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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/

 

Pusadee's Garden Thai with Olivia Rauktis

Pusadee’s Garden Thai with Olivia Rauktis

Garden Thai but Without the Garden?

Probably the most underrated attribute of any dining experience has to be the atmosphere where one is actually dining.  As a “hospitalitarian” and a customer service fanatic, service is obviously what I critique more rigorously than anyone else I’ve dined with, and the food itself is naturally an important metric on which to base a restaurant’s rating.  Even price, or more accurately, value, is a critical factor to rank and score restaurants on, given how important getting the “best bang for your buck” is in today’s society.

Pusadee's Garden Thai with Olivia Rauktis

However, I never want to down play the importance of atmosphere in any of my reviews.  The setting in which one enjoys his meal or receives her service can definitely elevate the restaurant’s overall impression in my mind.  On the other hand, a great atmosphere, like that of Church Brew Works or Six Penn Kitchen, can be impressive on its own, but if that’s the only thing a restaurant has in its corner, then why dine there?

With this in mind, read into the “Atmosphere” subsection of this review carefully, as it reveals a great deal about maybe why Pusadee’s Garden leaves some wowed, and others in disappointment.

Atmosphere

It maybe goes without saying that Pusadee’s Garden Thai has a beautiful and exclusive garden along the side of the main building.  It is entirely covered in green, with draping leaves and branches hanging overhead and shrubs, ferns, and flowers encircling and enveloping the inner courtyard.  Twinkling lights provide the final touch to this oasis, and anyone dining in the garden would feel completely relaxed and secluded from the outside world.

Pusadee's Garden Thai with Olivia Rauktis

This is the experience I wish we had had.  Alas, we were confined to the inside of the building, with barren white walls and simple wooden tables replacing the tropical haven we were “promised” in the name.  While I understand the capacity constraints in having a space as lovely as the garden (meaning everyone wants to dine there even though not everyone can be accommodated), the extreme contrast between the beautiful garden and the main inside dining room, where it seems effort was put in to making the room more boring, is not ideal.  Not that dining in the garden would have elevated the entire restaurant’s impression substantially, but the garden would not have diminished Pusadee’s score in my mind.

Pusadee's Garden Thai with Olivia Rauktis

Service

Danny Meyer preaches that hospitality is a dialogue between two entities, meaning that there is a relationship between any guest and host that fosters value, goodwill, and most importantly, the feeling that the host is on the side of the guest.  In this case, our service was not a dialogue, but a monologue, with the staff unapologetic, unsympathetic, and one-sided in all of their interactions with our table.  Olivia’s experience (detailed below), is the perfect articulation of this narrowness of mind with regard to hospitality.

QualityPusadee's Garden Thai with Olivia Rauktis

The quality of each dish certainly met my standards, if only just meeting them.  The spring rolls were good, with a decent crunch to the vegetables and a warm plum sauce that brought just enough newness to each bite.  I also had one of my favorite dishes ever (although one I normally make at home via Bon Appetite), Chicken Kao Soi.  I don’t think it beat the one I make, but it was strong and spicy where it needed to be, and contained good portions of chicken, which is usually the downfall of a dish that relies too heavily on noodles.

Price – Now ValuePusadee's Garden Thai with Olivia Rauktis

The price of everything was fine, but this restaurant has changed my thinking with regard to this category.  I think from now on, I’m going to refer to this title as “value”, which more accurately reflects my feelings on the price not just for the food and drink, but also for the entire dining experience.

In this case, I thought the value was quite low for what we expected and paid.

Rating

5.6/10

Translation

I’d like to say that there is potential for Pusadee’s.  I think a traditional Thai menu in a space like this should really be better than this.  I think time will tell whether improvement becomes the necessity for the restaurant, or, with the lack thereof, its downfall.

Olivia’s Take

Best part of the experience?

The best experience was the exterior of the building; it was covered in ivy and had a very hole-in-the-wall like appearance, which I found charming. Also, the experience didn’t feel rushed at all; we spent a good half an hour or more chatting after our meal was finished, and we didn’t feel like we were being rushed out for more customers to come in.

What needs the most improvement?

