On the Table: Bistro 19's attentive staff offsets missteps
November 14, 2013 12:00 AM
Pork tenderloin at Bistro 19.
Executive chef Jessica Gibson Bauer.
By Melissa McCart / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"Why do we keep seeing the same chefs?" asked Charlotte Druckman, author of "Skirt Steak: Women Chefs on Standing the Heat and Staying in the Kitchen" (Chronicle Books, 2012).
Her question is highlighted on the blog eater.com, following this week's media flurry after Time magazine released "The Gods of Food" issue that lists 13 male chefs, each with a family tree that shows his realm of influence.
Eater's Hillary Dixler responded to the list by interviewing the Time section editor, Howard Chua-Eoan, about why no women made the national list.
"There was no attempt to exclude women," he said without irony. "We just went with the basic realities of what was going on and who was being talked about."
If the focus had been just on Pittsburgh, the story would be different.
There are many women chefs running noteworthy restaurants here, perhaps because the city has been less competitive in the national realm. Lower real estate prices make opening a restaurant a more affordable venture than it is in Chicago or San Francisco. And the dining public isn't starry-eyed over modernist cuisine, fine dining or out-there dishes from chefs who feed customers as well as their egos.
But my inner optimist hopes that Pittsburgh is more enlightened when it comes to women, food and power.
711 Washington Road Mt. Lebanon 412-306-1919 bistro19.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; Sunday brunch 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., dinner 4 to 9 p.m.
Basics: Bistro 19 is a strong neighborhood restaurant with a traditional menu and smooth service.
Summary: Street or garage parking, handicapped accessible, credit cards.
Noise level: Moderate to loud.
We've got Sonja Finn, chef-owner of Dinette in East Liberty, semi-finalist for the James Beard "Rising Star Chef of the Year" in 2009 and 2010. There's chef-owner Kate Romane of E2 in Highland Park. There's Jennifer Gerasole, executive chef for years of the family-owned Girasole in Shadyside. Danielle Cain is executive chef of Soba, also in Shadyside. Gloria Fortunato runs the kitchen at the well-regarded Wild Rosemary Bistro in Upper St. Clair. And Jamilka Borges moved from sous chef at Legume in Oakland to head chef at Bar Marco in the Strip, which has just completed an ambitious tasting menu wine room, a cozy 10-seat space with two seatings a night.
There's also Jessica Gibson Bauer, 32, who has run the kitchen at Bistro 19 in Mt. Lebanon for seven years. It is owned by Richard Fuchs and managing partner Bea DeFrancis.. The restaurant also was designed by a woman -- Teresa Bucco, an adjunct assistant professor at the Carnegie Mellon University School of Architecture -- which is fairly uncommon.
When it comes to women in the restaurant industry, Bistro 19 is a trifecta.
Strong service and a handsome dining room draw crowds to Bistro 19, particularly on weekends when waits can be longer than an hour. And while the kitchen turns out some fine dishes, edits in presentation would raise the profile of this neighborhood restaurant as well as the one in the works.
Ms. Bauer's menu strikes a chord for those who prefer hearty entrees to small plates. And she uses interesting ingredients that are delicious in their own right, but don't always come together with the other components on the plate.
Take the Jameson Farm meatballs ($12) that arrive slicked white with feta cream. The meatballs taste fine but look anemic, and with too many greens that hadn't been dressed, the dish lacks harmony. The fried farro is delicious, though, says a diner as he fishes around the plate for every last grain.
Pork belly tacos ($11) are a respectable starter, with crunchy pork bits seasoned with hoisin and garnished with ribbons of pickled carrots. Flavorful, but crumbly tortillas make them hard to hold, half the fun of tacos.
Among entrees, sausage bucatini pasta ($17) lacks balance, with too much pasta and too little of the rest: sausage, kale, sun-dried tomatoes and white beans in a white wine sauce. Why not swap the bucatini with something like orecchiette that complements the ingredients? It would transform this from a plate of white into something more lively.
The duck breast ($22) also disappoints. Although the portion is impressive, the skin isn't crisp when it arrives to the table, perhaps because it's drowning in a cider glaze. The parsnip puree is well seasoned, but unfortunately served in a center-plate smear. And while they're flavorful with plenty of bacon, braised Brussels sprouts are gray. Still, duck medallions taste terrific. It's the presentation that needs work.
The sea bass ($31) is the signature dish, the one that Ms. DeFrancis said is the reason she hired Ms. Bauer back when she was sous chef at The Carlton, Downtown. What makes it work is a juxtaposition of flavor and textures. A buttery fish arrives with a horseradish crust drizzled with a rice wine marinade. Ginger and spice in Napa slaw charges the dish. Macadamia basmati is perhaps unnecessary but flavorful nonetheless.
Diners also praise the pork tenderloin ($21) for good reason. The cut is delicious, seasoned with a smoky rub, served with decadent chive-whipped potatoes and grilled squash.
Terrific service offsets slips. It's a pleasure to have a room full of servers who know the blade of a knife faces the plate and who does not forget to clear from the left. And bartender Tanya Bennett handled a crushing weekend bar crowd with grace, as she makes a fine old-fashioned ($12) and a bees' knees ($12) with lemon and lavender. She's also proficient in wine pairings from a list that leans toward the New World and could use some updating.
Let's hope that Ms. Bauer and Ms. DeFrancis will be able to carry over their quality service to a new joint venture, Altius Modern Bistro, on Mount Washington. They plan to open the restaurant in mid-March at 1230 Grandview Ave., formerly the site of Georgetowne Inn.
Expect "higher hospitality, higher food quality," said Ms. DeFrancis, in comparison of what was served at the Georgetowne. Also expect a more stylish space than the stalwarts of the neighborhood.
As far as Bistro 19, there are many reasons to go to the Mt. Lebanon spot, even with a conservative menu and plating problems. With some adjustments, the restaurant and its Mount Washington sibling can rise to noteworthy status, a reminder that in Pittsburgh, women chefs and restaurateurs can make a mark.
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