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.
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.
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
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.
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.