What bothered me most about this experience was their insensitivity to food allergies. I’m rather severely allergic to tree nuts and am cautious of that when I dine out. I ordered a dish with peanuts (which I’m not allergic to) in it, but asked for the dish without the peanuts, explaining to the waitress that I have food allergies and am very cautious. However, when the dish came out, I found peanuts in it. When I told the waitress that I had asked for no nuts in the dish, she said that I should’ve told her that when I ordered the dish. Although I luckily had no problems with the peanuts in the dish (after waiting 5 minutes for a possible reaction after taking the first bite of the dish), I still think that the restaurant could be more sensitive to food allergies, especially since many of their dishes have nuts (a very common allergen) in them.

Also, the atmosphere within the restaurant was very plain and boring, unlike the outside of the building.

Also, the service was rather slow, but this did allow me and my friends to feel free to stay and chat comfortable after we finished our meal.

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

Because it’s rather plain and the food was just decent, I wouldn’t go to this restaurant for a special occasion, like when family and friends were visiting me at Pitt.  I’d probably come here if I needed a place to eat in Lawrenceville with a good friend or two.

Describe your meal for us.

I had the vegetable spring rolls, which were quite good, especially with their dipping sauce. For my main course, I had a simple dish of vegetable pad Thai.

Pusadee's Garden Thai with Olivia Rauktis

Olivia Rauktis is a senior at Pitt studying English literature and psychology.  She enjoys naps, strolls through Schenley, and cats.

 

Pusadee’s Garden Thai is located outside Lawrenceville on Butler Street.  Their website and menu are found here: http://www.pusadeesgarden.com/

Burgatory with Jeremy Hopkins

Burgatory with Jeremy Hopkins

Sentenced to Burgatory?  Not a Bad Deal

Where to burger lovers and birthday boys go to spend the remainder of their days?  In the case of yours truly, Burgatory is the only hamburger/eternal-resting-place-themed restaurant I would choose.  Maybe not for the rest of time, but definitely for a relaxed evening celebrating my birthday!  With several locations in the Pittsburgh area but the extreme popularity of the local chain, Burgatory can be difficult to get into even on a weekday (I have indeed waited up to an hour and a half for entrance through the meaty gates.  However, after calling their Northshore property and ensuring they had a table for us on a Friday evening, I made my way to Burgatory, along with Mark Pavic, Mira Patel, and Jeremy Hopkins, who also happens to be the featured reviewer for this installment of Famished with Friends.Burgatory with Jeremy Hopkins

Atmosphere

The atmosphere of Burgatory plays with the idea of a “burger-afterlife” in ways that I just love.  From wall-sized paintings of devil-horned steers to just the lighting and colors used (dark reds and blacks, with “spotlights” highlighting each table, the curators of each space didn’t just gloss over the restaurant’s name.  They embraced it.

It can get quite rowdy at times, especially when the place is completely full.  Fortunately, our Northshore location was very spacious, and we didn’t really run into any noise or hBurgatory with Jeremy Hopkinsearing problems.Burgatory with Jeremy Hopkins

Service

The service was good, in that every one of our needs was taken care of expediently and without issue.  I even thought we were being a little too needy at times (it was my birthday after all), but if our waitress had any issue, she did not let it impact her impeccable aptitude for making sure we were taken care of.

QualityBurgatory with Jeremy Hopkins

The food at Burgatory is a cut above your average burger joint, especially when you consider their inspiring additions like spiked milkshakes and specially-seasoned fries and potato chips.  I think their crème-de-la-crème for unique food offerings has to be their “Build Your Own Burger” menu, which offers such unique toppings as chimichurri aioli, wild mushroom and black truffle mayo, and candied bacon.  My elk burger in particular was well seasoned and cooked to my liking, so I really couldn’t ask for that much more.Burgatory with Jeremy Hopkins

Price

The price is competitive with more fine dining establishments but still in reach for a college student looking for a night out.  Fifteen dollars for a burger isn’t too bad for a special occasion, but be warned: adding appetizers, drinks (maybe not including a spiked milkshake…), sides and a dessert will make Burgatory feel like Hell for your wallet.Burgatory with Jeremy Hopkins

Rating

8.5/10

Translation

For any flaws that Burgatory has, they shall be forgiven in the afterlife.  This is a quality and competent restaurant with a lot to offer that’s fresh and fun for guests.

