The Porch at Schenley brings polish to casual dining
February 2, 2012 10:00 AM
Executive chef Kevin Hermann hits a pan of sweet potato gnocchi with white wine as he cooks it with dates, pancetta and apple.
"The team behind Porch has tailored the restaurant's offerings in hopes of appealing to a wide assortment of its neighbors."
Kevin Hermann, executive chef of The Porch.
By China Millman Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Oakland neighborhood is something of a dining conundrum. Based on its cultural, educational and professional offerings, it should be a restaurant hot spot. But the dining scene is dominated mostly by cheap restaurants and bars (some very good, some not so good) and only a handful of more upscale options.
In this densely packed neighborhood there's little turnover in business or room for new development. However, just recently, two chef-driven restaurants have opened in Oakland: Legume Bistro on North Craig Street, which replaced a longtime restaurant, and The Porch at Schenley on Schenley Plaza.
The team behind Porch has tailored the restaurant's offerings in hopes of appealing to a wide assortment of its neighbors.
Summary: Fine food in a casual atmosphere; chef Kevin Hermann's menu neatly encompasses American classics such as prime rib and burgers along with boldly flavored dishes that take inspiration from Italy and the greater Mediterranean region.
Prices: Salads and soup, $5-$11; small plates, $3-$15; entrees, $9-$25; kids items (drink included), $6; desserts, $4-$7.
Drinks: Seven red and seven white wines available by the glass ($8-$9) or the bottle ($25-$30); five rotating draft beers, and nine more by the bottle and can. Other options include three house cocktails ($8), a homemade seasonal soda, coffee, tea and espresso drinks.
The restaurant offers breakfast, lunch and dinner on weekdays, and brunch and dinner on weekends, shifting the style of service for each meal. A small breakfast menu of coffee and house-made pastries and egg sandwiches is served from a walk-up to-go window. At lunch there's modified counter service, then at dinner Porch becomes a full-service restaurant.
Though drink options are limited to a small selection of wine, beer and a few house cocktails, there are happy-hour drink discounts as well as half-price pizzas on weeknights after 9:30 p.m. There's even a kids menu.
Some worried that adding a restaurant would disrupt the harmony of the plaza's green space. From the outside, however, the angular structure of glass, wood and stone is a lovely addition.
Unfortunately, the interior design wasn't as well thought out. The large, starkly white room lacks a sense of grandeur or intimacy. Neutral fabrics, bright lighting and understated framed artwork make the space feel more suitable for a midlevel chain than an interesting, modern restaurant.
The food, however, offers a sufficient distraction from the generic atmosphere. The menu is relatively long, but there are many more options for entrees than for lighter, individual appetizers. That's not necessarily a bad thing, especially for those who'd rather share a few dishes with the table or just order a main course, and it makes Porch an even more affordable restaurant than it might at first appear.
There are several good options for shared starters. Porch continues the trend of charging for a bread basket, and while the crusty farm bread with a soft, white crumb wasn't particularly distinctive on its own, it was a perfect canvas for generous pots of honey butter, raspberry jam and a lightly spicy apple butter ($4).
The salumi platter was a particularly impressive option, loaded with slices of chorizo, porchetta, prosciutto and a few more types of cured sausages, along with pickled vegetables, mustard and a stack of herb-tinted toasts ($15).
Executive chef Kevin Hermann was hired months before Porch opened, giving him lead time to start projects like house-cured meats.
A vegetable antipasti platter consisted of an equally generous array of colorful vegetables: zucchini, yellow squash, tomato, red pepper, mushrooms, beets and butternut squash, along with fresh mozzarella, almonds, a bowl of olives and a small stack of crostini. At this time of year, it might be a good idea to swap out summer squash, zucchini and tomatoes for hardier vegetables, such as carrots and broccoli raab ($14).
Salads were loaded with vegetables, cheeses and meats. Try the rocket, a flavor-packed bowl of baby arugula, thin wedges of roasted beet, thin slices of pickled shallot, toasted pumpkin seeds, shaved parmesan and thick slices of spicy chorizo, all doused in a tangy sherry vinaigrette ($10).
Careful reading of the "This and That" category revealed a number of particularly elegant dishes. A small portion of sweet potato gnocchi was served in a rich sauce of sage-infused cream, lavishly garnished with diced sweet apples and bits of salty, rich pancetta, as well as slices of dates, candy-soft and sweet ($8).
Two thick squares of crisp pork belly crowned layers of apple cider vinaigrette, a spiral of sweet onion puree and roasted cubes of savory pumpkin ($11). Thin slices of fennel added a crisp, refreshing note to the richness of the pork.
Shrimp and "grits" swapped parmesan polenta for the grits, but the kale braised with diced pork belly, carrot and parsnip was still cooked to a Southern softness ($9).
A word of warning to those with restricted diets. Porch's vegetarian and vegan options are fairly limited, and even if a dish seems suitable, it pays to ask. On the menu there was no mention of pork in the plate of shrimp and grits.
More traditional entrees were divided into "rotisserie," "pizza" and "everything else," and each offered some delicious, often decadent options. Rotisserie chicken was juicy and moist, a petite breast and leg balanced on thick slices of hazelnut bread pudding, moistened with a savory demi-glace ($18). This comforting plate was raised to decadence with well-browned chunks of fennel sausage, scattered about the plate.
Porchetta, too, was garnished with sausage, diced cotechino, as well as a remarkable sauce of reduced port roasted grapes, shrunken and flavorful, like port-moistened raisins but so much better ($21).
A gorgeous cast-iron pan of lasagna was uber-comfort food, the fresh, moist pasta giving way to layers of rich bechamel and beef bolognese ($14).
Even a simple grilled ribeye, well marbled with fat and beautifully brown, impressed for its flavor and its price point ($19). It was served with a salsa verde that was a little heavy on the oil, as well as baby potatoes, par-cooked then lightly smashed and roasted in olive oil, so the skin became incredibly crispy and flavorful, while the flesh stayed moist and creamy.
Mr. Hermann bucks the trend of thin-crust pizzas, offering up a fluffy, sweet crust that was chewy and flavorful. The Bianca layered sweet golden fig jam with goat cheese and mozzarella, drizzled it with truffle oil and topped it all with big handfuls of fresh arugula, a wonderful contrast of flavors and textures ($13). The harvest pie treated pureed butternut squash almost like tomato sauce, spreading it across the pizza so it baked into the crust, the mild sweetness of the squash offset by caramelized leeks, sage and sharp Taleggio cheese ($12).
Occasionally strong flavors weren't quite balanced. A heavy hand with rosemary overwhelmed a salad of bitter greens, roasted maitake mushrooms and toasted bread ($11), while black olives did the same thing to a special of arugula, roasted beets, prosciutto and blood orange.
A lovely salmon filet cooked to a custardy medium-rare was served with a slightly too tomato-heavy eggplant caponata and topped with a salad of raw kale. While Tuscan kale can be delicious raw, it was an abrasive partner for the mild, buttery flavor of the salmon ($17).
Desserts seemed off-kilter with the rest of the menu. An excellent carrot cake flecked with poppy seeds and thickly spread with cream cheese frosting, and a wonderful raisin and chocolate bread pudding ($6) were far and away the best choices.
Service was something of a work in progress. Multiple daily specials, some unusual ingredients and a large dining room place a relatively high burden on servers. Some are doing splendidly, but others fumbled a bit over keeping tables appropriately cleared and accurately describing specials.
Expectations were high, and if Porch didn't make quite the splash that some hoped, I expect it will develop a strong following in time. There are simply too many good reasons to eat dinner in Oakland, and now there's one more reason to look forward to it.