen TV’s and the general buzz of the establishment spoke more to a sports bar atmosphere.  Either way, I liked what was going on, and felt at ease with the casual nature of Emporio.Sienna Mercato - Emorio with Jill Sylvester

Service: The service is friendly and lighthearted, working well with the casual atmSienna Mercato - Emorio with Jill Sylvesterosphere but inviting an even deeper level of comfort and ambience.  We were seated promptly, served our food expediently, and checked up on frequently, so there’s really nothing else to critique: the service was genuine and hospitable.

Quality:  For “Italian with a twist”, this place nails it on the head.  The meatball sandwich that I ordered, Sienna Mercato - Emorio with Jill Sylvestertopped with gouda cheese and served with a marinara dipping sauce, was very tasty.  One of the prime aspects of this place is how much customization there is; you can order different quantities of meatballs, with different toppings, sides, and sauces, so you will definitely have options no matter your preference.  There’s even a vegetarian option!  We also enjoyed a delicious poutine (with tater tots, un-be-lievable) and a plate of cheesy bread (a carbohydrate and cheese concoction  of real perfection) so although I did feel bloated by the end, I was satisfied.

Sienna Mercato - Emorio with Jill Sylvester

Price:  Nothing is radically overpriced, especially considering the quality of our meal and the fact that we were downtown.  You can easily get a filling meal, with a drink, for $20, and that’s something not a lot of downtown Pittsburgh restaurants can offer.

Rating: 8.3

Translation: This is an outstanding casual restaurant with a welcoming environment and a lot to offer in terms of food and service.  Extra points for customization of menu options and service.  Any improvement would be in some of the food offerings and the décor.Sienna Mercato - Emorio with Jill Sylvester

Jill’s Take:  The best part of Emporio’s has to be the service: we were seated earlier than we had anticipated and everyone, from the bartender to our server, was easy to converse with and extremely nice.  The poutine was also spot on.   The aspects that needed the most improvement included a lot of the food options:  the pork Bolognese was too sweet, there were not enough cheese options available, and there was way too much parmesan cheese on many of the dishes.  This is definitely either a more sophisticated sports bar or a dressed down Italian restaurant, great for either starting your “night out on the town”, or a casual evening with friends.  Either way, the loose environment means you definitely won’t lose no matter when you go.Sienna Mercato - Emorio with Jill Sylvester

Jill is a Senior at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst studying Political Science, Spanish, Modern European Studies, and International Education.  We both studied abroad together in London, England, and her passions for international higher education and study abroad has led her to intern for CAPA The Global Education Network for the Office of the President.  Way to go Jill!

Sienna Mercato is a dining concept with three distinct restaurants all under one roof!  This is “Italian with a twist” and a scratch kitchen to match, so visit their website for reservation information or to see the entire, extravagant menu: http://www.siennamercato.com/

 

James and Samson at the Hotel Monaco

The Commoner at the Hotel Monaco with James Mitchell

Any fan of my blog will know that I love hotels.  I love the atmosphere of boutique hotels, the world class service of luxury hotels, and even the economics and business models behind some of the world’s biggest hotel chains.  One of my first experiences with boutique hotels came with the opening of the Hotel Monaco in downtown Pittsburgh, since I would walk past it every day during the summer of my freshmen year on the way to and from my internship.  The outside is striking, almost intimidating with huge columns of concrete and steel bars on the lower windows.  However, the inside is, as the website describes it, “vibrant and whimsical, with bold pops of color.”  It’s no wonder U.S. News and World Report ranked it among the best hotels in Pennsylvania for 2016!  However, this isn’t a hotel review, it’s a restaurant review, which was no less suburb than the hotel itself.  What’s even better, I had a very special guest in the form of my best friend from high school, Mr. James Mitchell, who accompanied me to lunch at the Monaco’s amazing tavern-style restaurant, The Commoner:

Atmosphere: Harkening back to Pittsburgh’s industrial past, The Commoner delights in taking advantage of the city’s history and turning it into a theme.  Old maps were highlighted on the walls behind us and we were surrounded by steel girders and copper light fixtures.  It was a modern take on an older style but it worked so well for a hotel as imaginative as the Monaco.The CommonerThe Commoner's bar

Service: The service was exactly what I was expecting from a 4-star hotel: friendly, courteous, and attentive without being overbearing.  We were even greeted by the manager, a mark of exceptional customer service which you don’t see too often any more.  Our only critique here would be that the courses came out far too quickly between each other; only a few minutes into our appetizers did the entrees come out!The Commoner's kitchen

caramelized cheeseQuality: I’ll also have to steal a line or two from the Monaco’s website, because the food was exceptional, coming from a kitchen “that excels at adding modern flourishes to classic comforts.”  We shared a caramelized cheese plate with warm “squid ink” bread that was indescribably gooey and delicious.  My main meal was a smoked brisket sandwich, one of the very few I’ve had where the meat had the perfect amount of moisture without dripping with sauce.  For the finale, we each ordered a sticky toffee pudding, which took me back to London after only one bite.  I only wish James and I would have split one; we were so full by the end that we couldn’t finish them!  brisket sandwichsticky toffee pudding

Price: This is not an everyday place (and I forgot to mention my cocktail, mostly because the price would shock you!)  But The Commoner does have a lunch counter which is slightly cheaper if you’re not having three courses like we did!