Jeremy’s Take

Best part of the experience?Burgatory with Jeremy Hopkins

The customer service was definitely the best part.  The waitress was incredibly kind despite the fact that we were a younger group (that doesn’t happen very often).

What needs the most improvement?

While there were TV’s around the restaurant, I feel as if they could be placed in better locations so I don’t have to turn my head awkwardly to see them.

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

I would describe this as a happy medium between a sports bar and a gastro pub.  It’s a nice place to go with friends for an occasion.

Describe your meal for us.Burgatory with Jeremy Hopkins

My meal was a beef burger cooked with “no pink”.  I got a lot of vegetation on it as well as sharp provolone cheese that accented the burger rather well.  Sauces as well as the bacon I got served well in topping it off to make it an overall incredible burger.

Jeremy is a rising Sophomore from outside of Cincinnati, Ohio, pursing a degree in Chemical Engineering from the University of Pittsburgh.  Jeremy loves to travel to different restaurants and try different things, but the first time he goes to a place, he always gets the burger.  He’s trying to find the best one he can.

Burgatory is a local, upscale burger and milkshake restaurant which sources local and fresh from the Allegheny County area. Check out their website and menu here: http://www.burgatorybar.com/

 

 

 

Church Brew Works with Jared Sheinberg

The Holy Grail of Brewpubs

When one enters Church Brew Works, the immediate impression is awe, followed by a sinking feeling that you’re somehow desecrating a house of worship by consuming alcoholic beverages on a holy site.  Of course, that doesn’t stop most people, myself included, from carrying on with their evening activities.  However, what does give me pause is the sinking suspicion that this grandiose façade is exactly that: a shine which masks an effort to create quality food and drink for guests.  For all the flying buttresses, ornately decorated altars, and colorful stained-glass windows can’t and should not distract me from the primary reason a restaurant exists, and that is to provide delicious meals to its guests.  In the end, my suspicions were partially put to rest, but you’ll have to read on to find out why! (P.S. my good friend Jared Sheinberg, featured reviewer for this installment of Famished with Friends, confirms these same suspicions)

Atmosphere

Of everything that Church Brew Works has going for it, the atmosphere that dining in a renovated church creates is certainly the best part.  The large stained glass windows, beautifully symmetrical arches, and opulent alter (dedicated to brewing the best beers this side of the city), all produce a magnificent setting to enjoy a heavenly meal.

 

 

The noise travels in this building, but not necessarily in a bad way.  The ceilings are so high and there is so much communication going on that a gentle din surrounded us rather than a crazy cacophony.

Service

The service we experienced was pretty good considering how busy the place was and that there were 5 of us needing separate checks.  Some of our food items arrived slightly cold, which I wasn’t sure was due to slow service or under-prepared food items.  But overall, our waiter was pleasant and professional.

Quality

If there was one thing lacking from our visit to Church Brew Works, it was the quality of the food.  However, a note about the drinks: they were exquisite.  Some of my favorite brews come from Church Brew, and a big shout out has to go to the Pious Monk Dunkel, a light lager that doesn’t leave a sour taste like some other lagers seem to do.

The food was a big disappointment here.  I ordered a few different appetizers, including the pulled pork nachos to start, the lamb meatballs, the traditional pierogis, and a tropical cheese quesadilla with a pineapple pico de gallo topping.  Overall I just thought everything was really bland, and the fact that each dish came out somewhat cold didn’t really boost the score.  The meatballs and pierogis were the worst, just lifeless, with no real spice, heat, or texture to speak of.  The one positive I can comment on is the Malted Bread Pudding a la mode, which however dense did make up for it by being flavorful, creamy, and satisfying.

Price

The price of our meal has me a little perplexed.  I think for the price you pay, you do get quite a bit of food and drink.  However, the quality is seriously lacking in some areas, leading me to believe that it may not be worth it.

Rating

6.2/10

Translation

I have had really good experiences here and also some not so good ones.  This visit definitely belonged in the latter category, and itvery well might be a lasting trend.

Jared’s Take

Best part of the experience?

I would have to say that the best part of my meal was the atmosphere. The décor is beautiful and unique. Not everyone goes to restaurants merely for the food, but for the entire experience. The building itself gives off a personality that makes it very comfortable for anyone to eat, drink, and socialize. I particularly enjoyed seeing the hops machines up by where the alter would be. It almost gives it a spunky look by combining a contemporary and antique appearance to create something that embraces the best of both.

