The fancier and more expensive the restaurant, the more attention it usually garners. But lately the buzz in Pittsburgh has been on two establishments that aren't catering to the expense-account and special-occasion set. Yo Rita on the South Side and Paris 66 in East Liberty are delicious proof that we shouldn't have to spend hundreds of dollars on a great meal and that four-star restaurants aren't always the most exciting in town.
3 stars = Excellent+
2 stars = Very good
2 stars = Very good
1120 E. Carson St., South Side
- Hours: Dinner, Sunday-Thursday 4-10 p.m. and Friday-Saturday, 4-11 p.m.; Sunday brunch 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m.
- Basics: A casual, fun restaurant focused on serving delicious and affordable food and drink. Starters and tacos inspired by the ingredients and techniques of Mexican cuisine, all executed in Kevin Sousa's distinctive style.
- Recommended dishes: Corn on the cob, chorizo dogs, tortilla soup, seviche, black-eyed pea taco, wild salmon taco, fresh water eel taco, flank steak taco, braised pork taco, duck taco, veal cheek and bone marrow taco; cafe con tequila, La Diabla.
- Prices: $5-$9; tacos, $4-$8.
- Summary: Wheelchair accessible; cash only; reservations encouraged; corkage, $2 per person
- Noise level: medium-loud.
When word spread that Kevin Sousa had taken over the kitchen at a South Side watering hole, which in its previous incarnation served uninspired, Americanized Mexican food to late-night partiers, no one knew what to expect. In the past, Sousa's metier was primarily modern fine dining, his method often chemistry inspired. Would the new Yo Rita bear even a passing resemblance to the old Iguana Grill?
The space hasn't changed much, and you'll see the same faces behind the bar and waiting tables, but Yo Rita is a whole new restaurant. When Sousa opens his own place, Salt of the Earth, in Garfield later this year, he'll continue supervising the Yo Rita kitchen, overseeing seasonal menu changes and training staff.
The concept is straightforward: A compact seasonal menu made up of a half dozen appetizers and a dozen or so tacos. There's tortilla soup, roasted corn on the cob, watermelon margaritas and flank steak tacos. But Yo Rita isn't really serving Mexican food. Just as new American cuisine was the foundation of his creative style at the Bigelow Grill, Mexican cuisine plays a formative role here. But the food coming out of the kitchen is distinctively his own.
Tortillas are blended into the rich tomato base of tortilla soup ($5), thickening it slightly in the style of an Italian bread soup. Mussels escabeche ($9) looks like an offering from the sea, stunningly plump and perfect mussels arranged in a line on a gleaming white plate, bathed in a glossy lime foam. A fresh water eel taco ($6) is a cousin to Japanese unagi, chipotle barbecue sauce a lip-smacking substitute for the ubiquitous teriyaki-like glaze served at sushi bars. Pico de gallo, slightly hidden beneath the thick, moist filet, adds another layer of umami and acidity, balancing and enhancing the flavors of the sauce.
The food is complex, interesting, intricately wrought and beautifully presented. But it is also fun. The lack of artwork on the walls, paper napkins and plain wooden tables emphasize the restaurant's casual identity. But casual doesn't have to mean lack of personality. Yo Rita has style in spades. Busy servers exude the "what can I get'cha" attitude of classic diner waitresses blended with the underground-chic of a Brooklyn bar. A stylized pin-up girl, reminiscent of a 1940s sailor's tattoo, adorns both the building's façade and the servers' T-shirts, and watches over the restaurant like some strange goddess of good fortune and delicious food.
Sousa is cooking for adventurous eaters, and he's a fan of offal -- lengua, bone marrow, veal cheeks and tripe make frequent appearances as specials -- but Sousa does strive to appeal to those following vegetarian and vegan diets. We're still in the season for chilled soups and we should glory in them while we can. A cucumber and green tomato combination ($5) masterfully balanced opposing forces, each bite concurrently fiery from chile and cooling from the cucumber. A fine dice of cantaloupe added tiny sparks of sweetness alternating with the crunch of a sprinkling of rice crisps.
A black-eyed pea taco ($4) with sauteed spinach, corn, ezpazote, goat cheese and garlic oil was a splendid combination of earthy, sweet and slightly spicy flavors -- one of five vegetarian taco options.
Sousa offers a number of delicious takes on the fish taco, but if the walleye-pike taco is available, order it. This hard-to-find fish is incredibly moist and flaky. A salty-sweet tamarind soy sauce and a garnish of diced watermelon, pineapple and cucumber made each bite intensely pleasurable, the sweetness balanced by a refreshing acidity.
Pork shoulder braised until it falls apart in your mouth is laced with a knock-your-socks off mole and garnished with scallions, sliced jalapeno and crisp slices of apple ($5). Making the mole is an all-day process, since this traditional Mexican sauce contains dozens of ingredients, including a variety of chiles, nuts, dried fruit, a bit of chocolate and lots of spices.
This menu is so dominated by hits that choosing which to order (or which to write about) can be torturous.
A cocktail may ease your commitment anxiety. Summer Hixon has created a nice list of interesting libations, including traditional ($9) and watermelon margaritas ($8, only as long as there's fresh watermelon), and La Diabla, a delectably spicy concoction of El Jimador Reposado tequila, pineapple, habenero and lime. There's also wine, beer on draft and almost 20 types of tequila.
Sousa, never one to do something half way, has held off on desserts for the first few months. They'll be offered soon, most likely a seasonal fruit and a Oaxacan-inspired (i.e. spicy) chocolate option. For now, sweetened espresso infused tequila or a seasonal agua fresca (non-alcoholic available) are suitable sweet stand-ins.
