Grit & Grace, with its Asian-inspired menu, brings a San Francisco concept to Pittsburgh

Locals who love dining out eagerly awaited the late December debut of Grit & Grace from chef Brian Pekarcik of Spoon and BRGR in East Liberty. Of all the restaurants to open this season, it's the closest to fine dining, albeit a more lively interpretation of it.

Grit & Grace
535 Liberty Ave.
  • Hours: 11:30 a.m. to midnight Mondays through Thursdays (kitchen closes at 11 p.m.); 11:30 to 1 a.m. Fridays (kitchen closes at midnight); 4 p.m. to 1 a.m. Saturdays (kitchen closes at midnight); 4 to 10 p.m. Sundays.
  • Basics: With a terrific cocktail and wine list, Grit & Grace is an ambitious, Asian-inspired restaurant from Brian Pekarcik and the team behind Spoon in East Liberty, that offers dim sum and larger dishes for lunch to late-night dining.
  • Dishes: Dim sum, roasted squash, smoked brisket, pork ramen, short ribs, hanger steak, braised goat.
  • Prices: American dim sum $5; salads, sandwiches and noodles $6 to $15; small and large plates $6 to $20.
  • Summary: Credit cards, street parking.
  • Noise level: Loud.

While a restaurant focused on food may seem obvious, these days, it's not. Butcher and the Rye from Tolga Sevdik and chef Richard DeShantz, which opened Downtown in October, has built a cocktail program that's stronger than its food menu. So strong that it made the list of James Beard semifinalists for this year's "Outstanding Bar Program."

Other restaurants that have opened in the past year are pared down from something-for-everyone menus to hot dog destinations, meatball joints, chip shops and burger palaces.

With its dining room of communal tables, medieval-looking metal work and mid-century modern detail, Grit & Grace is as focused on its concept as it is on its food, served on tiny, small or shared plates.

The smallest dishes feature American dim sum, inspired by San Francisco's State Bird Provisions, James Beard's Best New Restaurant of 2013. This food is modeled after dim sum in Chinese restaurants where servers wheel carts to tables, often for brunch. As they point to plates, uninitiated diners are vaguely aware of the ingredients within steam baskets, buns and dumplings. And that's part of the fun.

At Grit & Grace, it seems the proprietors have been uncertain as to whether this concept would fly in Pittsburgh. After all, just a few months ago, the space used to be Taste of Dahntahn, a Yinzer-ese named restaurant with brassy decor.

They display uncertainty through over-explanation on the menu, which includes the definition of "grit" and "grace," describes the dining room's color scheme and decor and explains the food as "carried plates with rustic noodle bowls & refined ethnic dishes -- Rolling carts with American dim sum." But Mr. Pekarcik & Co. need not have worried.

Here's the news. Pittsburghers are ready for Grit & Grace. And they'll be more comfortable as the restaurant gains confidence.

For now, the food ranges from fine to very good, the result of a menu that at times overreaches and dim sum that doesn't always hit the mark. But do not allow inconsistencies to deter a visit; the menu is being edited as the team assesses what resonates, from the size to the spiciness of the dishes.

Tending to the details is chef de cuisine Curtis Gamble, former executive chef at Bread & Wine in Chicago. For several years before his Chicago stretch, he was the sous chef to the owner of Root 174, Keith Fuller, while he was running Downtown's Six Penn Kitchen.

Start a visit with wines cherry-picked by John Wabeck, the general manager for Spoon and the sommelier for Mr. Pekarcik's restaurants. The selection is terrific, from the crisp Sardinian Vermentino ($11 glass, $31 bottle) to the peppery Austrian Blaufrankisch ($10 glass, $38 bottle).

Better yet, if you're planning to take a cab home, share with your companions a strong cocktail, such as the Tiki-inspired scorpion bowl ($15 small, $25 large) or a perron ($35). It's a Spanish-style decanter in the vein of a watering can, filled with a white wine cocktail with gin, shochu and tamarind soda. Don't put your mouth on the spout and try not to spill it down your shirt.

As you sip your drink, servers will parade a tray filled with dim sum around the dining room, stopping at each table to explain the day's five to eight selections.

Try the crispy-sweet pork belly bite with orange, chili, garlic and ginger or the scallop ceviche, sliced across like a medallion, garnished with red pepper and lime. The fried Brussels sprouts are immensely popular, dressed with sherry vinegar, fish sauce and Manchego cheese. More challenging is the fried head cheese, a pork nugget filled with the meat from a slow-cooked pig's head. A new plate is the beef tongue rillette.

You'll likely want something more than these two-biters. Vegetarians have several choices, such as the iceberg salad ($6) with fennel and red onion in a ginger miso vinaigrette, or roasted squash and farro salad ($8) with apples, frisee, curry and yogurt (that has since been replaced with a salsify and roasted mushroom salad). I'd like these more if dishes were less component-driven. Each dish displays parts of a whole rather than something unified and well-dressed.

Lardcore fans may be seduced by the crispy pig-face roulade ($10) with red curry, crispy chicharrons (fried pork rinds), fried egg and yolk hot sauce. But the winning dish is a variation on the reuben ($9). A rich Thousand Island sabayon dresses delicious corned beef tongue and smoked brisket that's thin-sliced and deliciously pink.

I don't particularly like the reuben in a bowl of ramen, with corned duck breast ($14), rye noodles and pickled mustard seeds. Another noodle bowl is better, a more traditional pork ramen ($12) laced with daikon sticks, cabbage ribbons, nori sheets and an hour-egg.

A surprising miss is the steam bun ($7). While the mortadella and the mustard are fine, it's diminished by sugary sweet bread and butter pickles.

Of the larger plates, pan-roasted salmon is the centerpiece of a dish with brown-butter puree, blood orange, a multigrain salad and capers ($18). Meat and potatoes fans will appreciate hanger steak with cheese potatoes, kimchi cauliflower and black garlic sauce ($20).

But the sleeper is braised goat, inspired by the mother of Sarah Thomas, friend of Spoon and sommelier at Bar Marco in the Strip. Served with appam pancake, savory meat wears a traditional Indian curry with cardamom, tumeric, white poppy, coriander and ginger. Brighten it with lime, dollop with creme fraiche, cast away the silverware and use bread as utensils for this soulful dish.

Desserts are too idea-driven, with ingredients such as Cheez-Its and breakfast cereal a distraction. The crumbled crackers garnish smoked apples and ice cream, a play on the classic apple pie and cheddar pairing. On another visit, Fruity Pebbles cereal is powered atop ganache, mochi (Japanese rice cake) and lemongrass creme anglais, a spin on breakfast. It looks fun, but it doesn't work.

Every time I visit, I wish the kitchen would follow the Coco Chanel rule and take off at least one accessory -- or in this case, one ingredient.

Still, such gaps do not diminish the potential for Grit & Grace. There are plenty of locals who are delighted that a San Francisco restaurant inspires Pittsburgh dining.

Even with flaws and its little plates, Grit & Grace is Downtown's heavyweight.

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.


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