Spoon, the new casual fine dining restaurant in East Liberty, was originally planned for the South Side space left empty since Cafe Allegro closed two years ago. But when Rick Stern, who also owns Willow in Ohio Township, heard that the Red Room Cafe had closed, he knew that the East End neighborhood with its energetic, diverse restaurant scene, was a better fit.
Mr. Stern has teamed with co-owner and executive chef Brian Pekarcik to open Spoon. Mr. Pekarcik, a Murrysville native, worked for a number of years in California, including two years at Gary Danko's acclaimed eponymous restaurant in San Francisco. He also spent a few years in Cleveland before returning to Pittsburgh. His culinary style owes a debt to California cuisine, blending precise technique, a global viewpoint, and a love of seasonal and local products.
3 stars = Excellent
134 South Highland Ave.
- Hours: Dinner: Mondays to Thursdays, 5-10 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 5-11 p.m.; Sundays, 5-9 p.m.
- Basics: Casual fine dining with upscale leanings; excellent service, a diverse wine list and chef Brian Pekarcik's playful, yet refined menu make for a truly memorable dining experience.
- Recommended dishes: Gorgonzola blue cheese souffle, chicken wings, bacon and eggs; duck, duck, foie; lobster cake and pickled beet salad, ancho marinated grilled pork tenderloin, grilled hanger steak, chocolate three ways, banana ginger sorbet, coconut basil sorbet
- Prices: Appetizers, $4-$16; entrees, $9-$34; sides, $4-$7; desserts, $4-$9.
- Drinks: Cocktails, $7-$12, a mix of classics and ingredient- inspired libations. The short list of bottled beer is evenly split between the usual mass-produced options and microbrews. The lengthy, interesting and thoughtfully organized wine list is a serious asset, with lots of choices at both ends of the price spectrum. One sparkling, 10 whites, one rose and 12 reds by the glass, with detailed wine notes, $8-$16; seven sparkling, two roses and more than 50 whites by the bottle, 26 for $40 or less; more than 70 reds by the bottle, 35 for $50 or less. Most wines seem to be marked up to between 225 and 275 percent of retail price, with some more expensive bottles marked up to 200 percent of retail.
- Summary: Wheelchair accessible; credit cards accepted; reservations strongly recommended; valet available on weekends, $3 per vehicle; corkage $12.
- Noise level: Low to medium loud.
Eggs, that most versatile of proteins, appear throughout the menu in various guises. A blue cheese souffle is denser than some, like a thick, salty custard, balanced by the crisp sweetness of a tower of apples and pears, thinly sliced and interlaced with spicy arugula and drizzled with a honey-white balsamic vinaigrette.
In a bit of culinary magic, two slabs of pork belly, in a pool of golden hollandaise, are topped with an almost spherical egg. Split open, the yolk seemed to disappear into the sauce, enriching and amplifying it.
Mr. Pekarcik attributes that particular technique to David Chang of the New York Momofuku restaurant group, explaining that the whole egg is dropped in boiling water for exactly five minutes, cooking the white, but leaving the yolk still creamy.
Many of his most elaborate dishes are lightened by playful references, like the "duck, duck, foie" appetizer, a round cake of rich duck confit, which breaks apart to reveal small cubes of perfectly cooked potato, an up-market version of corn beef hash ($12). It's topped with a sort of deviled duck egg, only the yolk is pureed with foie gras rather than mayonnaise, and each half is garnished with shards of crispy duck skin.
A keen understanding of flavor and texture was especially evident in a vegetarian entree, a sampler of tofu and melon ceviche and tofu chimichangas. I was as skeptical as any, and consequently all the more impressed by the pure deliciousness of this unexpected dish. The ceviche was sweet and bright, just right for scooping up with crunchy Peruvian potato chips. The play on a chimichanga had a wrapper like an excellent Chinese-American egg roll, but was filled with an intensely flavorful combination of corn, tofu, mushrooms, roasted pepper and melted cheese. Sliced into four neat rounds, each was topped with sweet, bright pico de gallo, but girded from below by a pool of house-made mole, rich, nutty and just a touch bitter.
