Dining Review: Tiny La Casa offers authentic Tapas

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It was a long time coming, but the tapas dining experience is now exploding in Pittsburgh. The latest addition to the growing list of restaurants serving genuine tapas is La Casa, the younger sibling of Casablanca Bistro, Downtown.

Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette
Omar Mediouni, left, owner and executive chef of La Casa, with bartender Ron Smith and sous-chef David Scalia at the Shadyside restaurant's bar.
Click photo for larger image.

La Casa

5884 Ellsworth Ave.


Hours: Sundays-Fridays 4:30 p.m. to closing; Saturdays, 11:30 a.m. to closing.

Basics: The ground floor of a house with what might be the smallest restaurant kitchen in town, serving traditional Spanish tapas, a few full-sized entrees and a killer flan dessert. To avoid the noise and claustrophobia in the dining room, ask for a table in the garden. Service is casual and friendly.

Prices: Tapas, $3-$11; entrees, $18-$21; desserts, $6-$7; wines: $6.50-$10 for a 6-ounce pour.

Summary: Smoking in the garden; accessible; major credit cards accepted. Free parking in lot across the street after 5 p.m.

Omar Mediouni, the chef-owner of both establishments, is not new to Pittsburgh. Mediouni began his local gigs in the kitchen of Dish on the South Side and then moved to Le Perroquet in Shadyside. He opened Casablanca Bistro in 2003. His food roots are divided among France, Morocco and Spain -- so it is not surprising that he wanted to add a Spanish component to his Moroccan-French bistro.

La Casa is indeed a casa, a tiny house on Ellsworth Avenue in the heart of Shadyside's antiques shopping district. Formerly Bellini Restaurant and later Pamplona, the little casa has been totally remodeled into a modern and colorful dining room and bar. Unfortunately, this room gets very noisy when filled; but with sunny colors on the wall and flamenco tunes on the stereo, it is easy to get into the Andalusian spirit of the menu and wine list, and enjoy the Spanish ambience.

The tapas menu is divided into hot and cold plates. Among the cold tapas are classic Spanish specialties such as marinated olives ($3), marinated mushrooms in sherry wine ($4), and marinated white anchovies in olive oil, garlic and lemon ($7). To be transported to a typical Seville bar, nothing can top Serrano Ham and Spanish Cheeses ($11) with a glass of sherry. Something you probably won't find in Spain, but which was my favorite of the cold plates, is Ceviche del Mar ($9). These tapas are a combination of tuna, scallop and salmon tartares. There is a small pile of each fish, finely chopped, raw and artfully seasoned. The tuna was so good that when I go back, I think I shall request that instead of all three tartares they give me three portions of tuna -- it has a melt-in-your-mouth texture and some wake-up spices that made it more memorable than the other two.

Ensalada de la Casa ($5) is listed on the menu as warm spinach with currants and pine nuts. The fresh spinach sauteed in oil was tasty, although the finely chopped nuts were not pine nuts but peanuts.

Hot tapas are the meat and potatoes of a meal of small plates. The choices are numerous. Tartalitas of either pimiento or tomatoes and onion ($4) are a pair of small, quiche-like tarts with a filling of cheese custard combined either with roasted red pepper pieces or with diced tomatoes and caramelized onions. The shells are made from puff pastry. Tortilla de Patatas ($5) is a Spanish omelet and is a quintessential tapas offering. It is not particularly exciting but does flesh out a meal when added to other dishes. Chef Omar has added a trio of spring rolls to the menu, stuffed with vegetables ($5) or with beef or shrimp ($6). The fried rolls are served with a dipping sauce spiked with harissa, a Moroccan seasoning made from tomato paste, garlic and red pepper.

The best of the hot tapas come from the grill. My favorite was Calamares a la Plancha ($7). Infused with a smoky flavor, the tender calamari was coated with garlic, lemon and parsley. The menu also offers grilled skewers of chicken, lamb or swordfish. All are $7. The charred exterior and juicy interior of these meats and fish made them a hit with our table. Grilled Sardines ($7) also benefit from the charcoal cooking. There are steamed clams, mussels in white wine sauce and miniature meatballs in tomato sauce.

If eating only small portions of numerous foods is not really your thing, rest assured: La Casa offers four full-sized entrees. The first, Grilled Goat Chops ($21), is pure Iberian peninsula; seasoned with thyme and served with Catalan rice, this is an entree you will not find on many local menus. There is also Filet Mignon with sauteed potatoes, or the Fish of the Day. I instead chose Paella Valencia ($21 for a pan that serves two), having been promised that it is the finest paella in Pittsburgh. Although most of the traditional ingredients were there, this paella was disappointing. The rice was undercooked, with the grains swimming in broth, rather than separate and fluffy as they should have been. The saffron and smoky Spanish paprika flavors were so subtle that I entirely missed them.

La Casa desserts can be fabulous when they are made by the chef. I particularly recommend the flan ($6). Made entirely from milk and eggs, this flan is the real thing: no cornstarch or thickeners; no short cuts. It may be the best flan I have tasted in Pittsburgh. I also enjoyed the Tarta de la Casa ($6), which in a French restaurant would be termed Tarte Tatin. A light crust of puff pastry is the foundation for caramelized apples. It is thankfully not a vehicle for sugar and cinnamon as an American apple tart usually is.

Along with coffee, tea, espresso or cappuccino, La Casa's after-dinner beverage list offers Fresh Mint Tea. This lovely North African specialty comes in individual Moroccan metal pots and perfumes the air with the wonderful aromas of fresh mint leaves.

Even though La Casa considers itself a wine bar, there are only six white wines and six reds on the wine list. All but one of them are Spanish. They are available in 3-ounce and 6-ounce pours. The 3-ounce glasses offer a great way for someone to create his own tasting. The wines are fairly priced with no penalty for buying by the glass. Bottle prices range from $26 to $40.

La Casa has a delightful rear garden where dinner is served when weather permits. Whenever possible I suggest reserving a table in the garden. The tables there are larger and not as closely spaced as those in the dining room. Whether inside or out, dining on Chef Omar Medouini's authentic tapas will be a special pleasure.

Elizabeth Downer can be reached at edowner@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1454.


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