Here are a dozen places to visit in Downtown/Strip District, East End, South Side and South Hills for the best tacos in Pittsburgh.
Some hotel restaurants are viewed as more of a basic amenity necessary to satisfy hotel guests than as restaurants with their own identities and clientele. Not so at Downtown's Doubletree Hotel. With the hiring of its first executive chef, Kevin Sousa, and new executive chef Anthony Zallo, management has shown it is committed to making the Bigelow Grille more than just a convenient place for guests to stop for breakfast, lunch or dinner. Zallo's bold flavors and simple, elegant presentations are a breath of fresh air, as is his ability to put an American spin on Mediterranean flavors, with an emphasis on local, seasonal ingredients.
A roasted heirloom beet and goat cheese salad ($9) showcased a classic flavor pairing with a plating that was both lovely and effective. A tower of thin, circular slices of purple and orange beets interspersed with layers of goat cheese created the perfect ratio between the flavors. The 25-year-old balsamic vinegar and gray sea salt were more than just trendy additions.
An asparagus salad from the late spring menu included a good portion of asparagus, but the focus of the dish, as the server made sure to explain, was a filo-wrapped package of boursin cheese. Layers of filo flaked into thin, crisp sheets with each bite. A small salad of field greens, garnished with dried cherries and toasted almonds, provided a tart foil to the sweetness of the boursin.
- Hours: Monday-Sunday, 6 a.m.-11 p.m; bar menu only 2-5 p.m.
- Basics: New American cuisine distinguished by seasonal ingredients and bold Mediterranean flavors.
- Recommended dishes: Flash-seared calamari, roasted heirloom beet and goat cheese salad, fried oysters, lobster ravioli, roasted Atlantic halibut, wild Alaskan king salmon, Colorado organic lamb loin, Dutch blueberry pie, fig and pear cobbler, summer berry lemon tart.
- Prices: $6-$15; entrees, $20-$37; desserts, $7; wines by the glass start at $8, by the bottle, $39.
- Summary: Wheelchair accessible; nonsmoking; parking validated for Doubletree garage; credit cards accepted; reservations suggested; corkage, $15.
- Noise level: Low to loud.
Zallo loves mushrooms, and they appear throughout the menu, in traditional and in unusual ways. Flash-seared calamari ($8) with garlic, tomatoes, portobello mushrooms and basil isn't the only non-fried presentation of this seafood in the city, but Zallo's combination of flavors and textures is unusual. The squid was cut in small pieces, and its texture was similar to that of the mushrooms. The combination of flavors brought out the squid's sweetness, rather than its more saline nature.
A delivery of lobster mushrooms -- a marvelous, meaty fungus the color of cooked lobster shell that has a slightly seafood-like taste -- inspired a special of lobster ravioli. (The pasta is all made in-house, except for the light and fluffy gnocchi, which are made by Zallo's mother.) Round, thin sheets of pasta were filled with large chunks of lobster meat and just the smallest amount of mild ricotta cheese, and were bathed in a brothy sauce whose steam exhaled an aroma of shellfish, white wine, tarragon and chives. The mild salinity of the mushrooms was balanced by the earthy sweetness of a soft puddle of roasted tomatoes in the center of the bowl.
Wild Alaskan salmon ($29) came with Pennsylvania wild mushrooms, including those harbingers of spring, morels. The combination of buttery salmon with earthy, chewy lentils and the mild sourness of the red wine verjus was spectacular. The popularity of verjus -- pressed juice of unripened wine grapes -- has increased tremendously over the past decade. And it's no wonder. With its balanced sweetness and tartness, verjus can do double-duty for vinegar in salad dressing or wine in a pan sauce.
Although Zallo had an impressive number of excellent seafood dishes, his treatment of land animals is also commendable. Colorado organic lamb loin ($35) came with assertively seasoned, gently chewy Israeli couscous, braised swiss chard and toasted pine nuts. A light sprinkling of fennel pollen, which smells and tastes like fennel but with more sweetness and less pronounced herbaceousness, and slivers of preserved lemon enhanced the lamb's gaminess, balancing it without concealing it.
Zallo carries out a constant editing process. He tried several versions of one appetizer -- a slightly muddled combination of sweet pea ravioli, tomato confit and tandoori spiced shrimp ($9) -- before deciding it just wasn't going to work. He took it off the menu, replacing it with chilled, basil-infused Maine lobster with Israeli couscous and preserved lemon vinaigrette ($15).
Zallo's accomplishments are all the more impressive when one considers that he went from running a small, dinner-only fine-dining restaurant to a dining operation that serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, provides room service and caters banquets.
Given the size of the operation, the overall dining experience depends on more than the chef's capabilities. The general manager is responsible for the wine list, the bar and front-of-house staff.
Since Zallo started in May, two general managers have come and gone, so it's no surprise that front-of-house operations still need a little work. But Zallo is confident that the new GM, Matthew Butoryak, will smooth things over. Already, servers are extremely friendly and focused on their jobs, though some need a little more training describing items on the menu, and no one seemed prepared to recommend wine.
The wine program seems to suffer most from disorganization. There are far more wines in inventory than on the list, and the list itself, ordered by country first and then varietal, makes it difficult to compare choices. It is also difficult to tell how much each bottle costs, because the wines aren't listed in order of price and there is an awful lot of space between small letters and small numbers. Unsurprisingly, markups are on the high end, many getting close to 400 percent of the cost of the bottle to the restaurant. Unless Butoryak is prepared to spend a considerable amount of time reorganizing the wine list and training staff, I would recommend selling off much of the inventory, and creating a less expensive, smaller wine list that accurately describes all the wines available.
The coffee program also could use some changes. Even when freshly made, coffee was bitter and lackluster. Coffee is often the first impression diners have of the restaurant at breakfast and the last at dinner, so a bad cup does a disproportionate amount of damage.
I'm confident that Zallo and Butoryak will continue to make changes and improvements. Zallo already has been able to remove some of the prefabricated cakes that previously dominated the dessert list, due in large part to Kevin Carmichael, an impressively eager banquet chef with a love for baking. Their efforts so far have been extremely promising.
Seasonal offerings included a beautiful miniature Dutch blueberry pie ($7), giant blueberries bursting with flavor, gently coated in a sauce of brown sugar, covered with a crumb topping and an additionally indulgent scoop of vanilla ice cream. Another favorite was a caramelized fig and pear cobbler ($7), also with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and a few fresh figs.
The Bigelow Grille is an impressive hotel restaurant and deserves to be a destination in its own right.
Restaurant critic China Millman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1198.