As dining critic bids farewell, she recalls restaurants that changed her outlook on food

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After nearly five years, I'm counting down my last days as restaurant critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. I'm moving to Brooklyn, so while you may still occasionally see my byline in the paper, someone else will be taking over the always fascinating and often delicious job of covering Pittsburgh's restaurant scene.

In my next and final column, I'll write more about what I will miss and make some predictions about the future of Pittsburgh food, but as my time as a critic draws to a close, I've been reflecting about what restaurants have brought to my life, personally as well as professionally.

More than ever, I believe that cooking can be elevated to art. A meal at a great restaurant can be just as transformative as a book, a painting or a piece of music. But restaurants are a much more participatory experience. The diner's outlook, attitude and behavior play a direct role in every meal, and those who learn how to make the most of restaurants (and how to pick the right restaurants) will have the best experiences.

The following six meals were both exceptionally memorable and exceptionally educational. The exact meals might be difficult to replicate, but I hope they can provide some tools for finding restaurants that will change your perspective, as these restaurants changed mine.

A Florentine steakhouse, Florence, Italy; July 2004

"Red meat will probably make you sick." I'd been told this by more than a few friends, and even a doctor, who all seemed to think that 18-plus years of eating only vegetables, grains and legumes (I was raised on a vegetarian diet) had left my digestive system ill-prepared for animal proteins.

If the consequences could be unpleasant, I needed to make the risk worthwhile. Only the very best would do -- and what better place to seek out the pinnacle of meat experiences than Florence, Italy, where I was spending part of the summer studying at the Apicius Culinary Institute.

On one of my last nights in the city, I went to dinner at a small restaurant that specialized in Bistecca alla Fiorentina. A stern looking, apron-clad server displayed the handsome slab of meat for a moment, then took it aside to slice it. He set down a large platter, the strips of steak bright red against the well-browned crust, suddenly covered by handfuls of arugula, then a shower of thinly shaved parmigiano-reggiano.

The name of the restaurant is lost to my memory, but the flavor of that meat was unforgettable. It had something in common with other meats, and with other umami-rich foods, like soy sauce or miso or parmesan. There was a hint of iron, and a clean, bright sweetness that was entirely unexpected. I've since had other cuts of beef that could compare, but I've had many more steaks that tasted watery and weak, that had too much gristle or too little salt, and each time I've remembered that first steak, and what beef is supposed to taste like.

Learning about food, whether you want to cook it, or write about it, or just appreciate it more fully, is largely a matter of developing taste. That means establishing benchmarks, by seeking out foods that are incomparably delicious and true to their nature. It's not enough to try a scallop (or peach or broccoli, etc.), you have to taste a great one.

Le Moulin Vert, Lannion, France; May 2005

A two-week trip to France, which began with six days of hiking and camping in Brittany, required so much logistical planning that when I arrived in Lannion, a small city in northwestern France, I didn't have a clue where we'd have dinner. Michael (my boyfriend at the time, now my husband) and I dropped our bags in the hotel and went out to explore.

Down a road and across a bridge, we found a small restaurant with a simple menu of buckwheat crepes, salads and a few other dishes. I'd grown up in the long shadow of Alice Water's ground-breaking Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse, and in that small cafe I tasted the origins of Northern California cuisine. A simple salad of butter lettuce dressed in a mustardy vinaigrette; a pitcher of cold, dry local cider; a plate of boiled potatoes and sausage; a thick, tender buckwheat crepe spread with gently melting salted butter.

When food matters to you, much of the work planning a trip is taken up with researching restaurants. But all this planning can weaken our instincts, and make it harder to spot a great thing when we stumble upon it. Or, even more important, make it harder to realize that a restaurant is not going to be good and get out before it's too late. Had I done my research about Lannion, we might well have ended up at the same restaurant or one just as good, but we would have lost that feeling of discovery that made our dinner feel like fate.

No. 9 Park, Boston; September 2005

I spent the summer of 2005 working in the used books department of the Harvard Bookstore, where the steep discount on books made up for the low hourly pay. Michael had taken a job at a psychology lab, which came with insider access to information about the most lucrative psychology studies on campus. It took about a dozen hours of strange, occasionally uncomfortable work, often inside an MRI machine, but by the end of the summer we had enough money for an anniversary dinner at No. 9 Park, Barbara Lynch's elegant, decadent New American restaurant in Boston.

Years later, I can't separate out the details of that menu from the others I've enjoyed there, but our excitement and pleasure stands out in my mind. The effort it took to earn the money, and the months we'd spent anticipating the meal made it all the more special.

After five years with an expense account, I can say with full conviction that food tastes better when you pay for it yourself.

Legume Bistro, Pittsburgh; June/August 2007

As I was finishing up my studies at the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute, Downtown, I was put in touch with Steve Massey, then the Post-Gazette's assistant managing editor of Features, who invited me to apply for the position of restaurant critic, recently vacated by Elizabeth Downer.

