Having visited an absurd number of sports bars in my time, Munch has eaten a doubly absurd portion of deep-fried foodstuffs over the years. Deep-fried potatoes, deep-fried green beans. Fried Brussels sprouts and cauliflower and onion rings. Jalapeno poppers and mozzarella sticks. Fried zucchini? Fried roast beef sandwich? Fried Snickers bar? Yes. Yes. And, shamefully, yes.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the sports bars would eventually run out of things to deep fry. Now, Munch realizes that this is not true -- have you seen a fried rutabaga yet? -- but there was a story in The New York Times a few weeks ago about sports bars trying to class-up their images with anchovy hamburgers and expensive meatloaf plates. (That explains the sudden foie gras shortage in Blawnox, I guess.)
Well darn it, if it's in The New York Times, you just know it's gonna set off a cascade of trend stories at newspapers across the country. Like, remember the time Jennifer 8 Lee wrote that preposterous story about the discovery of the "man date?" And how she'd just conjured the term "man date," Genesis-like, via the sheer creative force of her literary imagination, when in fact she hadn't? Before you knew it, everyone was writing revelatory feature stories about how men sometimes go to movies or grab a steak together. As the great Charlie Sheen once said, Duh.
But this isn't about Munch's wholly irrational anger toward Jennifer 8 Lee. It's about sports bars cooking up sophisticated grub, and it's about a fine new sports bar called Level 20 Lounge in Bethel Park. There is no disguising that this is most definitely a sports bar, what with all of the customary sports bar trappings -- seven HD big-screens, billiard table in the back room, Rocky Bleier jersey hanging on the wall, and a decorative shark head posted above the bar, lest you be tempted to take the place at all seriously.
But in the kitchen, they're quite serious, and this is quite more than a sports bar. It has an executive chef, for instance (Carl Lashley, formerly of Baum Vivant, then Cafe Zao, Downtown). How many sports bars have an executive chef? Heck, how many sports bars do you know with a chef of any kind, executive or otherwise?
The menu, even in the bar's opening weeks, has an ambition that is evident: The XL-sized shrimp cocktail ($8.95) was top-notch, for a homey sports bar or even a stuffy oyster bar. A cup of tomato bisque soup ($3.95) was a silky, sweet opening number, smelling lightly of garlic (but never quite tasting of it).
It's not often you seek duck confit (cured duck leg poached in its fat) on the menu at a sports bar, but there it is, resting on top of one of the kitchen's several flatbread offerings ($7.95). The duck, draped in cheese, is luscious, although just a bit overwhelmed by a spread of apple butter, so sweet that it threatens to distract from the duck's meaty richness.
But now Munch has resorted to picking minor nits, because frankly there is nothing major to pick at when it comes to the food at Level 20. The bar has been in business for just three weeks; how exciting it must be for the owners during these shiny, airy opening months, when the walls still smell of fresh paint, before the floors are sticky with beer and the urinals stop flushing correctly.
Speaking of the building, owners Colin Amos and Tracy Neff bought the two-story beige and brown stucco structure in 2009 from the Pittsburgh Youth Ballet. Before that, in the 1980s, it was a restaurant and banquet hall called Mickey's Place. And if you know what it was before Mickey's, you have a better memory than Munch does.
Mr. Amos has been in Pittsburgh for years, but is originally from England. You wouldn't know that from the decor of the bar, or even the beer selection (eight standard beers on tap), but if you happen to stop by on April 29 -- the day of the British Royal Wedding -- expect to see some Union Jacks, and be prepared for a lecture from Colin on the extreme, subversive wealth of the royal family.
Say, it occurs to Munch that if they have octuplets right off the bat, they could make a TV show called "Will and Kate Plus Eight." Get on that, TLC.
Level 20 Lounge is at 1033 Paxton Drive, Bethel Park; 412-595-7953 or level20lounge.com. Open Tuesdays through Sundays. Reach Munch at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook.