Dining reviews have a limited lifespan. They may live on the Web forever, but a review of a restaurant that ran in the past six months is going to be more useful than a review from two years ago.
Restaurants are living organisms. Unlike a CD or a movie, no diner has the same experience as another, especially once some time has elapsed. Chefs and managers change, bringing new ideas and influencing the restaurant culture. Trends and increased competition inspire new menu items -- or don't.
It's not feasible to re-review restaurants even every two years (three or four is the more commonly accepted time frame) and not every restaurant needs a second write-up. Sometimes, though, restaurants deserve a second look a little earlier, because they've changed and grown in ways that demand attention.
Restaurants that just keep getting better? A very merry Pittsburgh Christmas indeed.
MIO KITCHEN AND WINE BAR
When Mio opened, the food seemed more driven by flavor profile than a culinary point of view. Sometimes, dishes suffered from being too much of a good thing -- too rich, too sweet, too large. In the 21/2 years that have passed, Chef and owner Matthew Porco has refined and developed his style, resulting in food that is impressively delicious and memorable.
225 Commercial Ave.
Many appetizers are lighter, such as a thin flavorful butternut squash veloute with lemon creme fraiche and toasted hazelnuts ($7). Downplaying butternut squash's candy-sweetness, this was a true squash-lover's soup. The charcoal-grilled calamari salad gets lots of oomph from peppery arugula, sweet roasted peppers and briney kalamata olives in addition to the wonderful smokiness of the squid ($12). Greek flavors also dressed up a tuna tartar that has a base of cucumber salad dressed in creme fraiche and a pile of olive tapenade on the side ($12).
Roasted chicken piccata ($26) was an ingenious combination of two comfort foods. Roasting gave the chicken tender, moist flesh and beautiful golden-brown crispy skin. The caramelized mushrooms brought out the earthy note in a silky-smooth goat cheese-potato puree while tomatoes, capers and white wine sauce kept the flavors bright. An ideal version of an Italian-American classic.
But Porco doesn't restrict himself to the Mediterranean. A char-grilled pork chop was topped with pulled pork and accompanied by black beans, turmeric rice and roasted poblano peppers ($27). The pork chop was a touch too salty, but that was the sole technical misstep in a lengthy meal.
Lighter appetizers and reasonable (although still generous) portions help ensure that diners don't flag at the thought of dessert, which would be a small tragedy. Who can choose between the chocolate cake with candy cane ice cream, the miniature bundt-shaped stout gingerbread cake with a cranberry sauce filled tuille, or the quite sophisticated butternut squash clafoutis with spiced ice cream? Far better to go in a group, so you can try them all.
Of all of Mio's charms, I was most impressed by the knowledgeable, pleasant, enthusiastic staff whose pride in their jobs and the restaurant was reflected in their impeccable manners and graceful execution of each task.
Soba still has a number of mainstays on its menu, and the dining room could do with a bit of style makeover, but new chef Danielle Cain (previously at Kaya) has injected a healthy dose of change. The debt to the New York-based Momofuku restaurant group is obvious, but that doesn't make the additions any less delicious.
Atmosphere: Very good+
5847 Ellsworth Ave.
Pittsburgh's relatively new love affair with pork belly is well-served by this honey and chipotle glazed version, served with a generous dollop of pumpkin butter and a crunchy brown sugar crust. The herb salad is more than a garnish, it's actually dressed, and that dose of acidity is the perfect palate refresher for this sweet, succulent piece of meat ($10).
Soba, like all Big Burrito restaurants, emphasizes local and seasonal ingredients, and squash is all over this menu, each iteration tastier than the last. There's a red curry acorn squash soup topped with crispy pepitas, a kabocha squash puree beneath Alaskan halibut and a delectable butternut squash and potato hash that accompanies crispy Bronzino.
Pan-roasted shitake and chanterelle mushrooms are beautifully showcased in steamed buns (two per order, $8). The Heritage Farm chicken ramen packs an absurd amount of chicken flavor into one bowl. First there's the succulent, flavorful miso broth, with a nice pile of noodles. It's topped with confit chicken leg, chanterelle mushrooms, fried egg, green onions and a sliced chicken breast perched on top to keep the skin crispy. Make sure to break the yolk in the fried egg and mix it into the broth, then doctor up your soup to order with three hot sauces, sriracha, chile sambal and fermented black bean paste.
The ice-cream-heavy dessert menu is a pleasant contrast to the savory dishes, especially the over-the-top in all the right ways banana split ($8) with a bruleed banana, a fluffy piece of banana cake and three fantastic scoops of ice cream: Jasmine Huckleberry, chocolate and black rice.
Looking for a wine pairing or a few more details about a dish? Just ask your server. The superbly trained staff members know the menu inside and out, and what they don't know they'll find out.