1 1/2 stars = Good+
3 stars = Excellent
6018 Penn Circle
- Hours: Lunch, Tuesday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner, Thursday-Saturday, 5-9 p.m.; Sunday brunch, 10 a.m.-1:30 p.m.
- Basics: Families, friends and starry-eyed couples will fall in love with the charming decor, tasty food and foreign feel of this new classic.
- Recommended dishes: Quiche Lorraine, La Paris 66 (savory), La Champs Elysees, French onion soup, pork loin with fig sauce, far breton, chocolate mousse, L'Etoillaise, La Boulogne
- Prices: Savory crepes, $9-$11; other entrees, $9-$22; salads, $13-$15.50; desserts and dessert crepes, $5.50-$8.
- Summary: Wheelchair-accessible; credit cards accepted; no reservations; corkage: wine, $5 per bottle; beer, $1 per person.
- Noise level: Low to loud.
While Yo Rita bowls us over with its creativity, Paris 66's most winning attribute is its devotion to tradition. This creperie and casual restaurant specializes in galettes, a slightly thicker, more savory crepe. Made from buckwheat flour, they originated in Brittany, a region of France known for its gray skies, gorgeous red cliffs and superb mussels, but most of all for galettes.
The cafe is small with a narrow dining area that seats just over 40 people, but they've made the most of the space and the restaurant is as impeccably groomed as the stereotypical Parisian dame. Vintage prints in mismatched frames decorate the walls and the glass-topped tables reveal picture postcards of Paris that belonged to owner Frederic Rongier's great-grandfather. Water is poured into art deco-style goblets, wine chills in silver buckets and warm light against yellow walls casts a golden hue over the room. The secluded, partly covered back patio is an especially lovely spot to linger over the last glass in your bottle of wine or a very bitter, but typically French, espresso.
Paris 66 evokes a general idea of France more than any particular region, but that won't prevent you from ignoring your neighbors and whisking yourself away to an imaginary coastal village. Une Champs Elysees ($11), s'il vous plait, you request and out comes a little brown package revealing just a bit of pale pink smoked salmon and yellow-green leeks. The tang of the buckwheat plays off a bright note in the leeks, perhaps from a touch of white wine.
The house galette ($11) comes with thin pieces of ham, sauteed mushrooms and tomatoes and an egg cracked and cooked right on top. Pierce the glistening, thickened yolk with a fork so it bathes the galette in its rich sauce.
There are other delicious options as well. I didn't try the croque-monsieur or madame (types of grilled ham and cheese sandwiches), which are offered only at lunch, but a substantial slice of quiche lorraine ($9.50) was stunning. The custard was lightly puffed on top and each bite was so delicate it almost dissolved in my mouth. The pastry crust was excellent, buttery and rich.
The daily quiche, pissalidiere ($9, French-style pizza with a puff pastry crust) and the galettes come with a choice of a small green salad or a cup of soup. Unfortunately, the soups and salads are currently the weaker aspects of the menu. The French onion soup (cup, $3.50, bowl, $6) was uneven, full of flavor one evening, bland on another. The salads, which are the most expensive items on the menu, were less substantial and less fresh than I'd expected. The Paris-Nice, its version of a nicoise, was garnished with such scanty portions of green beans, potatoes, tuna and egg that we had to add more food to our order to quiet still-rumbling stomachs.
The scantiness of the salads is especially odd, as for only a few dollars more (only at dinner), you can get one of the entree specials, wonderfully straightforward dishes, well-balanced, beautifully executed and delicious. A typical plate ($22) consisted of slices of pork loin fanned on a plate, hiding a small pile of luscious sauteed carrots and spinach (the French have figured out the secret to cooking delicious vegetables: Just add butter). A thick stripe of fig sauce, not too sweet or too savory, adorns the plate and complements the delicate flavor of the pork and the rich, creamy blue cheese melting into a small bowl of smashed potatoes.
The talented kitchen has another outlet for fancier cooking. Once a month the restaurant will open for a special reservations-required, four-course dinner ($70). The Indian Summer dinner Tuesday will include items such as homemade pate with onion compote, tomato tarte tatin, lobster risotto with asparagus and wild mushrooms and chestnut mousse.
Pastries, another of the restaurant's great strengths, are displayed in grocery cases just inside the front door. If it's available, try the far breton, a traditional custard-like cake cooked with just a few prunes in the middle. The chocolate mousse is another spectacular choice, dark and just a touch dry. You'll want to let every bite slowly dissolve on your tongue.
Of course, there are numerous sweet crepes, exquisitely thin and delicate, with so many delicious fillings you'll want to try them all. L'Etiollaise ($6.50) is perfect for a lighter finale, since it's finished only with butter, lemon juice, sugar and a little whipped cream. For a spectacular ending, try the sweet version of La Paris 66 ($8). Topped with butter and sugar, it's flambeed table side with Grand Marnier. Far better than a candle for a birthday celebration.
To get to dessert, you might have to exercise a little patience. Paris 66 has been remarkably popular since it opened, and the restaurant hasn't quite learned to handle that popularity. When we dined on the early side, things went quite smoothly until the restaurant filled up, around 7 p.m. Suddenly, our desserts were delivered without utensils, while next to us, a different server brought entrees to a table that hadn't yet ordered. When we sat down on the later side, we couldn't place our order for at least 30 minutes and getting food took closer to an hour.
C'est la vie, as they say. A little chaos is a small concern at a place that adds such charm, such variety and such authentic French style to the Pittsburgh restaurant scene.