Best Dining: Top dishes

Looking over my notes from 2011, I was struck by how much the Pittsburgh restaurant scene has grown, even in just the four years I've spent as the Post-Gazette's restaurant critic. Even the bad meals are better than they used to be, and the good ones have gotten even more exciting.

While I had some fantastic vegetarian dishes this year, in my review I was primarily struck by how Pittsburgh menus have expanded beyond ubiquitous chicken breast, filet mignon and pork tenderloin. Eating more kinds of animals and more parts of animals is an essential part of responsible meat-eating, and restaurants play an essential role in encouraging diners to branch out. As a result, my top 10 tastes is a bit meat-heavy. Instead of nixing any of these special dishes, I decided to expand the list to include my top five vegan or vegetarian dishes, in addition to my top five desserts.

Top 10 Tastes

Pennsylvania duck tasso with wild greens, black walnuts, bourbon-barrel vinegar

Eleven Contemporary Kitchen, Strip District -- Hank Shaw Dinner

I could have picked just about any course from this memorable dinner, but this one stood out for its elegant use of bitter, spicy and smoky notes, a refreshing change from the sweet, fruit flavors often paired with duck.

The restaurants
Aji Picante, 1711 Murray Ave, Squirrel Hill; , 412-422-0220

Alma Pan-Latin Kitchen, 7600 and 7606 Forbes Ave., Point Breeze; , 412-727-6320

Bado's Cucina, 3825 Washington Road, Peters; , 724-942-3904

Bite Bistro, 565 Lincoln Ave, Bellevue; , 412-761-9500

Elements Contemporary Cuisine, 444 Liberty Ave., Downtown; , 412-251-0168.

Eleven, 1150 Smallman St., Strip District; , 412-201-5656

Legume Bistro, 214 N. Craig St., Oakland; , 412-621-2700

Lidia's Pittsburgh, 1400 Smallman St., Strip District; , 412-552-0150

Meat & Potatoes, 649 Penn Ave., Cultural District; , 412-325-7007

NOLA on the Square, 24 Market Square, Downtown; , 412-471-9100


Root 174, 1113 S. Braddock Ave., Regent Square; 412-243-4348

Salt of the Earth, 5523 Penn Ave., Garfield; , 412-441-7258

Smoke BBQ Taqueria, 225 E. Eighth Ave., Homestead; 412-205-3039

Spoon, 134 S. Highland Ave., Shadyside; , 412-362-6001

Tamari, 3519 Butler St., Lawrenceville; , 412-325-3435

Toast! Kitchen and Wine Bar, 5102 Baum Blvd., Shadyside; , 412-224-2579

Trumpet mushroom chips with scallop tartar

Tamari, Lawrenceville -- Tasting Menu

A creative variation on a classic dish, the scallop tartar had an almost mousse-like texture, nicely complemented by the crisp, delicate mushroom chips. A Korean spicy sesame oil added flavor without totally overwhelming the sweetness of the scallops.

Frog Legs

NOLA on the Square, Market Square

Frog legs and mushrooms are sauteed in smoked bacon butter and brightened up with a splash of lemon juice, while a generous handful of microgreens add color and a fresh, crisp finish. This would be a great introductory dish for those who haven't tried frog legs before.

Pig Ear Salad

Meat & Potatoes, Cultural District

Bitter greens were offset by a perfectly poached egg and strips of crispy pig ear, which functioned like rich, porky croutons.

Vancouver in a glass

Spoon Bar, East Liberty

Whiskey's woodsy flavors were sweetened and brightened by Tupelo honey and lemon juice, with a bit of smoke and spice from ginger syrup and a Laphroaig Scotch float. I've never been to Vancouver, but if this drink is a fair representation, I might just move there.

Beef cheek borscht

Legume Bistro, Oakland

Cubes of tender beef cheek and shin, along with a garden's worth of cold-cellared or fermented vegetables -- including celery root, parsnips, carrots, sauerkraut, turnips and, of course, beets -- give this hot, savory borscht an unusual depth of flavor.

Pork tongue "reuben"

Root 174, Regent Square

Corned pork tongue paired with marble rye grits and a crispy sauerkraut-apple relish exemplified chef Keith Fuller's creative, refined revisions of comfort food.

Scallops, mussels, sunchoke, artichoke, olive, potato

Salt of the Earth, Garfield

This complex dish beautifully marries the sea-brine flavors of scallops and mussels with the earthier tang of sunchoke, artichoke and olive.

