In miles, the distance from Downtown to Wild Rosemary Bistro is relatively short, but the drive down Bower Hill Road becomes an escape into the country, an opportunity to leave city lights and hassles behind.
There's nothing secret about this secluded, intimate restaurant. Wild Rosemary has been feted and praised by many -- so many, in fact, you still need to make a reservation weeks in advance to secure a spot in the 28-seat dining room. Despite all the buzz, as the petite building tucked against a hill comes into view, it always feels like a splendid discovery.
3 stars = Excellent
2 stars = Very good
2 1/2 stars = Very good+
2 1/2 stars = Very good+
1469 Bower Hill Road
Upper St. Clair
Hours: Tuesdays through Saturdays, 5-10 p.m.
Basics: Seasonally driven New American cuisine; intimate dining room with lots of charm; casual service with a personal feel.
Recommended dishes: Pork shank with Bistro Q sauce; pan-roasted halibut with red rice and vegetable confit; mahi-mahi with roasted nectarine and red onion salsa and Himalayan rice; seared scallops with artichoke pesto, asparagus, tomato, broth, and spaghetti No. 5; New York-style cheesecake and peaches and cream tart.p>
Prices: Entrees (first course included) $27-$38; desserts $7.
Summary: Wheelchair accessible; park in lot; credit cards accepted; make reservations two weeks in advance for prime times; BYOB, corkage $2 per stem.
Noise level: Medium loud to very loud.
Much of Wild Rosemary's farmhouse-kitchen feel comes from its design. Using old, unused furniture, packing paper and mismatched silverware, front-of-the-house manager, part owner and chief designer Cathleen Enders created a room with rustic charm so ideal that it would take Martha Stewart, a team of helpers and a $50,000 budget to imitate. Light bulbs wrapped in brown packing paper and wire are glowing lanterns; a blue-green breakfront filled with mismatched pitchers makes a dramatic statement at the entrance. There are large visuals that draw the eye -- a red-tiled fireplace, its mantel covered in vases full of dried flowers -- and tiny details worth a second look -- miniature, blue-glass salt and pepper shakers.
The effect is especially impressive given the constraints. The dining room is tiny and very narrow, so if a few parties are loud, the noise can approach deafening. Service is casual, so you may need to ask for more water, but it's also extremely pleasant. Everyone who works at the restaurant seems totally invested in making the experience positive for every guest.
Like the setting, the menu, even the shape of the meal itself, is full of personality. There are no appetizers, salads or sides to choose, just a list of about eight seasonal options that change every two weeks. Just minutes after you order, the family-style first course arrives. It might be slices of goat cheese and sun-dried tomato tart sandwiched between layers of crunchy cornmeal crust, drizzled with thick balsamic vinegar and finished with a few green and black olives. On another evening we oohed and aahed with delight at a platter heaped with flat bread crackers, chunks of roasted pear and a mound of sweet mascarpone cheese drizzled with the roasting juices.
These aren't typical restaurant appetizers, but rather something one might imagine being served at a wonderful dinner party.
A pattern started with the first courses continues with the entrees. The bare bones of the main dishes aren't terribly unusual: Roast chicken, scallops over pasta, pan-roasted filets of firmer fish, lamb or veal chops. It's the details, the attention to flavor and the creative touches that make part owner Gloria Fortunato's food so appealing. She makes use of seasonal ingredients, many of them sourced from her neighbors at Bednar's farm. But even more importantly, the dishes themselves are suitable for the season, lighter with cleaner, brighter flavors than fall or winter dishes.
Large scallops with a golden-brown sear sit atop a pile of skinny spaghetti made soupy with a little bit of broth and garnished with thin slices of asparagus, fresh tomato and artichoke hearts ($33).
Grilling, then braising, then grilling a pork shank gave it an incredible texture, fork-tender, with crispy edges ($35). It was completed by a generous but not overwhelming glaze of Bistro Q sauce. One imagines that Fortunato must taste this sauce over and over until she has added just the right amount of vinegar to balance out the sweetness of caramelized shallots, brown sugar and honey and the umami flavor of tomato paste.
A salad of 10 beans was tossed with more of the scrumptious sauce. Altogether, this was the restaurant version of Fourth of July picnic food.
Fortunato incorporates fruit beautifully, balancing its sweetness with vinegars and assertive seasoning. Fish with fruit salsas often come off a little like a culinary school practical exam, but mahi-mahi served with a chunky mix of roasted nectarine and red onion was a rare exception ($33). The rustic presentation was well-suited to the bright, complementary flavors. Himalayan red rice was an interesting accompaniment, but perhaps not the perfect choice for this dish. It was delicious with pan-roasted halibut sampled on an earlier visit, but here the nuttiness didn't quite complement the other, sweeter flavors.
Slices of pork tenderloin, pink in the middle, come with roasted grapes and are reduction-finished with fino sherry ($30). The roasted grapes were delicious, each bite a burst of mellow sweetness that not only brought out the flavor in the pork but also echoed the grapey sweetness of the fortified wine. The only odd element of the dish was a chevre bouchee, a disk of fresh goat cheese coated in bread crumbs that was a little too rich and creamy for the other, more delicate flavors.
The cheese was a happier addition to the salad that accompanies each entree. Though it's described sometimes as arugula and sometimes as rocket, both names refer to a generous pile of peppery wild arugula from Linda Scanlon at Paragon Monteverde, with thin slices of ripe tomato, dressed in a light, slightly sweet vinaigrette. Generally it's served on the same plate as the entrees, which had the unfortunate effect of slightly wilting some of the greens, though it is in keeping with the casual service style of the restaurant.
Diners at Wild Rosemary don't seem eager to relinquish their seats. After all, in such a pleasant space, where meals are more focused on quality than overwhelming quantity, dessert and coffee are more often appealing options.
Coffee, beans from La Prima, is made in large press pots, a great choice for restaurants and one I hope will become ubiquitous. Serving the press pots with small hourglass timers would ensure that the brewed coffee delivered on the potential quality of the beans and the brewing method.
Lynne Bielewicz, the third partner in the restaurant, also is the baker. So, it's no surprise that desserts aren't considered a throwaway option. The dessert list seems to change at least as often as the entrees. In the late spring it consisted mostly of American classics and creative fruit concoctions. A piece of carrot cake ($7) got top marks for cute presentation (it was cut into a round, the sides covered in chopped nuts, cream cheese frosting piped on top), but the sweetness of the cake competed with the sweetness of the cream cheese frosting. New York-style cheesecake, on the other hand, had a clever presentation (the top half of the cake was chocolate, the bottom half plain) matched by its taste, equal parts tart and sweet.
But the winning dessert had to be the peaches and cream tart ($7), an individually sized tart with a chewy crust that tasted like a cross between a granola bar and a crispy oatmeal cookie, filled with sweet custard and garnished with a layer of peach slices preserved in syrup.
Looking around the dining room at the close of my last visit, I recognized the look on other diners' faces, an almost dazed contentment, because I felt the same way. This restaurant is generous with its pleasures and it delivers on its promises. At Wild Rosemary, good things indeed will come to you.