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Tucked on the far end of Ellsworth Avenue in Shadyside, Open Bottle Bistro is a wine bar with a sense of place, as much for where it is as for where it isn't.
At this time of year, it's defined by the deck. Planters align steps that lead to a private entrance at treehouse-height. And a canopied section offers shelter from sun or a summer shower. Near a stone-framed fountain, a stately spruce is home to so many songbirds a diner asked if the restaurant played a recording to make the setting more bucolic.
The location is a major improvement for owner David DeSimone, host of KQV's "Wine Cellar" reports. His former restaurant, Bridge Ten Brasserie, which was open for fewer than two years, closed in February. The upscale restaurant was the wrong concept in the wrong location within the Holiday Inn Express at the Tenth Street Bridge on the South Side.
Open Bottle Bistro is the restaurant he wanted in the first place. It has a terrific wine list and Mediterranean-inspired classics, with a kitchen run by Jeremy Hickey. He didn't have to go far. This is his second time working at this address; he was formerly executive chef when it was home to La Casa, owned by Omar Mediouni.
- Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday, bar closes at 11 p.m; 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, bar closes at 11 p.m.; 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., 4:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. Saturday, bar closes at midnight.
- Basics: Open Bottle Bistro is an inviting neighborhood restaurant with warm service, terrific wines and a menu of bistro classics.
- Dishes: Pinchos, white anchovies, charcuterie, crispy riz de veau, Amish chicken Basquaise, steak tartar, mussels Mariniere, clams Portuguese-style.
- Prices: Lunch: panini sandwiches $7-$9; deli sandwiches $8; crepes $8-$9; quiche $8-$9; salads $9-$13; bistro classics $5-$15; shellfish $11-$15. Dinner: appetizers $5-$15; dinner plates $15-$20; salads $9-$13; shellfish $12-$15.
- Summary: Call ahead for wheelchair accessibility; credit cards; street parking; outdoor dining.
The restaurant's cozy dining room is centered around a modest bar staffed by John White, a former British foreign service officer and scotch expert. He's the kind of employee you'd expect behind the iconic hotel bar that Pittsburgh does not have, who treats every woman like a lady and pours drinks more elegant than shots and less fussy than craft cocktails.
While he has curated an interesting single-malt selection, the wine list reinforces the restaurant's strengths.
There's nothing Zinsane (White Trees Zinfandel from California) on an entirely European wine list, with France the star among a smattering of Austrians, Portuguese and Italians. Against the grain of many Pittsburgh restaurants that charge between $11 and $17 a pour, most by-the-glass selections fall under $10 for a white Burgundy or a Beaujolais that's more interesting than new-crop Nouveau.
Wines are grouped by flavor rather than region: "crisp," "fruity," "round" and "elegant." Those less concerned with flavor notes than value can order a house pitcher of Portuguese red or white as well as sangria (half-pitchers $12-$13, full-pitchers $23-$24).
Then there's the food, with something-for-everyone among Spanish bar-snack pinchos, escargot and charcuterie for starters, clams, mussels, tartar and kebabs as mains.
Although the lunch and dinner menus feature a few dishes I loved, uneven presentation suggests the kitchen is spread thin.
Pinchos can be fun: a toothpick of pickle, chorizo and anchovy on one, a salami slice, piave cheese and green olive on another (3 for $6). I wish they were more varied, with dates, or toasts, nuts and other snacks.
On my first visit, I celebrated a wildly simple presentation of mussels ($8 half-order, $15 full-order), small sweet ones stacked in a white wine broth, garnished with thyme. One of my favorite starters in the city turns out to be the Portuguese clams ($12) with potatoes, chorizo, pork and cilantro. The broth is heavenly.
A plate of white anchovies ($9) with lemon, capers and herbs prompted my table to wonder why more little fish aren't served on their own at restaurants around Pittsburgh, regardless of whether they're fresh or perfectly respectable from-the-can, purchased at Penn Mac.
Sweetbreads (crispy ris de veau $15) are also on the menu. This excites me because they're hard to find here. When it comes to offal, Pittsburghers seem to prefer tripe to sweetbreads. Tripe is the funkier, less-expensive ingredient featured in many Italian dishes. Although sweetbreads are featured in many cultures, they're considered a delicacy in French cuisine, which likely explains why they're not served here. They're also fussy and hard to prepare, a lot of work for a dish that may not sell well.
The presentation is inconsistent. On one visit, thin-sliced sweetbreads arrived as fried medallions with a red-wine button mushroom sauce, with nary a smear nor a garnish. Although I prefer them delicate and pillowy, I enjoyed the dish. On another visit, the kitchen added a once-around with a balsamic glaze that would have worked better drizzled over gelato. If creativity strikes again, I hope the kitchen decides to mix it up with a wild mushroom medley instead.
The kebabs ($20) were less of a success because the plate of tuna skewers was served cold. Rare fish is less of a problem than cold rice. And filet mignon seems a strange choice for kebab, which usually features less-pricey cuts.
Servers know their stuff, from the wine notes to the specials. But even so, the system has kinks. A server delivered food before clearing the first course. Water glasses reached empty. A white chocolate custard ($9) touted as "amazing" needed work. But knowledge and sincerity make up for missteps.
An interesting wine list and some unique dishes move Open Bottle Bistro up the yardstick of compelling restaurants in Pittsburgh. And you can't help but root for Mr. DeSimone, so demonstrative with his passion, yet graceful in navigating the trying challenges of finding a restaurant's success.
Despite his proficiency in a genre some consider pretentious, the wine expert summed up his new restaurant in salt-of-the-earth style.
"The location is so much better," he said. "I feel like I got the gorilla off my back."
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart