This is the working model for Lola Bistro, the 30-seat restaurant that opened in August. Tucked on the corner of gentrified Allegheny West -- Pittsburgh's smallest neighborhood -- the restaurant conceived by chef Michael Barnhouse hits the mark.
Feeling the strain of cliche, the popularity of bistros had waned. "Bistro cuisine has fossilized, as chefs thumb through the same dog-eared recipe cards again and again," wrote New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells earlier this month. "Steak frites, poulet roti, moules mariniere, pate de campagne, creme brulee: the menus might as well be printed on a mimeograph."
Yet, he acknowledges, the soul of bistro cuisine has been rejuvenated by imagination: A surprising ingredient. Masterful technique. Polished service.
Such is the case at Lola Bistro, which illuminates the many lives of Mr. Barnhouse. Having moved here from Seattle with his wife, Yelena, in 2008, he was a chef at Brillobox in Lawrenceville until 2010 and prior to that a chef for Wolfgang Puck in Seattle and Los Angeles and a private chef in New York. The couple opened an earlier version of Lola Bistro for six months in Latrobe in 2010 but decided against the location.
In Allegheny West, Mr. Barnhouse shows empathy for diners who appreciate compelling variations on classic dishes.
"I've worked in a lot of high-end kitchens over the past few years," he said, citing haute and modernist cuisine. "I wanted to get back to Old World cooking with this concept." Simplified, accessible cuisine is also a sign of the times.
Among the first courses on a single-page menu, it's the Caesar salad ($8) that captures attention. Minus the salty pungency of anchovy, citrus and a secret dressing transform a salad from standard to special. "It's a really coveted recipe," he said.
A mixed greens salad ($8) is spiked with the sweet crunch of candied walnuts and seasonal vegetables in a sherry vinaigrette.
Paper thin crisp latkes ($10) plate like a Victorian luncheon, served with a rose of salmon and a confetti of chives. They're one of many creations from Ms. Barnhouse, who also features a pierogi plate adapted from her mother's recipe, served with onions melted to creamy sweetness.
Originally from Siberia, Ms. Barnhouse met her husband at a Seattle restaurant; Mr. Barnhouse served as sous chef and she baked breads and desserts. They moved in together and married in 2006.
Also among first courses, DIY cured meats is on trend, with every other chef sexing up salumi and saucisson. Served with a trio of cheeses, Mr. Barnhouse's charcuterie ($18) is thick-cut and rustic. While it's admirable he cures meat in-house, his charcuterie is still a work in progress.
Ms. Barnhouse is the stickler for excellent service, as Lola is among the more polished experiences I've had in a Pittsburgh casual restaurant. Wine glasses are refilled. Tables are crumbed. Silverware is swapped.
Among the main courses, consider the lamb Bolognese ($24). A generous heap of sauce lines a bowl in which silky fettucini sits naked, save a touch of oil. It's up to the diner to mix pasta, a process that unleashes savory smells and stirs the appetite. It's hard not to finish this dish.
A rib-eye ($32) from the special board is an indulgence but nothing gargantuan. Served with a dainty dice of root vegetable hash, steak pairs with a currant gastrique that complements savory with sweet.
Swordfish ($28) also makes an appearance, a comeback fish that had fallen off menus as the population dwindled. Rated "good" by the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch, U.S.-caught swordfish is dense and mild, served here atop butternut souffle and turnip greens.
Arrive famished for the cassoulet ($24), a one-pot entree of cannellini beans, duck confit, beef, lamb, house-cured bacon and tomatoes. Rich and meaty, Mr. Barnhouse's cassoulet will please groupies of the classic.
Do not skip dessert. "It's seven layers of awesome," said a diner of Ms. Barnhouse's Russian honey cake. To cut the sweetness, Ms. Barnhouse alternates a cream cheese frosting and butter cream. Order this dessert with a pot of French press coffee.
Not everything about dining at Lola Bistro is a hit. A little bar would be nice. And a moodier playlist to set the tone.
But most of all, there's concern. Because it's off the beaten path, an arm's reach from the camaraderie of business, Lola Bistro is not yet on the radar of the neighborhood, nor the city. With terrific dishes, a charming space and warm service, the Barnhouses' efforts warrant survival for years to come.
Correction/Clarification: (Published October 19, 2012) The star ratings in a restaurant review Thursday of Lola Bistro on the North Side included the wrong descriptions of what the ratings mean. The 2 stars for food, atmosphere and overall assessment of the restaurant means it is recommended. The 2 1/2 stars for service means it is recommended to excellent.restaurantreviews
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198; email@example.com; on Twitter @melissamccart. First Published October 18, 2012 4:00 AM