Munch goes to Livermore

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There is a certain kind of friend every enthusiastic eater should have.

This is the kind of friend that is not disgusted by your habit of piling stinky anchovies and hot sauce onto cheese pizza, the kind of friend who will accompany you crying from a hard day at work for some therapeutic late night sushi, the kind of friend who you can rely on to drop everything for the chance of a delicious meal.

This is the kind of friend who understands how talking about college football can lead to sudden cravings for Peking duck, and will happily split one with you.

For me, that friend was Allison. And sadly, our regular food journeys -- which included late-night Bo Ssam (Korean pork shoulder), plenty of frantic dinner parties and lots of in-depth discussions about noodles and Schezuan -- are soon coming to an end.

And there was no better place to commemorate our adventures than Livermore, the equally intimate but more casual sibling of Bar Marco in the Strip District.

("Well, we're soul mates," she said at the start of the meal, the most reasonable explanation for why we both wanted the exact same combination of small plates from the menu.)

That's because Livermore is the kind of restaurant that feels like it could be located in so many other places.

A well-traveled friend said it reminded her of cafes in Buenos Aires.

Other diners have compared it to eateries in Amsterdam. The bartender who served us that day said they're going for a little French and Italian.

For me, it unleashed a flood of tasty memories of bar-cafes in Spain, where for a summer I sometimes subsisted on the local cider, tiny sandwiches and olives (OK, and liters of German beer from Aldi).

Instead, it's in a corner space on the edge of East Liberty that formerly housed the Waffle Shop.

Wrapped in windows, you're treated to a panoramic view of the neighborhood and can soak up every photon of sunlight that escapes the clouds on a typically dreary Pittsburgh day. I know little about interior decor, but I can tell you it's beautiful -- a gorgeous, blond wood bar dominates the space, backed by asymmetrical shelves.

In one corner, behind a glass case displaying all sorts of tasty treats, there's a Victorian-era telephone.

The food, too, is somewhat reflective of the aesthetic: It's simple and exquisite, with a focus on quality elements.

This was exactly the meal I often crave: restrained portion sizes, quality ingredients, unfussiness and minimal assembly.

The focus here is on the cocktails, but given that it was a workday afternoon, we opted, instead, for nonalcoholic juices. (Sadly, bygone is the era where the two-martini work lunch was practically newsroom policy.)

The aloe zinger ($4) was an exhilaratingly sour drink of lemons, ginger and gelatinous pieces of aloe, and definitely woke me up from my mid-afternoon haze.

Brady, our third dining companion, ordered the green machine ($6.50) -- a bizarrely delicious puree of apple, grape, spinach and lemon.

The most difficult part about the menu is that everything is priced modestly enough that if you're in for lunch, you have to decide what you won't eat.

Did we want the bresaola (cured beef) salad ($7) or the sandwich of the day ($5)?

Why not both?

And why not the toast topped with anchovies ($4), bacon-wrapped dates ($7) and a trio of oysters ($2 each)?

The meal was a delicious adventure, nearly from start to end. The oysters -- a variety from Virginia -- were sweet and mildly flavored, served alongside a mignonette sauce (which, thanks Internet, Munch now knows is a mixture of vinegar and shallots).

The toast was dense and soft with a thin spread of tomato sauce (reminiscent of pan con tomate, a staple of tapas bars in Spain) with three thin slices of anchovies sitting on top in fishy perfection.

The salad (served on this day with copa, since they were out of bresaola) was beautiful, with a portion of lovely lettuce, salty kalamata olives, soft-boiled eggs and just enough grassy parsley to remind you of its existence.

And the sandwich, too, was divine served on crunchy house-made focaccia with salami and a soft cheese called "Hudson Red," also known as the most hipster baby name of all time.

The bacon-wrapped dates were the least favorite dish of the bunch among our trio, but I still found myself using my finger to get the last bits of tomato-saffron sauce, enriched with rendered bacon fat, at the bottom of the small bowl.

Perhaps it was our audible groans or our spirited debate over the menu or (as Munch likes to think) all the great jokes we told, but as it turns out, we didn't even have to forgo the pickled vegetables (which we cut from our order).

Instead, rewarding our enthusiasm, the bartender brought us over a colorful variety -- a cauliflower, a carrot or parsnip (even he didn't know, but he reassured us it was not a human finger) and a bright red radish.

And then came, too, an extra oyster for Allison, who he had inexplicably christened "Oyster Girl."

It's true that Livermore could double for a cafe in Spain or France or maybe even Livermore, Calif. (which, admittedly, I've only seen from the freeway).

But perhaps someday, the opposite will be true.

Instead, a diner will stroll into a street side cafe in Barcelona, eye a handsome cured ham hanging from the rafters and a glass case full of delicious cheeses and pickled things, glance at the menu, reflect on the amazing potential of simple dishes with extraordinary ingredients and say, "Wow, this is exactly like East Liberty!"

Livermore is at 124 S. Highland Ave., East Liberty; 412-361-0600.

 


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