Pittsburgh is now on the clock.
That phrase is usually associated with the NFL Draft, but we aren’t even thinking about that right now, because the Steelers are going to draft with the 32nd pick overall — the one reserved for the Super Bowl champions — after they take it to the Patriots, who so richly deserve it, and James Harrison wipes that smug look off Tom Brady’s cheating face. And who cares what Mike Tomlin called them on Antonio Brown’s Facebook video? I call them a lot worse every time their coach’s ugly mug is on TV. In two weeks, Big Ben and the boys will hold that Lombar — wait, what were we talking about?
Oh, right — Pittsburgh, you’re on the clock. In this instance the reference is to checking out the inaugural class at the Smallman Galley before their run is up at the end of May.
To refresh, Smallman Galley is the restaurant incubator/food hall in the Strip District started by Tyler Benson, Ben Mantica, and Michael and Nicholas Troiani. Opened in December 2015, the idea is to give four aspiring restaurateurs a space to ply their trade and hone their chops for 18 months, so that they might move on to a permanent spot when their residence is over.
Candidate interviews are complete for the next group, with announcements expected sometime in March. The current class passed the one-year mark in the space last month, and they will set quite a standard for any that follow.
Some highlights over a few recent visits:
A Saturday night (with the Penguins on the bar TV) was enhanced by the “burger of the moment” at Stephen Eldridge’s Provision PGH. The Bleu Burger ($14) provided an amply juicy beef patty with a sweet and tangy onion jam, cheddar and a creamy smoked bleu cheese that rounded the typical sharpness.
On a chilly Sunday, the shakshuka ($13) at Jessica Lewis’ Carota Café was a nice antidote to the weather. This Middle Eastern dish of poached eggs in a tomato and vegetable ragout, served with crispy pita, was warming without being overly spicy and filling without requiring a nap afterward.
For a weekday lunch, Jacqueline Wardle’s Josephine’s Toast — yes, a toast-centered spot that sounds like a “Portlandia” skit — delivered an absolutely killer grilled cheese ($11). With a local Amish cheddar cheese, crisp apple slices, arugula, mustard, hummus and bacon for an extra $2, it was worth every penny and came with a side of silky cauliflower and parsnip soup, beautifully garnished with pomegranate.
At Rafael Vencio’s Aubergine Bistro, a bed of house-made pasta topped with a layer of chickpeas in a light tomato sauce ($15), with two gorgeous thick cuts of pork belly ($4 upcharge) with a dusting of shredded Beemster cheese, called to mind a Roman bowl of pasta e ceci and was a nice array of flavor and texture.
Bartender Cat Cannon has an appropriate surname, because it seems as if at times she’s been fired out of one. A motor-mouthed ball of energy, she’ll keep you laughing while making some mean cocktails. There are 20 beers on tap, all from greater Pittsburgh or Pennsylvania. It might also be the only bar in town where you’ll hear yacht rock, stoner metal and trap music all in the same sitting.
A big part of the fun of a trip to Smallman Galley is to simply take it all in. The very raw industrial-looking space is genuinely exciting to enter during a busy time, with the cacophony of clanging pans and sizzling grills from four separate kitchens all running at the same time, and the controlled freneticism with which staff hustles to prepare meals and get dishes out. The theater of open kitchens can mesmerize, and this kind of takes that to a higher level.
It's increasingly rare to say that being at a place makes one “feel like they’re in another city,” because Pittsburgh has so much cool stuff anymore, but in this case it's the truth. Until it came about there was nothing quite like Smallman Galley here before, and here’s to hoping it maintains its mission of developing the city’s dining talent for years to come.
Smallman Galley: 54 21st St., Strip District; 412-281-0949; http://www.smallmangalley.org.
Dan Gigler: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter @gigs412