What needs the most improvement?

The food itself is what I believe needs the most improvement. While I would say it was decent, it appeared that overall most of the food I tried happened to be a little dry. This could possibly be attributed to the crowds but nonetheless I found that I would consistently need to revert to my beer to help wash things down.

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

This is the kind of place to take friends and sit down to enjoy beer and food while conversing for hours. They were certainly able to accommodate large groups due to the ample amount of space. Because of the price of the food and their specialty being in craft beer, there weren’t too many children present, but I wouldn’t say that this kind of unique dining experience isn’t for them as well.

Describe your meal for us.

My meal consisted of a buffalo burger cooked medium rare with a side of Cole slaw and a pickle. Overall, I enjoyed it, although as I stated above the burger was a little dry. I tried the celestial gold and Mont Pious Dunkel beers which were both excellent. The pious was a little darker and stronger which I preferred but both were thirst-quenching and offered a unique flavor.

Jared Sheinberg will be attending Pitt Law this upcoming fall with an undergrad degree in finance. He is from Allentown, PA and has four other siblings. In his free time, Jared reads, runs, and watches Netflix.  Not all at the same time, although that is his ultimate goal in life.

Church Brew Works is a renovated old church, St. John the Baptist Church, which has become a restaurant and bar in the Lawrenceville.  Check out some more interesting history on the parish turned purveyor of pints at their website: http://churchbrew.com/

Red Oak Cafe with Casey Abramson

Red Oak Cafe with Casey Abramson

A Café That Does It All

I’ve dined in quite a few cafes for someone my age.  Most have been coffee shop-esque, with little focus on food and its effect on guests.  Moreover, even fewer have tried to please all guests in terms of dietary restrictions.  Many times I have guests over at my house or out and about who are gluten-free, vegan, vegetarian, or lactose-intolerant.  In these cases, I need a local establishment that can cater to these needs and still provide tasty options for anyone who comes.  Red Oak Café to the rescue!  And I was so happy to reconnect with one of my friends over breakfast there, Casey Abramson.

Atmosphere

There is definitely a casual vibe to Red Oak, something that only a family-owned operation can accomplish.  The café conveys a sense of locality and warmth, only enriched by the wall murals of Pitt and Pittsburgh.  The space is a little cramped, but that aspect only jumped out at me due to the popularity of the place during the school year.Red Oak Cafe with Casey Abramson

Service

The service was not quite what we expected.  Between no menus where we needed them, the slow and backed up kitchen staff (leading to us waiting a decent amount of time for our meal), and the fact that Casey’s potatoes were cooked with butter (when she specifically requested they not be), there was much to be disappointed about.Red Oak Cafe with Casey Abramson

Quality

The quality of the meal sure made up for the dearth in service quality.  My strawberry and banana smoothie was filling and rich, without being too strong on any one flavor (yogurt, fruit, etc.)  I also ordered a hardy breakfast burrito, which stayed warm for a long time.  Overall, I would say the food is filling and keeps you full throughout the day.Red Oak Cafe with Casey Abramson

Price

The price is great for college students, and a really good breakfast or lunch definitely won’t set you back more than fifteen dollars.  Plus, there are free coffee refills!

Rating

6.8/10

Translation

What did Red Oak in was the service, but this is still an above average spot in a college town with lots of strong competitors.

Casey’s Take

Best part of the experience?

Well, catching up with Samson obviously!  He’s always great company.  But, if I’m just focusing on the restaurant, I’d say seeing how many options Red Oak Café has on their menu!  I can’t eat gluten or dairy, so their menu is incredibly accommodating for me and I always love going there.

What needs the most improvement?

The wait time is always a bit long, and their kitchen seems a bit chaotic.  But that makes sense considering the amount of space that they have and their recent popularity.

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

It’s a delicious and super casual restaurant, perfect for any breakfast/brunch/lunch desires.  Personally, for the kind of lifestyle I live, I would bring anyone here!  The very laid-back environment is great for friends, or even to take the edge off of a first date!  I also love bringing as many people as possible here because as I mentioned before, their menu is great for my food intolerances.

