What makes a person want to open his first restaurant past youth? Working in a kitchen can be grueling with long hours, high costs and low profit margins: in short, a lot of stress.
Yet Sean Minahan is fulfilling a dream with his wife, Angela, in a quirky spot with a broad menu of greatest hits from his career.
The father of four children -- with three in college -- Mr. Minahan most recently headed the food service at Carnegie Mellon University, following a career with Levy Restaurants, a huge company that now steers food service in sports arenas around the country. He started with the group at the Carlton in Downtown, which led to chef gigs with Walt Disney World in Orlando, in Charlotte, N.C., and in Atlanta, before he returned to Pittsburgh as executive chef for the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.
- Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday; 11 a.m. to midnight Friday; 4 to midnight Saturday; 4 to 8 p.m. Sunday.
- Basics: Bistro 9101 is a warm neighborhood restaurant with approachable food for a range of appetites.
- Dishes: French onion soup, crab lobster cakes, cider house pork chop, steak frites, crispy cod, bacon cheddar Angus burger.
- Prices: Bistro bites $4 to $12; house favorites $15 to $29; Chef Sean’s specials $15 to $28; salads and sandwiches $10 to $14.
- Summary: Wheelchair-accessible, parking lot, credit cards, outdoor dining.
Because it's a mom-and-pop operation, I want to root for Bistro 9101. And I've received many phone calls from readers suggesting I try the place in the North Hills.
Yet at times Mr. Minahan's corporate experience mutes the neighborhood restaurant's potential.
The result is that for now, Bistro 9101 can seem like the setting in a Wes Anderson movie: a somewhat surreal mix of details that don't quite resonate in real life. Like the bright-red dining room and bar, decorated with red and yellow carnations and red candle sconces with bubble designs. Or the assertive smooth jazz soundtrack with flutes and xylophones that competes with TVs. And the menu is replete with phrases that a grown-up may be reluctant to say out loud.
Bistro 9101 opened in February and is named for the address. It's a location owned by Sofranko Advisory Group, a consultant, landlord or partner to such businesses as Franktuary in Lawrenceville; Proper Brick Oven & Tap Room, Downtown; Il Pizzaiolo; and four Walnut Grill locations. Another spot, Sirena Taco Joint & Bar in McMurray, is expected to open at the end of the month.
Tucked in a house-turned-restaurant that was formerly Ziggy's, Bistro 9101 looks out over a stretch of Perry Highway in McCandless, across the street from a gas station and an auto parts store.
A porch, second-floor awnings and lovely flower boxes dress up the location. And a rooftop deck seems promising, although it's not always open, even in weather that warrants it. Mr. Minahan said later in the season, he'll haul up the grill for clam bakes, shrimp boils, pig roasts and other special events.
Past the flowers, the facade looks like the rear window of a recent high school grad's pickup. Big bubble letters are painted on plate-glass, happy hour messages about half-price craft beers and $5 bar food, wine and martinis. By the door, it reads, "Now open for lunch" in red words with yellow outlines.
Folksy lettering aside, the interior is white tablecloths with price points to match. The steak frites ($28), for example, are $10 more expensive than a similar dish at Salt of the Earth in Garfield; about the same price as a flat-iron steak at Meat & Potatoes in the Cultural District, Downtown; on par with the entree at Point Brugge in Point Breeze; and a couple bucks more than the one at Paris 66, the French bistro in East Liberty. It does not warrant the price.
Less expensive are the Bistro Bites, a collection of starters such as local mushrooms ($8) and pig wings ($9) served with chimichurri sauce and avocado crema.
Rings of cornmeal-crusted calamari ($8) are accompanied by batons of fried zucchini, garnished with one whole-fried squid. It's mucked up with sauce Provencal, which translates to a dollop of tomato sauce. The cornmeal is grainy for an already disparate dish.
"We're not here right now because we're making our famous French onion soup ($7)," says the voice mail when someone doesn't answer the restaurant phone. The soup is fine, although a little short on onions below a bread raft and a blanket of melted cheese, which is usually how diners want it.
Fish cakes are a thing here, which makes sense because Mr. Minahan said he loves seafood. They're available as a starter crab/lobster cake ($12) with shaved fennel and a remoulade and as salmon cake entree ($17). For the latter, two cakes of dry salmon are bound by bread crumbs and grainy mustard. They sit on a bed of sauteed spinach, beside a vegetable medley of oblique-cut carrots, zucchini and cauliflower served warm, but not cooked, with a too-firm crunch. This dish also suffers from the kitchen's insistence on underseasoning.
The "chili dilli dipping sauce" may spice things up on the crispy cod dish ($15), if only with an absurd name for a condiment. Served in the form of fish sticks, cod is breaded in panko and cooked to the same shade as enough perfectly browned matchstick fries to serve a family of eight. Those fries look delicious, but they taste more like oil than potatoes.
Of the several dishes I had over a couple of visits, it's the most pleasing, along with the standard burger ($14), with caramelized onion, cheddar sauce on a pretzel bun.
Occasionally, the kitchen takes questionable liberties with dishes such as the jambalini ($12), an amalgamation of New Orleans' jambalaya with shrimp, mussels and "spicy seafood jambalaya sauce" ladled over fettuccini. Another house favorite is the risotto with sweet, delicate sugar snap peas clubbed by funky Maytag blue cheese and served with bacon-wrapped scallops ($23). Although the presentation is approachable, the flavors are too big and dissonant. And Donald's Duck ($22) as the name of the seared duck breast is a bit much.
The bar offerings are more straightforward, with reasonably priced drinks. Wines are well below $10 a glass, among selections such as Dark Horse chardonnay or Cellar No. 8 pinot grigio. House-inspired cocktails are $10 or less for concoctions such as the Mrs. McCandless with Bombay Sapphire, mint, lime and cranberry.
The staff tends to service details. Water glasses are dressed with wedges of lemon and lime. Service is competent and familial. Dishes are served and cleared promptly.
Chef Minahan is warm and his intentions for this neighborhood place are honorable.
Yet overlooking a business's flaws because the owner is really nice can be the modus operandi in Pittsburgh. And it's not how things get better.
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.