Verde Kitchen menu is a map of ringers and zingers

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The tyranny of the margarita is a benign dictatorship, writes Eric Felten in "How's Your Drink? Cocktails, Culture and the Art of Drinking Well."

"In the U.S., it's the tequila drink of first and last resort."

A salted rim, a hint of sweet, a sip of tart and a smooth finish mark the version of the classic at Verde in Garfield. But staff encourages diners to try more unusual cocktails, which can be a challenge.


Verde Kitchen + Cantina

Food:


1 1/2 stars = Satisfactory+
Ratings explained


Service:


2 stars = Recommended
Ratings explained


Atmosphere:


2 1/2 stars = Recommended+
Ratings explained


Overall:


2 stars = Recommended
Ratings explained


5491 Penn Ave.
Garfield
412-404-8487

  • Hours:

    Dinner: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; Lunch: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday-Friday; Brunch: 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.

  • Basics:

    Verde is a terrific tequila bar with dressed-up Mexican food, some of which is quite good.

  • Prices:

    Five-course tasting menu $35, eight-course $55, five-tequila pairing $20, salsas $1-$9, appetizers $8-$12, tacos $14-$22, entrees $18-$29, sides $3-$5.

  • Dishes:

    Tasting menu, salsas, papas ahumadas, al pastor tacos, pollo tacos, tamales de pato, refritos.

  • Summary:

    Handicapped accessible, street parking, credit cards, outdoor dining.

  • Noise level:

    Moderate.


"People are biased against tequila and mezcal," said Nathan Lutchansky, bar manager of Verde and sibling Tender Bar + Kitchen in Lawrenceville. Though both the tequilas and mezcals at Verde are made with 100-percent agave, mezcal lends a smokier flavor that comes from a more traditional distillation. "We want to show these are versatile spirits," he said.

Behind the bar at Verde, 200 tequila bottles beckon like jewels. A knowledgeable staff helps diners learn what's what. Strong beverage service has been a highlight since the restaurant opened in 2011.

These days, a new chef, amended hours and a lunch debut on Oct. 16 show signs the restaurant is open to change. Yet for now, the menu is a map of ringers and zingers with the most interesting dishes not even listed on it, as they're part of the tasting menu that changes each night.

Head chef David Bulman was hired by owner Jeff Catalina about three months ago, having recently returned from a year-stint at The French Laundry in Napa Valley, Calif. He also worked at Bite Bistro, the Bellevue restaurant that closed in August. But for most of his career he worked under Douglass Dick, head chef at Bona Terra in Sharpsburg that closed after nine years in 2012. Mr. Bulman's fine dining experience is shaping the menu, but sometimes his efforts are lost in translation.

Perhaps it's the tacos. Tacos can be as tyrannical as margaritas because they bring with them an expectation of authenticity and the casualness of street food, a messy genre that gives diners the leeway to spill something on their shirts.

"We are in a state of intense taco consciousness," New York Times critic Pete Wells wrote last week in a review, citing tacos from traditional to Tex-Mex, Taiwan to Tokyo. Tacos are becoming a food-truck and restaurant staple, whether or not the menu nods to Mexico.

Mr. Bulman acknowledges his shift in priorities from fine dining to this more popular fare. "With my background, I thought I'd be expanding the entrees," he said, "but it turns out more people order tacos and I'm enjoying that."

But those on the a la carte menu need some tweaking. For now, calabaza tacos ($13) taste like pumpkin pie in a tortilla, not really a plus no matter how local the squash or how piquant the pepita slaw. An order of pork in the pastor tacos ($15) had the texture of crispy bits layered with pineapple, red onion and lime. But dry, room-temperature pork tastes like burnt sand, no matter the condiments. And fishy mahi-mahi announced its arrival on the pescado tacos ($16), more pungent than fragrant and the least popular of a night's dishes.

My friends thought the fish was a fluke, but the coctel de camarones appetizer ($12) was also afflicted, served like a Victorian shrimp cocktail from the '50s, where shrimp spiraled around a demi-bowl of sauce. I craved a lustier presentation in which smaller shrimp swim in a sea of roasted tomatoes and jalapeno peppers, cucumber, celery and cilantro.

The menu could use some big, brawny meats, such as carnitas or lengua (tongue) tacos, both of which have made an appearance when Mr. Bulman first arrived and will return soon, he said.

For the time being, diners are better served by the smoked fingerling appetizer, the papas ahumadas ($8) with a chipotle vinaigrette and an egg garnish -- the beginnings of a Mexican breakfast. Fried brussels sprouts ($11) are a delight, caramelized and dressed with crushed almonds and queso fresco. Mr. Bulman makes an interesting choice by swapping brisket for duck confit in the tamales de pato ($18) -- steamed in corn husks and served with roasted carrots, apple salsa and a cider reduction. What makes sense here is that the masa isn't made with lard as is traditional, but the duck fat from the confit complements it.

And of course, there are salsas, a counterbalance snack for a couple of rounds of tequila. The smoked chipotle salsa is probably the hottest, made with roasted peppers from Conover Farm.

The thing is, if a diner starts a meal with chips and salsa, then he less likely will order a tasting menu. This is unfortunate, since it ends up a better value at $35 for five courses and $55 for eight courses. On the tasting menus, a liberal use of seasonal vegetables and bold seasonings make for a more compelling experience and a better display of Mr. Bulman's skill.

I went vegetarian for an evening when I ordered the tasting menu and was seduced by roasted baby carrots, the base for a terrific salad course, laced with cumin-infused honey, granola and pear salsa. Who would have thought carrots could be so memorable? A watermelon, cilantro, and red onion dice was made with an heirloom called 'Moon & Stars,' a sweet varietal with a green and yellow mottled rind reintroduced in the U.S. in the '80s. And five-pepper tacos were worthy of dreams, a medley of roasted bells, poblano, chipotle and habanero with a ghost chile salsa and queso fresco.

Every tasting menu is different, even for the regulars the chef keeps track of. "I don't repeat a single dish," he said. "I want to show diners the evolution of my cooking. And I want it to be special."

It can be, when diners set aside cravings for the authenticity or street food that comes with the taco-and-margarita combo. At Verde, the tasting menu is much more interesting -- and satiating -- than its a la carte fare.

restaurantreviews

Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart. First Published October 9, 2013 8:00 PM


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