La Gourmandine will take over the former Penn Avenue Fish spot on Forbes Avenue
"Bring your bottle. Bring your mess."
These instructions set the tone for diners when they arrive at E2, the Highland Park restaurant from Kate Romane. Posted on a sandwich board, it's a reminder of its BYOB status and lack of formality, an invitation to bikers and bankers, from Polish Hill to Point Breeze.
Having started as a catering space and brunch place in 2010, E2 expanded to serve dinner the following year. Since then, it has transitioned from a fledgling eatery to a standard for the city's neighborhood restaurants. Although the food is uneven, the warmth of the place and service shape the experience.
The 28-seat restaurant takes no reservations, so it often draws a line.
Catering remains a love for her. Since last year, Ms. Romane's business has expanded to include 35-seat Churchview Farm dinners on Sundays at Tara Rockacy's farm in Baldwin Borough, as well as Brooklyn Brewery-sponsored events and her own at Carrie Furnace in Rankin. These are held through Big Table: A Kate Romane Production, an offshoot she started this summer.
"This is the first year since the restaurant has opened that I've had the staff that allows me to do events again," she said. "That's where I can really push my creativity."
- Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 6 to 10 p.m. Saturdays; brunch 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays.
- Basics: E2 is a charming neighborhood restaurant that serves farm-inspired small plates and updated red sauce favorites in a cozy dining room that packs a wait for weekend brunch.
- Dishes: OMG starters, beans and greens, grilled romaine, shishito peppers, linguini with clam sauce, meatballs.
- Prices: Dinner starters $9 to $14; entrees $11 to $25; brunch: OMG $5; fancy OMG $6; menu $11 to $13; kids stuff $5.
- Summary: BYOB; $6 corkage per bottle; cash-only brunch; street parking; moderately noisy to loud.
In E2's event space downstairs, she also hosts the monthly Sunday sauce, a multicourse, family style dinner that, at $40 per person, tends to sell out.
The dining room could be in Kinfolk magazine, the lifestyle lookbook for the retro-stylish. On the ground level, French doors open to the sidewalk, and small framed photographs, poems and postcards hang on the walls in threes and fours. Diners sit on rescued church pews or bistro chairs at a mish-mash of tables.
Funky attire and tattoos may be a prerequisite to work here. Dressed in Chuck Taylors or boots and a shirt with a Pirates logo, servers are fluid and attentive.
In the kitchen, you'll find Ms. Romane in her low-slung jeans with keys clipped to a belt loop, an apron over her clothes and a ballcap with the bill pushed sideways.
It's here where she riffs on red-sauce traditions and doubles the vegetables on a menu that changes nightly.
Diners read specials from a chalkboard with a list of cheeses and charcuterie from Crested Duck in Beechview, along with fresh and pickled vegetables. They fall under the category, OMG.
OMGs started as an answer to neighbors' initial cravings at brunch, said Ms. Romane. "Either they were starving or hung over, so we wanted to give diners something to graze on right away."
During dinner, the graze starts with lomo, salami or saucisson de champignon that can be paired with pickled chard, roasted peppers, dilly beans or a selection of cheeses from Pennsylvania Macaroni.
Housemade grilled focaccia is in theory a treat, although how it's prepared can be hit and miss. Most recently, my table scored a basket near-black with char that was futile to try to eat around.
Grilled romaine is sloppy but flavorful, whole leaves wilted and drizzled with a chive vinaigrette.
Shishito peppers arrive on-point, small and sweet, flanked by goat cheese. Ms. Romane mixes up greens for beans and greens according to what's in season, steeped in broth and dressed with parmesan or Churchview eggs and sausage.
Fettuccini with bay scallops is quite white, with a sprinkling of seafood in the bottom of the bowl and the heavenly fragrance of garlic. Be cautious of the handful of cherry tomatoes, boiling balls to the tongue, neither raw nor roasted to collapse.
A hot pepper and garlic spaghetti delivers bold, bitter flavor with dandelion greens, the crunch of toasted walnuts and anchovy that makes the dish especially savory.
If they're on the menu, order meatballs because they're among the best in town, likely because focaccia is the binder. Loose, moist and not too big, they're served with a chunky red sauce.
E2 is the kind of restaurant that's as appropriate for date night as it is for the parents' anniversary dinner, unless you're looking for quiet. The raw space can make for a festive, albeit cacophonous meal.
I would be remiss if I did not note brunch, as it can outshine dinner.
It starts with a short list of doughnuts: warm, ginger-sugared ones are served in a little bag. I love lemon lavender, although there are especially decadent choices like chocolate espresso, pistachio or powdered sugar with berries inside.
Zeppole aren't as pretty, but they can be savory, with black pepper and Parmesan served with a pepperonata sauce that wins over sriracha with Maytag blue any day.
The choices for hash are terrific, too, whether it's a trio of onions, peppers and potatoes with two eggs and toast or more elaborate seasonal hash with zucchini, haricot verts and tomatoes.
Focaccia French toast wears peach mascarpone, while the farmer breakfast of two eggs, potatoes, bacon or sausage and toast serves as the straightforward choice. With yolks so fresh they're near-orange, this is a dish done well.
If only there were days Ms. Romane served brunch for dinner. E2 would be busier than it is already.
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.