Describe your meal for us.Red Oak Cafe with Casey Abramson

I had an omelet with lots of veggies and roasted potatoes on the side!  The omelet was delicious, but unfortunately, they cooked my potatoes in butter so I felt a bit sick after the meal.  However, the meal was still super delicious.  I have always been very satisfied with whatever I order off of their menu!

Casey Abramson is a rising senior at the University of Pittsburgh, majoring in Media and professional Communications with a concentration in Corporate and Community Relations and Digital Media.  She spends her free time singing with her a cappella group, spending time outdoors, and she is super passionate about anything involving music, food, traveling, and people!

Red Oak Café is a fresh and healthy, family-owned eatery located in the heart of the Oakland Neighborhood of Pittsburgh.  To see their menu, which includes all-day breakfast options, check out their website: http://redoak.cafe/

 

 

 

Smallman Galley with Amber Smith

Smallman Galley with Amber Smith

Smallman is Anything but Small

Walking into a giant warehouse is not what you might expect when you hear you’ll be eating at a restaurant with some of the city’s most up and coming chefs.  However, in the case of Smallman Galley, a local restaurant and culinary incubator located on Smallman Street in the Strip District, this is exactly what we found.  The concept is truly unique: the entire space contains 2 bars and 4 restaurants, each led by a chef who gets to practice cooking, doing business, and providing customer service over the course of 18 months.  This means diners get some of the best cuisine in the city and the chefs receive direct feedback from us before they go on to open their own rock star establishment!  Since the combination of business and culinary talent is already extremely fascinating to me, I didn’t need much convincing to join a few of my best friends down in the Strip for a great meal, and to highlight Amber Smith, the featured reviewer!

AtmosphereSmallman Galley with Amber SmithSmallman Galley with Amber Smith

The atmosphere of Smallman is a little chaotic if you don’t know what’s going on.  Essentially, customers will find their table, then order from one (or all) of any 4 restaurants located in the warehouse, then take a number back to their table to where the runner brings the customers’ food.  For those unaccustomed to this procedure it can be a lot to handle, and I certainly was a little confused at first.  However, after the business of ordering is done, one simply grabs a drink and waits to be served, all the while admiring the gritty architecture and soaking in the sounds of 200 individual conversations all mixing together.Smallman Galley with Amber SmithSmallman Galley with Amber Smith

Service

The service is hard to judge at Smallman since there is no direct table service.  However, I will note that due to the unique setup of the establishment, in that there are 4 separate restaurants and therefore potentially 4 different places to place your order and pay, the process of ordering everything you want to eat can be quite slow.  Moreover, some chefs are more popular than others, meaning the lines for some of tastiest restaurants can get quite long.

QualitySmallman Galley with Amber Smith

Overall, I was highly impressed with the quality of every dish I had.  Although the restaurants and chefs have since changed out, if the food I had is any indication of the kind of chefs chosen for Smallman Galley, then the 4 new restaurants will be just as good.  As for my meal (not that you will have the same items when you go) I do want to note the poutine, mussels, and escargot I had.  For whatever reason, I was feeling particularly French that evening and all three dishes were superb.  The escargot was buttery and each bite melted in my mouth.  The mussels, while a little soupy, had great flavor and the whole dish was quite a game fishing them all out.  The poutine was phenomenal, with the crispy fries holding up well to the dense beans and cheese, perfectly paired with the red onion toppingSmallman Galley with Amber Smith.

Smallman Galley with Amber Smith

Price

The value will certainly change depending on which restaurant you go to.  However, a decent meal won’t set you back more than $20-25, and there isn’t even any tipping!

Rating

8.4/10

TranslationSmallman Galley with Amber Smith

If anything, the restaurant concept is what I am most impressed with.  The ability to help aspiring chefs while also enjoying great food and drink is something one will not come by too often.  However, the food definitely speaks for itself, in that it is saying “I’m incredibly delicious!”

Amber’s TakeSmallman Galley with Amber Smith

The best part of the experience for me definitely had to be the variety. I really appreciated how there were four restaurants each with their own distinct feel. I didn’t just have to choose one place at which to eat, I could choose four different places all specializing in something different. I thought that was a really cool concept.

If anything, I think the concept could be explained a bit more upon guests entering the gallery. Yes, many people there are already familiar with the chef incubator concept, but for someone who’s trying it for the first time it can be a bit confusing to figure out how to go about selecting your dish and ordering.