In the past two weeks, the menu has changed substantially for fall, corn and tomatoes swapped out for squash, brussels sprouts, beets and apples. The new vegetarian sampler includes homemade pierogies, the paper thin, tender pasta almost bursting with a smooth sweet potato puree and topped with cider braised onions. It's paired with a small bowl of sweet, smooth butternut squash soup, which is delicious, but perhaps a little too similar in flavor to the pierogi filling. Fortunately, a generous heap of roasted brussels sprouts helps temper all that sweetness.
Brussels sprouts also showed up garnished with bacon, as a side dish, and on a plate with a grilled, sliced hanger steak and an incredibly luxurious square of potato gratin. A bowl of cilantro chimichurri (usually it's made with parsley) was served on the side ($22), a zesty accompaniment to the rich, mildness of the potatoes and the rich meatiness of the steak and bacon.
The menu is flexible, stretching across price points, yet remaining consistent in the sophistication of its preparations and the complexity of its flavors. A spicy, succulent plate of tender chicken wings and crispy bites (highfalutin nuggets) seemed completely at home next to two small lobster cakes pared with a lavish, brightly colored salad of pickled beets, fennel and arugula ($7; $16). The lobster cakes are a wonderful change from the ubiquitous crab version, large lumps of fresh tail meat mixed with shallots, fennel, garlic and lots of herbs, then lightly breaded in panko bread crumbs and pan fried.
The chicken wings reference and elaborate on the fancy fried chicken so popular in the national scene last year. The crispy chunks of thigh meat are doused in a spicy vinaigrette red with Korean hot pepper paste (another David Chang reference), cooled by a creamy sesame and garlic dressing. Braised then grilled wings get lip-smacking orange chili glaze and a lightly sweet sesame and apple cabbage slaw. In deference to Spoon's elegant atmosphere, this particular dish is followed by a warm, damp napkin for wiping sticky fingers.
The space also is flexible, designed to accommodate several styles of dining, but all with the same level of quality and attention to detail. A lounge area sets a lively tone at the entrance, while also making the dining areas at the front and back of the restaurant appear more intimate and self-contained. These large leather armchairs, just across from the bar, are an exceedingly comfortable spot for a cocktail.
The house list is a little confusing, as every drink seems to belong to a different category and the categories have needlessly complicated names such as "Brut to Doux" and "Farm to Cocktail." Fortunately, the drinks themselves are more straightforward, including an excellent old-fashioned and an intriguing cobbler of sherry and orange-cranberry compote -- both fall additions to the list.
The bar looked nice as well, but it was invariably filled with drinkers and diners -- probably those who couldn't get a reservation at this exceedingly popular restaurant.
The well-organized and informative wine list offers a much more diverse selection of varietals and producers than is typical. It is a pleasure to explore, especially when there are so many options at both low and high price points.
Exemplary service, including wine service, was one of the most memorable aspects of my meals at Spoon. I especially enjoyed the way servers vividly and succinctly described each plate as it was served, a useful reminder when there are so many components.
Given the high level of service and the elegant setting, it would have been nice if leftovers had remained out of sight until the check arrived, rather than having servers deposit them on the table while we were still enjoying the meal. And while French press coffee was nice to see, timers would be more useful than instructions to press the pot in four minutes.
Pastry chef Krista Owen has created a short but interesting dessert list with some exemplary options. Jaded chocolate lover that I am, I was delighted with the chocolate trio: A crunchy sugar-coated beignet with a surprise chocolate filling; a rectangular slice of creamy chocolate mousse topped with a layer of ganache and chocolate covered pistachios; and a small cup of frothy chocolate milk spiced with cardamom, coriander and just a hint of cayenne. An over-gelatinized panna cotta was disappointing, and a pound cake topped with pear a little plain, but ice creams were tasty and sorbets even better -- especially a summery coconut basil with beautifully balanced flavors and an impossibly creamy banana (theoretically banana-ginger, but I couldn't taste the latter) topped with toasted banana bread "croutons."
Spoon's polish is impressive, but it has one more challenge to face. Next month, its plans to open BRGR, a casual restaurant serving gourmet burgers and shakes in the space that has served as an additional bar and lounge.
Ambitious? Definitely. Foolhardy? Maybe. But at this point, Spoon and its talented, energetic, hard-working staff have earned my confidence.