Shrimp, coconut tapioca, sesame, lime, basil seed

notion, Oakmont

Large pink cylinders of shrimp were embedded in a culinary seascape: Soft white sheets of coconut, chewy coconut tapioca pearls, lime gels and crisp coconut-milk rocks emphasized the sweetness of the shrimp, while another portion of the plate was given a more savory treatment, with fried garlic chips and dehydrated onion conjuring up the flavors of a shrimp curry.

Local pork chops with sweet potato gratin, roasted fennel and cranberry relish

Toast! Kitchen and Wine Bar, Shadyside -- Toast! Tasting Tuesday

Simplicity may look easy, but it's rarely this impressive: Rosy pork chops, perfectly cooked; a wedge of soft, creamy sweet potato gratin; fennel cooked until soft and caramelized and a tart cranberry relish, which it turns out might actually be a better pairing for pork than it is for turkey.

Five Best Sweets

Meyer lemon pudding cake with coconut milk granite, Earl Grey syrup, pomegranate

Eleven Contemporary Kitchen, Strip District

This wonderful cake, with its tart flavor and soft, almost melting texture, tasted indulgent, yet also inspired reflection on the subtlety of its effects. The soft shards of coconut milk granite were surprisingly creamy, while Earl Grey syrup added the barest hint of tannin, echoed by the emphatic tartness of the pomegranate seeds.

Arroz con leche

Aji Picante, Squirrel Hill

A rice pudding to triumph over the rest: The creamy coconut milk base was studded with chunks of dried mango, while a lavish sprinkling of orange zest perfumed each bite.

Toasted Tuscan Pecorino Romano

Bado's Cucina, Peters

The wood-fired oven worked its magic on bread, butter, cinnamon and cheese, transforming them into a sort of Italian version of French toast. A final drizzle of honey moved the toasts firmly into dessert territory, without making them too sticky-sweet.

Watermelon and Mango Limbers

Jamilka Borges, Sous Chef at Legume Bistro -- Slow Food Pop-Up Dinner

This surprise dinner was a delicious taste of both Puerto Rico and a Pittsburgh summer from start to finish, especially these incredibly flavorful popsicles. Here's hoping they might make a guest appearance on Legume Bistro's summer dessert menu.

Coppa alla Patata Dolce

Lidia's Pittsburgh, Strip District

The best ice cream sundae I've tasted in recent memory; sweet potato ice cream layered with caramel sauce and candied pecans and served with two small bombolone, Tuscan fried dough flavored with sweet potato and rolled in cinnamon-sugar.

Five Best Meat-Free Dishes

Vegan grilled cauliflower with red cabbage, pea shoots, sweet chile sauce, crushed peanuts

Root 174, Regent Square

Well-browned cauliflower, crunchy red cabbage, a tangle of pea shoots and a genuinely spicy sweet chile sauce created wonderful layers of texture and flavor.

Vegetarian Taco

Smoke BBQ Taqueria, Homestead

The brisket and rib tacos at Smoke are downright swoon-worthy, but that just makes it all the more impressive that the vegetarian taco is equally irresistible. The filling of black beans, roasted poblano pepper and corn relish, crispy potatoes and an intensely spicy chile de arbol sauce packs an incredible amount of flavor into a simple taco.

Butternut Squash Ravioli

Elements Contemporary Cuisine, Downtown

Picture perfect ravioli are filled with a savory squash puree, then sauced with brown butter, goat cheese and crispy sage, and garnished with candied pecans and amaretti cookie crumbs. Sometimes, the classic combinations are the best ones.

Leek and tomatillo soup with sweet potato and corn

Alma Pan-Latin Kitchen, Point Breeze

This tomatillo-thick broth was irresistibly tart, balanced out by the natural sweetness of caramelized leeks, sweet potatoes and fresh summer corn.

Veggie Bread Pudding

Bite Bistro, Bellevue

The soft, eggy flavor of this savory bread pudding was dressed up with sharp cheddar, caramelized onions and a spiced tomato sauce, threaded through the base. A roasted green tomato slowly collapsed on top, while a stripe of roasted chile sauce to the side of the free-form pudding allowed each diner to customize the heat-level.

China Millman : 412-263-1198 or . Follow her at . First Published December 22, 2011 5:00 AM


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