This restaurant definitely gave me hipster vibes, but I liked it! It’s just professional enough for you to bring you colleagues after work, and simple enough for a night out with friends or a date. I would definitely not bring a large party here as I think the restaurant is more conducive to smaller groups.

I ate two different things. First, I had the smashed avocado toast with a fried egg on top from Josephine’s and it was amazing! The chef dressed up such a simple dish by adding toasted flax seeds, fresh cilantro, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. It not only tasted great but also made me feel super healthy! Secondly, I got the chef’s special burger from Provision PGH. This beef burger, just like the toast, tasted so good! In my opinion, what made the burger amazing was the tender pork belly added on top of the beef patty.

Amber is a recent college graduate from the University of Pittsburgh, originally from the best state in the Midwest, Kansas. When she is not attempting to get into medical school, she loves trying new restaurants, being outdoors in nature and drinking hard cider.

Smallman Galley is a chef incubator concept in the heart of the Strip District created by two former Navy officers.  Smallman provides space for the chefs to work, in addition to providing training in classes on marketing, restaurant operations, and branding, to help the restaurants get off the ground in the 18 months spent in the warehouse.  You can check out what is currently being served up on their website: http://www.smallmangalley.org/

 

 

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/

Cure with Ken Morrison

Cure with Judith Cassel and Ken Morrison

Cured by Cure

Food has a funny way of making things better.  At the time of eating at Cure, considered by many Pittsburghers and outsiders the best new restaurant in the city, I wasn’t feeling great.  Of course not much has changed since then, but I do distinctly remember sitting down comfortably in the center of the room, with a glass of wine served by our soft spoken waiter, and instantly feeling more at ease.  As the dinner progressed, I couldn’t help but feel more relaxed, carried away from my troubles I had, if only for the evening.  With every bite and sip and sentence, I was reminded not of my stress and anxiety, but of how lucky I was to be experiencing this amazing food with people that I loved.  That’s why Cure is so special to me, in addition to being a really great addition to the Lawrenceville food scene.

Atmosphere

The atmosphere of Cure is contained in a relatively small area, with the main dining area encompassing the space of an average American living room.  While it keeps everyone somewhat cramped, there’s also a coziness to the space.  The music they had playing was a tad too loud, and when mixed with the conversation of our neighbors in the small space, the din made our own conversations difficult to distinguish.  However, I really liked the overall layout and design of the space, including the open kitchen right behind us.

Service

Our waiter was incredibly knowledgeable about the menu, knowing every detail down to where each cured meat on the charcuterie board was sourced from.  The only drawback was how soft spoken he was, making it difficult to hear exactly what he was saying.

Quality

The food at Cure is definitely superior to almost any other Pittsburgh restaurant, in part thanks to the locally sourced ingredients based on seasonality.  We had oysters from New Brunswick, the Salumi (charcuterie, which was one of the best I’ve ever had), and cauliflower soup (strong on the lemongrass but the crab had a nice flavor) to start.  My entrée was a roasted duck breast, cooked until tender and served with a sour red cabbage and sweet potato puree with hints of cilantro and vanilla that was really unique.  My wine of choice was a semi-sweet zinfandel from the Kunde family winery in Sonoma valley which went perfectly with my duck.

Price

Very expensive, but if this isn’t on your own dime (as in my case, thanks mom and dad), then this might be worth a visit on a special occasion.

Rating

9.1/10

Translation

Phenomenal.  This restaurant takes the cake in nearly every aspect.  If they can work on the atmosphere and aspects of the service (like speaking up!) then I can see a near perfect score emerging.

Ken’s Take

This rustic oasis had a nice gastro magic about it. The waiter talked patrons through choices in an unhurried but helpful manner. The open kitchen was entertaining. This restaurant narrowly focused on what it did well producing an uncomplicated but excellent dining experience. From a business person’s point of view, I must also compliment them on their table turns and efficient use of space.

Ken Morrison is a entrepreneur and mentor in the Philadelphia area, specializing in petroleum and energy products and services for the region.

