When Bona Terra opened six years ago there was only a handful of restaurants preaching the delicious doctrine of local, seasonal and sustainable ingredients. Today, barely a restaurant opens without touting its connections to the seasons and to local farms.
Despite its out-of-the-way Sharpsburg location and its diminutive size -- just 13 tables -- Bona Terra played a substantial role in developing Pittsburgh's local food culture and chef-owner Douglass Dick continues to refine and interpret the flavors of Western Pennsylvania on a menu that changes daily to reflect the very best of local, and often organic and heirloom, ingredients.
A dish of striped bass ($28) is quintessential Bona Terra. Crispy skin gave way to dense, moist flesh. Sauteed local green beans were left just a touch crisp. Jasmine rice is a quiet background for a peach and white wine reduction, a clever seasonal addition that lent the trout a honeyed sweetness and lip-smacking juiciness.
Sauteed kale, foraged chanterelle mushrooms and a caramelized onion sauce gave a seared duck breast ($29) a simpler and woodsier flavor profile than the fruit-drenched versions that tend to show up on restaurant menus. The duck breast was cooked beautifully, but the star of the plate was the smattering of chanterelles, with their pecan-like nuttiness and almost al dente texture.
3 stars = Excellent+
3 stars = Excellent
1 1/2 stars = Good+
2 1/2 stars = Very good+
908 Main St.
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 5:30 p.m. to close, with two seatings on weekends.
Basics: Local ingredients inspire this daily-changing menu, which blends New American flavors with French technique.
Recommended dishes: Fried oysters, porcini mushroom and caramelized onion broth, potato and leek bisque, roasted veal rib chop with garlic and herb risotto and braised cabbage, striped bass with jasmine rice and a peach-white wine reduction, duck breast with kale and chanterelle mushrooms.
Prices: Appetizers, $7-$17; entrees, $27-$38; desserts, $7-$10.
Summary: Wheelchair accessible; credit cards accepted; make reservations two weeks in advance; BYOB, corkage $5.
Noise level: Low to medium-loud.
Some dishes are flavor-bombs, like the potato and leek bisque ($8) with butter-braised leeks, shaved pecorino and smoked bacon that transformed the most sedate of soups into a decadent treat. Fried oysters ($11) were made over for fine dining. Four crisp specimens stood guard at the corners of a small pile of couscous and fine-diced cucumber, each apportioned a spoonful of rich lemon aioli. A beautiful sort of red plum salad on one edge of the plate was balanced on the other by a stark line of syrupy dots of a red plum reduction.
Given how well Dick seems to understand the concept that we eat with our eyes, the aesthetic failings of the physical space are all the more frustrating. Dick has been looking unsuccessfully for a new restaurant location for at least four years. It's understandable why he's loath to invest substantial amounts of money in a building that he doesn't own. Some people may be immune to the depressive effect of the dreary surroundings, and sometimes the food casts a strong enough spell to overcome them. But even the most accomplished art benefits from a harmonious frame.
Even if nothing can be done about the dropped ceiling with its dingy acoustic tiles or the strange layout of the dining room, it would be feasible to replace the generic still lifes that would look more at home on the walls of a Holiday Inn than in this special restaurant. Butcher paper would be more elegant than the single layer of patched and wrinkled white linens that cover the tables.
For the most part, service transcends the setting. There were a few missteps. A white wine that we'd asked to have chilled was poured too warm, and a few forks were dropped while clearing the table. During one visit, our entrees were brought a course too early, and for a moment it seemed that our server wanted us to accommodate the mistake. But generally servers work together well, managing to be attentive yet unobtrusive through multiple courses.
It's worth indulging in several courses -- Bona Terra isn't a restaurant at which to count pennies. Even the most expensive dishes on the menu were well worth the price.
A lobster appetizer ($14) brought together the best summer flavors. Heirloom cucumbers were thinly sliced and layered on a plate -- almost a cucumber carpaccio -- an elegant bed for grilled, chilled lobster salad with charred sweet corn and jalapeno relish. The lobster was as sweet as superb lobster should be, but the hints of smoke and spice made this dish more than just another lobster salad. It was a small serving, but every bite was extraordinarily satisfying.
A roasted center cut veal rib chop ($35) was an early taste of fall, a vision in red, caramel and earthy brown. The golden chop was proudly on display, hoisted on a tower of garlic and herb risotto topped with a layer of braised red cabbage. Veal chops can be a protein with little power or richness, but this example was a superior sort, a delicate layer of fat just below the skin infusing the meat with extra flavor. The piece de resistance was a sweet and sour sauce, almost a gastrique, studded with crispy bits of local bacon and infused with the warmth of sage.
Dick excels at incorporating sweet flavors into savory dishes, but he seems less excited about dessert. He acknowledges that the dessert menu has to fit certain requirements, saving space in the small kitchen for the many a la minute preparations on the savory menu. While he turns out a credible creme brulee ($8), chocolate toffee cake ($9) and well-executed sorbet in flavors such as pineapple and honeydew melon, desserts didn't come close to the creative interplay of flavors and textures experienced earlier in the meal.
I was hopeful about one of the more seasonally inspired options, a peach cobbler with amaretto ice cream ($8). While the peaches were excellent, the biscuit crust was unimpressive and the ice cream was so sweet it tasted solely of sugar.
Despite the trouble it causes, there are reasons that Dick has been holding out for the perfect space. Sharpsburg has been a good neighborhood for him. Parking is easy. He's attracted a steady base of regular customers. Most chefs will never open such a successful restaurant and it's a pleasure to contemplate the achievement. But it's equally pleasurable to contemplate the greater heights to which a chef of Dick's talent and taste may yet aspire.