A brief rundown of some things that qualify as stunning: The view of Downtown from the Hot Metal Bridge at sunset; the Penguins Stanley Cup run; Mrs. Joe Manganiello.
Carrots, the province of kids’ lunch bags and Bugs Bunny, are not stunning. They’re ubiquitous, and probably the one and only vegetable in the world everyone can agree on.
And yet, when presented in a downright elegant fashion, with a truly unique preparation, the carrots at brunoise by chef Ryan Peters — one of four new members of the second class at Strip District food hall and restaurant incubator Smallman Galley — are simply stunning. The new class made its public debut last week, and an early examination (I tried one menu item from each place) indicates that this group may have at least met, if not surpassed, the high bar set by their predecessors.
Salt-baked carrots, atop a bed of creamy coriander yogurt, rolled in an “everything” spice (think an everything bagel) then topped with ribbons of pickled carrots was a complex mix of taste and texture, not to mention a visual delight. (And I’ll be perfectly honest, I just wanted to see what a $10 plate of carrots looked like — worth every nickel as it turns out.)
A Western Pennsylvania native, Mr. Peters’ restaurant-within-a-restaurant is without a doubt the most ambitious concept in Smallman Galley’s brief history, and he brings some serious chops having previously worked at Pittsburgh’s Salt of the Earth in Garfield before relocating to Key West, Fla., to work at the Ocean Reef Club. He has staged at the world-renowned The French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., and a quote from that restaurant’s luminary chef Thomas Keller is taped on the glass at his station in the building: “When you acknowledge, as you must, that there is no such thing as perfect food, only the idea of it, then the real purpose of striving toward perfection becomes clear: to make people happy, that is what cooking is all about.”
It’s a beautiful sentiment and if that is Mr. Peters’ guiding philosophy, it’ll be very exciting to try some of his other dishes during his 18-month tenure at Smallman, and hopefully for years later in Greater Pittsburgh.
Some other highlights:
• The Pho bone broth from Bahnmilicious is $5 a bowl, but could be consumed by the bucketful. Hoa Le brings the cuisine and recipes of her homeland — she worked in her family’s restaurant in Vietnam before moving to the United States for a stint in the corporate world. The broth is like the intersection of savory soup and herbal tea with the flavors from a grass-fed beef bone colliding with cinnamon, coriander, ginger to downright addictive affect.
• The Detroit Red Top Pie ($14) at Iron Born is a Motor City-inspired masterpiece. The crispy cheesy crust edges and the pepperoni “cups” and red sauce atop the brick and parmesan cheese on the body of the rectangular, six-cut, deep dish pie flouts convention and is an absolute revelation. Pittsburgh native Pete Tolman has impeccable kitchen credentials having worked at top Chicago restaurant Alinea, and the Michelin-starred Lautrec at Nemacolin Woodlands in Fayette County. Most recently he was the youngest executive chef in Giant Eagle’s Market District system.
• Jesse Barlass was the sous chef at one of Smallman Galley’s inaugural restaurants, Carota Cafe. Now as the top man at Colonia, he showcases the cuisines of Latin America, like the Casamiento “wedding” bowl ($12), with Salvadorian rice, beans, plantains and vegetables.
• Finally, the bar under the direction of Tim Garso includes a murderer’s row lineup of bartenders including Heather Kubas, Matt Zelinsky, Hannah Morris and Cat “Shot Out Of A” Cannon. Ariel Scalise, of the dearly departed Tender Bar + Kitchen will join the fold later this summer. The selection of local beers is as deep as ever, as is the creativity of the cocktails, the current menu of which is inspired by the childhood baseball classic, “The Sandlot.”
Smallman Galley: 54 21st St., Strip District; 412-281-0949; www.smallmangalley.org
Dan Gigler: email@example.com; Twitter @gigs2312