Cure is Lawrenceville restaurant focusing on local ingredients to “cure-ate” a Mediterranean inspired menu.  This nationally and regionally ranked restaurant is a must for any fine food and drink lover, and you can see all of their accolades, menu items, and more on their website:  http://www.curepittsburgh.com/

Whitfield at the Ace Hotel

Whitfield at the Ace Hotel with Judith Cassel and Ken Morrison

Intro: The Best Restaurant in Pittsburgh?

Whitfield at the Ace HotelI suppose the overall goal of this blog is to find the best restaurant in Pittsburgh.  Ladies and Gentlemen, I believe I found it, and in no other place than the Ace Hotel Pittsburgh.  Not only is this one of the coolest hotels in the city (they converted an old YMCA building to make the hotel), but also one of the best restaurants is found on the ground floor of the building.  The entire hotel attempts to stay true to its original purpose, renovating the gym to function as a event space and the old workout area now functions as the lobby/restaurant.  I figured there would be no other people to try such an interesting venue with than my parents!

Atmosphere

Whitfield at the Ace HotelThe atmosphere is significantly different from other upscale hotels and restaurants in that the vibe is much younger and new aged.  From the DJ blasting tunes in the lobby, the young wait staff, and the original fixtures dotting the walls, this was a restaurant and a hotel that spared no expense to earn that extra cool feeling. It was a tad bit loud, as we were right next to the DJ, but overall it was a fun affair and I really enjoyed all the activity.Whitfield at the Ace Hotel

Service

Our waiter, Jack, did a standout job of explaining everything.  He was quick to respond to any need we had and extremely sincere in his recommendations of what to order.  It’s not too often you get such fabulous service in the type of new and young venue we went to.  However, this was also an international boutique hotel brand, and I expected and received nothing less than 5-star service.

Quality Whitfield at the Ace Hotel Whitfield at the Ace Hotel Whitfield at the Ace Hotel

Superb quality on all fronts.  This is a tavern style restaurant without compromise, meaning that the chefs go all in on big steaks, large sides, and exceptional drinks.  The butcher’s plate of charcuterie, while really diverse and large, including a pistachio pate and a duck liver mousse, was not as good as other places serving similar choice meats.  Other than that, Whitfield now holds the title of “Favorite…” for a lot of different items (Moscow Mule, ribeye with Béarnaise sauce, carrots au gratin)  The steaks and sides are all served family style, so coming with 2 or 3 really hungry people is the best way to prepare for all the food you’ll get.  I cannot stress enough the quality of everything we ordered; this is truly a restaurant that sources locally whenever it can and delivers on exceptional tastes and flavors.

Price

We paid a hefty price for not only all the food we ordered but the specific dishes we ordered too.  The porterhouse alone will set you back $80, so coming in with a budget and an idea of what you’re hungry for (instead of indiscriminately ordering steaks and sides like we did…) is the best way to not lose your head and your money when ordering.

Rating

9.5/10

TranslationWhitfield at the Ace Hotel

My favorite restaurant in Pittsburgh so far.  Period.  I have never been more delighted in this city with the quality of the service, food and atmosphere, and all in a really unique hotel.  Folks may disagree with me, but I am committed to this restaurant and its amazing food and service, which in opinion makes it the best I’ve seen in Pittsburgh so far.

Judi’s Take

Amazing!!  From the moment you step into this restaurant you feel like you’ve been invited to sit at the cool table.  The music, sourced from a D.J., is loud enough to start your heart pumping but somehow conversation is not at all impeded.  The wait staff is not only friendly but entertaining.  The tables are spaced so you feel like you are in a very popular place without feeling like you “family-styling-it.”  The food was so delicious.  From the lobster macaroni and cheese to the steaks that were nearly a quarter of the cow, everything was done to perfection and with the maximum amount of flavor.  The ambiance stimulated conversation.  The food is some of the best I have tasted in Pittsburgh (and perhaps anywhere else).  I would definitely return for another taste.  This is a place I would take anyone (and everyone) for dinner.  You absolutely cannot go wrong at the Whitfield.

 

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/

Whitfield is a tavern style restaurant focusing on the Western Pennsylvania flavors and culinary traditions of Polish, German, Italian, and Jewish immigrants.  The menu is seasonal and the venue, located in East Liberty, is very popular, especially during the different events held throughout the year.  Check out their website for menu and reservation details: http://www.whitfieldpgh.com/