Out of the Fire Cafe: a vibrant menu and fine dining await in the Laurel Highlands
August 11, 2011 4:00 AM
Grilled watermelon salad.
Joshua Fryer, chef of Out of the Fire Cafe in Donegal.
By China Millman Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Out of the Fire Cafe hides in plain sight, in a countrified strip mall off Route 31, in the heart of the Laurel Highlands. The lodge-style building is full of natural charm, such as the tree-stump benches on a wooden porch, large vases of flowers and oversized cutlery that dangles from the ceiling just outside the open kitchen. The sprawling dining room and smaller outdoor patio emphasize a stunning view of the ridge. But tables cut off from the windows are also worth occupying for the food alone, which successfully combines summer farm stand flavors with a fine dining sensibility.
It's a lovely surprise, but a better plan. These days, those who stumble across the restaurant may well leave disappointed. Positive word of mouth has brought so much business that walk-ins should expect to wait several hours, and host staff were worked off their feet attempting to squeeze in yet another table of hopeful diners.
Basics: An upscale restaurant well matched to the rustic splendor of the Laurel Highlands. American fine dining with an unusual emphasis on fruits and vegetables, flavorful additions to more traditional dishes.
Prices: Appetizers, $10-$13; soup and salad, $5-$12; entrees, $19-$31; sandwiches and burgers, $7-$11; sides, $5-$7; desserts, $4-$7.
Jeff Fryer opened the restaurant four years ago as a 30-seat sandwich shop. But as it developed and expanded, he often turned to his son Joshua Fryer, an experienced chef in New Jersey, for advice. The younger Mr. Fryer signed on in 2009, first traveling back and forth from New Jersey as a consultant, than joining as full partner and moving with this family to the region. The Fryers hope to expand once more this winter, and to add a second kitchen for catering.
Its popularity is well deserved, especially in light of its lack of competition from comparable nearby restaurants. While the style is relatively traditional, Mr. Fryer's enthusiasm for fruits and vegetables results in a particularly vibrant menu, well matched to the lovely, natural setting.
Appetizers were mostly simple, layering a few robust flavors to good effect, like the platter of bruschetta, thick rounds of grilled bread spread with bright green pesto and piled with chopped tomato, chunks of perfectly ripe avocado and sweet King crab meat ($12). More lump crab was bound into cakes, pan-fried until golden brown then slathered with a thick, tart remoulade and served on a bed of tangy red onion and asparagus ($12).
The elder Mr. Fryer sold his own smoked salmon before opening Out of the Fire, and now it appears as an appetizer -- a must order. The substantial wedge of hot-smoked salmon brushed with a balsamic glaze, was served with sweet and savory accompaniments: Sliced pineapple and strawberries, sundried tomatoes, a creamy dill sauce and a stack of crackers brushed with olive oil ($13).
Entrees layered more textures and flavors and took more risks. The very best was a barbecued pork shank nestled into a bed of smoked white cheddar grits with sautéed sweet corn. Crispy mustard greens added a hint of bitterness against the sweetness of the rum-glazed pork and the smoky richness of rough-ground grits ($19). A bowl of grits can also be ordered as on the side -- a delicious strategic reserve ($5).
Seafood is well represented on the menu, a consequence of the years the chef spent working in Seattle. Bowls of PEI mussels, with a choice of broths and slices of grilled bread for sopping them up, could serve as substantial starters or light entrees. Spicy coconut lemongrass broth was more sweet than spicy without much of the lemongrass's distinctive perfume, but the mussels were beautifully cooked, pink and plump.
Pan-seared sea scallops sounded too fussy, mixing a prosciutto, melon and watercress salad, a pomegranate mint vinaigrette and a rock shrimp and parmigiano risotto, all on one plate ($25). But what should have been a jumble of sticky flavors was surprisingly balanced, the salty hit of cheese and cured pork nicely offset the sweetness of the melon, and the pomegranate mint vinaigrette mostly disappearing beneath the other flavors.
Daily specials augment the menu, though some of these stick around for a while, like the oh-so-trendy grilled watermelon salad. A thick circle of ruby-red melon was gorgeously adorned with large chunks of Maytag blue cheese, sliced red and yellow Rainier cherries and a shower of bright green pea sprouts, dressed in a white wine vinaigrette ($12). While the taste didn't quite live up to the stunning vibrancy of its colors, the mix of sweet and savory flavors was refreshing and summery.
Wild Alaskan halibut was also decked out in seasonal finery, the filet gleaming white against a backdrop of orange and red hot house tomato slices, bright green pesto and gleaming circles of sundried tomato and saffron aioli ($29).
Not every dish lived up to the promise of its ingredients. Wild Striped bass with grilled sweet corn, local chanterelles and baby lobster read like a sure thing, and the components seemed to be cooked well, but a pool of white wine pan sauce drowned the lovely mushrooms in acidity and even overpowered the sweetness of the corn ($31). A side of bacon-roasted brussels sprouts featured seriously undercooked sprouts ($6) and a flavorful ribeye steak was hindered by soggy slices of portobello mushrooms and undercooked asparagus.
The expansive dining room (180 seats counting the patio) was relatively well managed. Even diners with reservations often waited a few minutes, but once seated, meals were well paced. The service style was a little less refined than the menu. Some servers were very chatty and should have paid more attention to basics such as replacing silverware and keeping water glasses full.
Desserts, unfortunately, were a serious letdown after the meal's strong beginning. Bananas foster seemed oddly unfinished, a bowl of slightly icy vanilla ice cream with a separate bowl of bananas sauteed in a sweet, one-dimensional hard sauce. A summer berry parfait simply layered berries with whipped cream and topped them with a couple of cigar-shaped tuilles. Neither the berries nor the cookies were special enough to make this interesting. Creme Brulee had clearly been bruleed in advance, as the sugar crust had started to soften, though I did appreciate the rich cream flecked with vanilla beans. After this winter's expansion, a pastry chef might be in order.
Dessert aside, Out of the Fire Cafe is a find (though certainly not a well-kept secret). It's a restaurant to be proud of in any location, and a newly delicious reason to visit the Laurel Highlands as often as possible.