I hadn't had much luck at Pittsburgh restaurants during my first 10 months in town. Michael and I were both students, so we didn't have a lot of extra money, and the few times we'd eaten at nicer restaurants, we'd been disappointed by menus that all seemed the same, mediocre ingredients and lackluster cooking.

I was about to leave to spend the summer working at a restaurant in Oakland, Calif., but we had planned to try a new restaurant before we left, Legume Bistro in Regent Square. I told Mr. Massey that I could write a sample review later in the summer, after I'd visited it a second time.

Legume's food was simple and well prepared. Many dishes were inspired by French bistro cooking, like a goat cheese and leek tart served with a bulgur and chickpea salad, and an heirloom pork chop with rhubarb compote, whipped potatoes, green beans and asparagus. There were sweetbreads on the menu, and duck confit and even headcheese.

Legume was the first restaurant I reviewed for the Post-Gazette, and the review that got me hired. But the restaurant is also the reason that I wanted the job. When Trevett and Sarah Hooper opened Legume, they changed the Pittsburgh restaurant scene. They introduced an artful, ingredient-focused and highly personal style of cooking that was a hallmark of contemporary cooking in the United States, but was mostly missing from Pittsburgh. A proliferation of small, ambitious, chef-owned restaurants followed.

Pittsburgh is still a small city, and its restaurant scene will never compete with Chicago's or New York's or San Francisco's. But whenever I've felt hemmed in by the lack of a dozen new restaurants to review, or trend stories that covered some of the same restaurants more often than I would have liked, I've thought about Legume and the restaurants like it -- restaurants all the more deserving of our loyalty and support because there aren't 50 more like them.

Alinea, Chicago; October 2008

At any given time, there are just a handful of restaurants that dominate the national, even global, culinary scene. In 2008, Alinea in Chicago was one of those restaurants, and its modernist cuisine was having an effect on dining all over the United States. I planned a weekend trip to Chicago largely so that I could eat there.

The 26-course tour ($225 per person, without tax, tip or drinks) took more than three hours. There was a flash-frozen piece of wagyu steak hung like a flag over a small wire contraption on the table, meant to slowly "melt" over several courses until its accompaniments arrived. A play on a Caprese salad included some marvelous iterations of tomatoes -- jellied, crisped, compressed and more -- as well as a slab of fresh mozzarella that had somehow been given the consistency of styrofoam.

By the end of the meal I was more than convinced that Alinea is a great restaurant, and also that it was not the right restaurant for me.

I could admire the technical skill and creativity, but I felt no connection with the stories behind each plate. The meal felt passionless, disconnected from pleasure and emotion. There's a difference between a preference and a judgment, but too often the two are conflated. Some restaurants are simply not good, but too often people condemn something as not good, when it is actually just not what they expected or wanted it to be.

Nem da'ng Van Quyen, Nha Trang, Vietnam; April 2011

I'd had good luck finding restaurant recommendations for almost every city I visited in Vietnam except for Nha Trang, a sprawling beach town filled with tourists. Desperate for any kind of recommendation, we asked at the front desk, emphasizing the fact that we ate everything, we loved street food and we wanted to try local specialties.

A few staff members suggested the same restaurants listed in all the guidebooks. We pressed on, asking if there was a place that local people preferred. A young woman sent us to a seafood palace, but one far up the beach, miles from the backpacking district. We feasted on a whole fried grouper served with lettuce wrappers and pickled vegetables, and a half-kilo of grilled shrimp, peeling away charred shells to reveal sweet, pink flesh that we covered in lime juice, then dipped in salt and pepper.

When we returned, grateful and enthusiastic, she told us we must try a local specialty, Nem nu'o'ng Phan. She wrote down directions, sending us just a half-mile or so inland from the hotel (far enough when the temperature was soaring to well over 100 degrees). We found the restaurant, a storefront kitchen with plastic tables on the sidewalk across the street, a menu printed on the building's wall. We read our order off of another scrap of paper, carefully written out by our culinary guide.

It didn't look like much when it arrived: A plate of ground meat grilled on skewers, accompanied by pickled shallots and carrots, a bowl of cucumbers, a plate of lettuces and herbs, and sheets of rice paper. A small bowl holding a thick, bright orange sauce for dipping.

We assembled neat parcels, layering lettuce, herbs, meat and cucumber, then wrapping all of that up tightly in one of the rice paper wrappers. We noticed that along with the grilled meat there were bits of rice paper, rolled up and fried in pork fat until they were crispy and golden brown. The pork meatballs were flavored with lemongrass, garlic and shallots, as well as a faint hint of smoke from the grill. The incredible dipping sauce was sweet and salty, pungent with fish sauce.

It was one of the best things we ate over three weeks of remarkable meals, and we would never have found it without knowledgeable advice. There are solid restaurant recommendations available from all kinds of sources. But restaurants are not widgets. A passionate recommendation from one expert source will consistently trump the wisdom of the crowd.


China Millman: 412-263-1198 or Follow her at First Published July 5, 2012 4:00 AM


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