The Cultural District is Ground Zero for Downtown Pittsburgh’s dining revival, and that turn of fortune has bled into Market Square as well. And while I appreciate the face-lift, I also appreciate the stubborn stretches of city block that manage to retain their “character,” such as it is, in the face of all that newfangled city-folk investment.
Upper Sixth Street is such a block — for how long, I’m not sure. Every year, a Six Penn or an Olive or Twist or a Butcher and the Rye creeps a little closer to the Allegheny River, and while I can’t dispute the favorable results, I’ve also had plenty of favorable times at Salonika’s dining room, Indian Spices, Cafe Milano and the like. Sometimes you want a selection of 400 bourbons, and other times you just want a nice warm slice of spanakopita and a Miller Lite, should the mood strike. (You’d be surprised how often this mood strikes.)
For now, small ethnic places survive here, and the new and fancy places have yet to fully mark their territory. So into this 100-yard culinary no-man’s-land comes Alihan’s Mediterranean Cuisine, hoping to straddle the line between the New Pittsburgh restaurants and its Old World cafeterias. It’s in the rehabbed storefront where Lemon Grass Cafe (which closed in February and has been given new life in the South Side, now known as Apsara) used to be, taking up residence next-door to the block’s longtime Mediterranean hideaway, Christo’s.
The appetizers here are conventional among the city’s Greek and Lebanese spots — stuffed grape leaves, hummus, tart laban yogurt, tabbouleh. A beet salad ($6), which had conjured sweet autumn beets in my head, was rather less conventional, a plate of sliced pickled beets atop a bed of lemoned mashed potatoes, potted in a nest of orange slices. In all my years of having eaten my grandmother’s Lebanese food, I don’t recall having seen such a presentation, but then, maybe it’s a Syrian thing. After World War I, a lot of the recipes got mixed up, I’m told.
There’s a small Italian section on the menu, with eggplant parmesan and a few ravioli dishes. I tried the lobster ravioli and salmon filet ($16) — a nice dish, sweet and savory, although a bit heavy on the cream sauce.
If Alihan’s is going to make an impression on Downtown diners, that impression will probably come by way of the Turkish kebabs and the seafood; a few of the catches are fully pan-fried, head and tail and everything, and if nothing else, that makes for a nice conversation starter. When I last visited for lunch, I didn’t have time for the kunefe ($8), a phyllo and mozzarella treat, soaked in butter and a honey syrup — It’s baked from scratch and takes 20 minutes or so to arrive. I’m told it’s worth the wait, but the baklava was a sweet fallback plan.
I’m encouraged when business owners double-down on a neighborhood — it means they see potential, and in optimal circumstances it also means they know how to run a business, which isn’t always the case in the restaurant industry. Alihan Hanoglu, the young owner of Alihan’s, has also operated Giovanni’s Pizza and Pasta for eight years, just a few paces away from his new venture. He saw an opportunity across the street, and he jumped at it after the Lemon Grass Cafe departed the neighborhood.
The 50-seat BYOB dining room will not win any design awards, but it’s a far sight nicer than Lemon Grass was, and a far sight pricier, too. People will pay those prices on lower Sixth. Will they do it 100 paces to the north? The departed Melange tried to crack this code, too — “world” food, shiny new digs, higher prices — but it never found its footing and closed this year. Baseball-fueled summer crowds were promising at Alihan’s, but sometimes in the restaurant game, a half-block makes all the difference.
Alihan’s, 124 Sixth St., Downtown; 412-888-0629 or www.alihanscuisine.com. Open seven days, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.
Bill Toland: email@example.com or 412-263-2625; Twitter: @btoland_pg