Rating: 8.5/10smoked chicken salad sandwich

Translation: “Rusticity in the most delightful way.” I have to agree, The Commoner had an old-fashioned charm with the modern essentials of a classy restaurant in the heart of the Steel City.

James’ Take: My favorite aspect has to be the food.  My smoked chicken salad sandwich was very good and the sticky toffee pudding was some of the best I’ve ever had.  The spacing between courses needs definite improvement; it was just too rushed for what should have been a relaxing lunch.  This is definitely an elegant place, great for family or close friends visiting Pittsburgh!Islay Have What He’s Having cocktail

 

 

James is graduating in 2017 with a bachelor’s degree in American S tudies from Washington College.

The Commoner is a modern American tavern serving upscale dining fare in a rustic environment.  I would suggest checking out both the restaurant (http://www.thecommonerpgh.com/) and the hotel (http://www.monaco-pittsburgh.com/) for anyone looking for an excellent stay in downtown Pittsburgh.

Dibellas Subs with Rachael and Cassidy

I don’t usually like to review restaurants that are outside the Pittsburgh area, but when two friends offer to take you downtown to have “the best subs you’ve ever had”, one doesn’t simply say no to such an offer.  And I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised by how delicious the subs were, a feat that is no doubt rooted in Dibella’s tradition: they began as a small Italian grocery store in Rochester, NY over a century ago and have stuck to the same age-old techniques that produce an outstanding submarine sandwich (sub).  The girls were super-excited to go so naturally I was equally enthralled to try what can only be called the classic American sub.  Here’s my experience:

Atmosphere and Service:  The location in downtown Pittsburgh (Market Square) had relative ease of access and a relatively prominent location, which is important, for as anyone knows, finding a restaurant you haven’t been to is half the battle.  The inside is quintessential “Americana” but from a few different ages, with smooth jazz pouring out of surround sound speakers and pictures of 1950’s American advertising.  Everything was very clean and well-kept.  There wasn’t table service but the hospitality we received at the counter was direct and genuine.  We may have been some of the only patrons in the restaurant at the time, but no one looked bored, and the staff graciously took our orders and then hand delivered the subs to our table.Dibella's counter

Dibella's with Cassidy and RachaelFood:  I think I can say with relative certainty that my sub was probably one of the best, if not the best, I’ve ever had.  I can’t say I’ve had too many gourmet subs (as Subway is the preferred and relatively only option in my hometown), but I can definitely concede that Dibella’s does everything right: their bread is baked in house, several times a day, and all of their ingredients had the tell-tale signs of quality, such as the distinct crunch in the vegetables or the well flavored meats.  I ordered the “Godfather” sub (I guess it was an offer I couldn’t refuse), and I was surprised how much Genoa salami, capicola, and spicy ham they layered in between my very fresh italian roll.  Overall, I would rank the sub very highly, but maybe not as high as Cassidy or Rachael would, who both gave their subs a collective “69 out of 10″…

Dibella's SubsHalf a Dibella's subThe Godfather subThe Godfather sub apartPrice: I paid about $8 for my meal with tax.  This is definitely significantly more than your “$5 Foot-long” but it’s so worth it.  I was actually rather full by the end. And Rachael even packed hers up to go.  I can guarantee that you’ll be satisfied by the end, as I sure was.

The verdict: 8.2/10

Translation: This restaurant is probably one of the best places in the city for a quality, affordable lunch and the fact that Dibella’s is working on an online ordering platform might spell major trouble for my wallet while I’m at work.  I wouldn’t say this is the best place for dates or any evening meals, but other than that the subs speak for themselves, and they’re saying, “Have us for lunch!”

Rachael and Cassidy’s take: We really love how great the food is, which is probably why you can usually find us here.  From “all that meat” that they put on your sandwich, to how delicious the bread is, you really can’t go wrong with Dibella’s.  If there is anything to critique, we would have to say that the drink selection is somewhat underwhelming and we would like Dibella’s to be open later!  However, Dibella’s classic American vibe is what keeps bringing us back at the end of the day (and also those sandwiches).

Cassidy is a rising junior at the University of Pittsburgh majoring in history and political science on the pre-law tract and Rachael is also a rising junior majoring in History and graduating a semester early in the fall of 2017.  They are from New Holland and Oil City respectively and their Instagram’s are as follows: https://www.instagram.com/cass_martin02/?hl=en  and https://www.instagram.com/rachaelstewart4/?hl=en

Dibella’s is a nearly century old submarine sandwich shop originating in Rochester, New York but now spanning over 3 dozen stores in several states along the east coast and Midwest.  The central location in Pittsburgh is at 16 Market Square, Pittsburgh, PA 15222.

http://www.dibellas.com/