Four years after it opened in East Liberty, Spoon still collects accolades for some really lovely ingredients, technique-driven cooking, an ambitious cocktail and wine program as well as elegant service.
Yet every time I bring someone who isn’t a regular, or even visitors from out of town, I hear a variation on: “What’s going on here, with this schizophrenic menu and the dining room?”
East Liberty 15206
- Hours: 5-10 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 5-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 5-9 p.m. Sunday.
- Basics: Spoon offers fine dining hospitality paired with ambitious, seasonal American fare.
- Recommended dishes: Steak tartare, soft shell crab BLT, grilled octopus, rabbit pappardelle, veal two ways, bacon-wrapped cod.
- Prices: Hot and cold appetizers, $8 to $23; entrees $15 to $29; sides $5 to $6; desserts $8 to $9.
- Summary: Valet; credit cards; reservations recommended; tasting menu.
My response is both to concede and to feel protective of the place.
Perhaps it’s because I appreciate how S+P Restaurant Group is shaping Pittsburgh’s dining. The group includes Brian Pekarcik’s and Richard Stern’s BRGR restaurants in East Liberty, Cranberry, PNC Park and soon in Mt. Lebanon, as well as Willow in Ohio Township that’s closed for remodeling. But it’s also because the food at Spoon can be good and sometimes great, and the owners are hands-on and passionate.
While heavy curtains on windows and maroon-upholstered chairs evoke a private club from the 1980s, more stylish and inviting aspects of design show up in the working fireplace, a communal table and terrific original floors from when it was the Bell Atlantic building.
The menu reinforces the restaurant’s split personality. Half the dishes display more than six and up to 10 ingredients through a range of retro to modern touches from coulis to gelee. The rest of the dishes are more rustic and casual.
The something-for-everyone approach makes me wonder, where’s the center? Why haven’t Mr. Pekarcik and his chef de cuisine Dave Anoia put together a tighter menu of sharply focused classics or upped the ante with a full menu of elaborate, high composition plates? They have the skill to carry out either and would likely attract more diners with a more confident menu.
Let’s begin the meal with a few of the more dramatic dishes. The steak tartare ($11) is refined, starting with unusual bone-marrow panna cotta, a classic herb salad, toasted sourdough, roasted shallot purée, a quail egg and sherry vinaigrette, components that periodically change. The gorgonzola souffle ($9) displays an army of ingredients and too much sweetness, from candied walnuts, local honey, stone-fruit salad, frisee and arugula and a white balsamic vinaigrette. This could be dessert.
Among entrees, a beautiful rabbit pappardelle ($22) is a daring dish with its main ingredient, paired with roasted squash, mushrooms, asparagus and onion ragout and the added wow factors of gruyere and sherry.
It baffles me why elegant grilled quail ($28) served with duck sausage would also need a peach barbecue sauce in addition to goat cheese mousse, charred shishito peppers and toasted almonds. (It doesn’t.) Add foie gras to bring it up to a $40 entree.
Traditionalists can order veal two ways ($29), strip loin and sweetbreads served with anchovy salad and red pepper coulis that evokes “The Silver Palate Cookbook” from 1982, a sleeper dish.
The duo of beef — short rib and ribeye — ($32) also falls in the traditional genre, the signature entree served with beyond-steakhouse sides of creamed corn and broccoli gratin, squash, tomatoes and a classic red-wine reduction.
Then there are the straightforward dishes on the menu, such as the truffle tagliatelle ($16) inspired by Mr. Anoia’s recent trip to Italy, a display of confidence with basil, parsley, cracked pepper and olive oil that plays well with luxurious summer truffles from the Piedmont region. Same can be said for the ultra-casual fried soft shell crab BLT ($14) on brioche, which is quite good, with roasted tomato and arugula dressed with basil and a sheen of spicy aioli.
A relatively simple grilled octopus ($12) with potato salad is complemented by sweet celery and crisp, salty bacon and finished with castelvetrano olives and a red-pepper vinaigrette.
The crudo ($12) straddles the line of simplicity, amberjack with roasted eggplant and poached cherry tomatoes with a black olive and red pepper relish, drizzled with lemon olive oil. It’s surprisingly subtle and balanced.
The sommelier who came on last year who is also Spoon’s general manager, John Wabeck has done a tremendous job in polishing the service. Fluid servers make customers feel welcome and cared for from start to finish — a rarity.
With the fine-tune of a chef’s palate, Mr. Wabeck also has assembled a compelling wine list despite the restrictions of the PLCB system. In tandem, he has put together an ambitious cocktail program, which includes the restaurant’s brand of exquisite vermouth in particular and gin, released last month, called Common Decency, named for the song from The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. His housemade booze has been a work in progress since the winter.
Obviously, I like Spoon but I can’t shake this wish: If only it had a clearer voice and vision. Perhaps it would again earn praise from national magazines and local food connoisseurs as a pioneering place in Pittsburgh’s restaurant renaissance.
With so many things going for Spoon, it’s an attainable goal.
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.