Early this year, Richard DeShantz described the idea for his newest venture as a casual watering hole with good food, a neighborhood kind of place where he would serve the dishes he might make for chef friends on a night off.
Now open for several months, Meat & Potatoes certainly is more casual than Nine on Nine, Mr. DeShantz's fine dining restaurant a few blocks up Penn Avenue. There are no tablecloths, the dining room is close and loud, and wine is served in juice glasses. It's open seven days a week and is neighborly about serving dinner late.
But "neighborhood establishment" doesn't do justice to this bold, buzzy restaurant. At one of the richest culinary moments in recent history, there are very few spots in Pittsburgh where one can eat and drink so well, in such a splendid setting and at such reasonable prices.
3 stars = Excellent+
649 Penn Ave.
- Hours: Monday to Thursday 5 to 11 p.m.; Friday to Saturday, 5 p.m. to midnight; Sunday, 4 to 9 p.m.; lunch and weekend brunch coming in September.
- Basics: A casual yet stylish setting for spectacular food and drink, Richard DeShantz draws inspiration from a wide array of cuisines, but puts his own, refined spin on everything from tacos to chicken pot pie.
- Recommended dishes: : Tequila Fizz, devils on horseback, bone marrow, chicherones, arugula salad, sweetbread piccata, salmon with brussels sprout and cabbage kimchi, kobe flat iron steak, key lime pie.
- Prices: Snacks, $3-$7; starters, $7-$14; sandwiches and burgers, $7-$14; entrees, $16-$24.
- Drink: Classic and creative cocktails, $8-$12; more than two dozen interesting beers by the can, $4-$7 and a rotating selection of draft beers; three sparkling, 13 white and 16 red wines, all offered by the glass or bottle, glasses starting at $8; one sparkling, four whites and six reds for $40 or less.
- Summary: Wheelchair accessible; credit cards accepted; reservations highly recommended; corkage, call for information.
- Noise level: Loud to very loud.
A large, rectangular bar dominates the space and offers seating on all sides. Tables encircle it, some topped with butcher-block-style wood slabs, others with sheets of metal, slightly shiny and cool to the touch. Deeply cushioned chairs, curvaceous chandeliers and antiqued mirrors fit smoothly with a slightly animalistic vibe coming from the primal cuts chart chalked onto one wall and a sun-bleached bull's skull hanging from another.
The menu also mixes genres, encompassing comfort food and global cuisine, nose-to-tail cooking alongside impeccable revisions of bar food. Neatly divided into categories such as "snacks" and "pastas," this menu is larger than it first appears, even before factoring in the chalkboard specials.
Snacks (no utensils required) and appetizers were good for nibbling with a drink or starting off a lavish meal, and generally sized for sharing. Meat & Potatoes is a convivial kind of place, the bar area often resembling one, big cocktail party.
Devils on horseback, the world's best cocktail party food, were served piping hot, chewy dates softened into candy, with the crunch of bacon and the warm ooze of manchego cheese creating the perfect salty-sweet balance ($6).
There will surely be some who gripe about paying for bread, but when it's neatly grilled and served with generous dishes of savory goat's milk butter and tangy, smooth rhubarb compote, a bread course merits a $3 price.
A sprinkling of Old Bay added a twist to poutine ($7), but also added too much salt; skip it in favor of the Yukon skins -- two creamy potatoes, halved, hollowed out and filled with thick slices of house-made pastrami and a mild, mozzarella-like cheese ($8). Who knew a baked potato could taste this good? Chicken wings were brined overnight, smoked for two hours then deep fried, creating the golden ratio of crispy skin to firm, juicy meat. Glazed red and sprinkled with thinly sliced hot chiles and sliced green onions, they were almost painfully hot, but with just enough sweetness to soften each bite ($14).
Less ubiquitous bar snacks, such as bone marrow and fried chicken livers, get the same careful attention. Flintstone-esque marrow bones, buried beneath handfuls of parsley, were served on rimmed baking sheets with more grilled bread and small bowls of capers, pickled shallots and extra parsley salad for doctoring up each bite ( $14). Carefully roasted, the marrow slid out in quivering, melting spoonfuls. No wonder they've been going through 100 pounds a night.
Fried brussels sprouts, served with a creamy romesco-style sauce, were a little too dark ($5). They tasted like potato chips, not a bad thing, except for those who actually like brussels sprouts.
