Dining Review: Walnut Grove brings fine casual dining to Fox Chapel Plaza

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When partners Gregg Caliguiri, Kirk Vogel, Matt Turbiner and Marc Horowitz opened the Walnut Grill in Shadyside in 2001, it quickly became a neighborhood hot spot. They have now transplanted their successful formula of casual dining and well-prepared food made from quality ingredients and served by a friendly waitstaff to another neighborhood. Not surprisingly, the newly opened Walnut Grove in the Fox Chapel Plaza is packed with people from the neighborhood.

Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette
Walnut Grove executive chef Randy Simpson shows off his Ahi Tuna with pickle-and-cucumber salad.
Click photo for larger image.


Fox Chapel Plaza
1141 Freeport Road

Hours: Mondays-Thursdays 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sundays, 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Basics: A casual bar and grill serving a varied and imaginative menu. The contemporary American cuisine is prepared with fresh ingredients by a talented chef. From toddlers to seniors, customers at this cafe-style grill should find satisfaction.
Prices: Appetizers, $3-$12; entrees, $12-$25 (dinner), $9-$12 (lunch); desserts, $6-$7; wines: $6-$12 for 6-ounce pour.
Summary: Smoking in bar area; accessible; major credit cards accepted. Free parking in shopping mall lot.

Although the restaurants share the same unstuffy atmosphere, reasonable prices and contemporary American cuisine, their menus are not identical. Chef Randy Simpson has modified the original menu and added many new items for the Fox Chapel crowd. The designers have transformed a double-storefront space in the Fox Chapel Plaza strip mall into a cozy and up-to-date bar and dining room with an open kitchen. Furnishings are modern and built for comfort. Decorations are sleek and minimalist. The center of the space houses the bar on one side and the kitchen on the other. Booths and tables stretch the length of either side.

When it comes to food choices, Walnut Grove covers a wide swath, beginning with grilled pizzas, sandwiches and salads and ending with more elaborate appetizers and entrees. A basic pizza such as Margherita ($9) can be tailored to an individual's taste with additional toppings such as meats, cheeses or vegetables, which add small amounts to the price. Salads, too, can be enhanced with any number of additions, such as grilled meats and fish, grilled vegetables, cheese or even caramelized walnuts. A basic house salad is $3, spinach is $4, and an awesome Cobb salad loaded with bacon, blue cheese and avocado is $10. Sandwiches include a choice of a side dish, either starch or vegetable. An 8-ounce Steak Burger is $8. Crispy Chicken BLT in a cheddar jalapeno wrap is also $8.

Appetizers are a speciality of both Walnut restaurants. I was very pleased with Seared Ahi Tuna ($9). A 3-ounce block of sashimi-grade tuna is encrusted with sesame seeds, lightly seared, cut into five slices and served with the appropriate mound of wasabi paste, and a dipping bowl of soy and pickled ginger. I shared it with my dining partner who had ordered bruschetta ($5), and we loved the combination of the almost raw fish and the very ripe and juicy tomatoes. The bruschetta was super-fresh and well seasoned with just a hint of garlic and minced basil and topped with a sprinkle of Asiago cheese.

Other appetizers I would recommend are Sauteed Wild mushrooms ($5) and Pork Potstickers ($7), which are served with Asian plum sauce. The mushrooms are a combination of oyster, shiitake, portobello and button which have been sauteed with a healthy handful of minced garlic. The portion is generous, but I was surprised to find that the "Toasted Flatbread" mentioned on the menu was in fact commercial flatbread crackers -- the kind that come in a box.

I was not as happy with the calamari ($8), which I found too salty. The crab cake ($8) tasted old and was left almost untouched on the plate. An observant waiter noticed that it was uneaten and asked the reason. Not only was he apologetic, he also removed that charge from the bill. The restaurant is proud of its crab cakes, both as appetizers or as entrees, and I am sure that my crab experience was a rare incident.

Entrees are served with a house salad and a choice of two sides. They are well prepared and in many cases are served with interesting sauces. Crimson Snapper ($19) is 8 ounces of seared fish served with five peppers: green, yellow and red bell peppers and banana pepper and red chili pepper. The combination of sweet and spicy vegetables gives a new taste twist to the mild-flavored fish. Cowboy Steak ($22) is a 16-ounce grilled Ribeye topped with chipotle lime butter. Lamb Chops ($24) are a rack of four chops complemented by a demiglace of port wine and rosemary. Pork Tenderloin ($18) is 9 ounces of pan-seared tenderloin served with red onion and mandarin orange salsa. Parmesan Crusted Chicken ($16) is a succulent chicken breast served with ricotta gnocchi in tomato-basil cream sauce.

Vegetarians will appreciate Vegetable Pasta Rolls ($12), stuffed with portobello mushrooms, roasted red peppers and cheese and served over tomato pesto sauce. There is also Mediterranean Pesto Pasta ($15) which features fettuccine pasta tossed with artichokes, olives, feta, asiago and sun-dried tomatoes.

This is a family-friendly restaurant, and there is a kids' menu to prove it. All items are $5 and are served with a choice of one side.

With the exception of some desserts and a few salad dressings, everything is made in the kitchen. Chef Randy makes the Creme Brulee ($6). I had something called Chocolate Cobbler ($6), which is brought in. The very rich molten-chocolate type cake topped with vanilla ice cream and fresh raspberries is one of those desserts that really should be shared because literally two bites is about all one person can eat (and probably one bite is all one should eat!).

The wine list is short but covers a wide choice in terms of price, geographic origin and grape variety. All wines are offered by the glass as well as by the bottle and the glasses are appropriately priced at one quarter of the bottle price. There are whites from California, Chile, South Africa, Italy and Germany. Glasses are from $6 to $8 for six ounces. There are reds made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Shiraz, Merlot, and Tempranillo from Spain. Again the prices are from $6-$8. More prestigious wines are offered for $11 and $12. The wine glasses are of high quality and proper shape, enhancing the wine's flavors. The restaurant offers a number of beers on draft, from Guinness for $4.50 to Miller Light for $3. All are 16 ounces.

There are five tables on the sidewalk outside the restaurant for diners who prefer the open-air. It has the added advantage of being much quieter than the restaurant interior. The kitchen side of the dining room is rather noisy. One can opt to sit at a table on the bar side of the restaurant, which is definitely quieter, but the trade-off is that it is the smoking area of the room.

For friendly, local dining and fresh, well-prepared food at affordable prices, Walnut Grove is a nice addition to the Fox Chapel area restaurant scene. There are plans to add live music on the weekends in the near future.

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


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