Indulgence was a forceful presence on this menu, so a pristine arugula salad was a surprising hit ($8). A wooden bowl filled with crisp, peppery leaves, complemented by wedges of sweet watermelon, thin slices of spicy watermelon radish, more Nicoise olives, tufts of fresh feta and a refreshing mint-lemon vinaigrette, was the perfect antidote to the rich dishes that preceded it.
Other lighter dishes can be gleaned from the list. Tuna crudo walks a wonderful line between Japan and the Mediterranean. Thick slices of pale red fish arranged on a thick stripe of soy, were adorned with green and black olives, and thinly sliced red chiles and garlic, punching up tuna's mild flavor ($12).
Mussels were available in three styles ($14). The Thai-ish version had a lovely, light broth of coconut milk flavored with red curry and kaffir lime, with thinly sliced Thai chiles adding hits of fire, but one has to eat through a veritable mountain of (very tasty) mussels to reach the broth.
Entrees skip from country to country, demonstrating Mr. DeShantz's impressive fluency in a broad array of flavor profiles.
Korean-style salmon came with brussels sprout and cabbage kimchi and hits of pineapple for sweetness ($18). Kobe flatiron, an underutilized cut, was beautifully marbled and intensely flavorful, but was truly distinguished by its accompaniments: Soft, chewy plantains somewhere between green and sweet; a black bean, corn and red pepper relish; and generous dabs of herb-rich chimichurri sauce ($26).
Italian-American dishes impressed both for their careful, traditional flavors and their original flourishes. Sweetbreads piccata was a marvel, the rich, gamey flavor of the organ meat enhanced rather than overwhelmed by the tart, lemony sauce, the briny capers and artichoke hearts ($18). Chanterelle and shiitake mushrooms added just the right woodsy sweetness, their soft, dense texture contrasting with the crisp, light coating of the sweetbreads.
A generous plate of soft, light gnocchi were bathed in an alchemical sauce of olive oil, pasta water and Pecorino Romano, a rich coating lightened by a profusion of greenery: fresh peas, asparagus and wilted spinach ($16).
Mexican-inspired dishes included airy, crisp chicherones (fried pig skin) sprinkled with shredded manchego; as well as braised short rib tacos, heady with the dark, earthy aroma of mole, simply garnished with fried onions and cilantro and folded into warm corn tortillas.
So many more dishes are worth mentioning, like the mac 'n' cheese, with its smooth, soft sauce and chunks of sweet lobster ($14); the spicy apple-fennel slaw that should forever accompany all pork chops ($18); the crisp flatbreads whose chewy, well-browned crusts made up for so many mediocre flatbreads before them ($10-$12).
Ours wasn't the only table ordering too much food. At a place like this, it's hard to know when to stop.
Desserts were simple and well-conceived -- strong, sweet finishes to bring a meal to a proper close ($7). Chocolate pot de creme, on the milkier side of the spectrum, was softer, and weirdly richer than the dry, dark versions that have become popular. A fantastic key lime pie sandwiched wonderfully tart curd between a graham cracker crust and a cloud of meringue. Panna cotta tended to be a little too stiff, or maybe just too cold, but a blueberry-basil topping captured the best of summer flavors, quite literally, in a jar (most of the desserts are prepared in jars, a cute concept, though one which makes sharing trickier than usual).
There's a credible wine list, offered entirely by the glass or the bottle, but cocktails and beer are mostly, rightly, the drinks of choice. Beer comes on draft or in cans -- you'll be surprised by the number of options. Cocktails ranged from bright and refreshing, such as the rosemary scented Gin Richard ($8) and the foamy, citrusy Tequila Fizz ($9) to more assertive concoctions, such as the aged Manhattan ($13), garnished with a delectable, liquor-soaked cherry.
Bar staff and servers alike were knowledgeable, attentive and quick on their feet. But it should be noted that I was recognized early on by one server, who happened to be a friend of a friend and the kitchen seemed to take notice. An extra dish was sent out on a later visit, purportedly an apology for the unavailability of the beef carpaccio: An eye-popping plate of beef tartare, rough chopped and bound up with capers, parsley, radishes and scallions and served piled on a single marrow bone. Whatever its motivation, it made for magnificent eating, and it turned up on the menu a week or so later.
The name Meat & Potatoes may be a play on the traditional, and much maligned, American dinner, but the restaurant is a celebration of America's contemporary restaurant scene, arguably among the most exciting and diverse in the modern world. With restaurants like this one, Pittsburgh is doing its part.
China Millman: 412-263-1198 or firstname.lastname@example.org . Follow her at twitter.com/chinamillman. First Published August 18, 2011 4:00 AM