Occasionally diners play the role of a restaurant's guinea pig. This can occur when the kitchen features an exotic offal, a novel preparation or a spectacularly fishy fish: components beyond the confines of the everyday menu.
Specials provide an opportunity to vet a dish, to determine whether clientele is conservative or curious or if a preparation is ready for mainstream.
The guinea pig moment is especially interesting on a culinary Main Street such as Shadyside, far from experimentation in Lawrenceville or East Liberty, where restaurants and pop-ups orchestrate plates new to Pittsburgh.
5500 Walnut St.
Monday: 5 p.m. to 2 a.m.; Tuesday through Sunday: 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.
Up Modern Kitchen is a conscientious, chef-driven restaurant that offers brunch, lunch, dinner and late-night dining.
- Recommended dishes:
Daily specials; grilled octopus with eggplant and garlic; beef jerky; cheese, potato and onion fricco; pappardelle with sausage and greens; gnocchi and duck ragu; half-chicken, potatoes, rosemary and roasted garlic; duck breast, rutabaga kraut, cider.
Brunch $6 to $13; lunch $10 to $13; bar food and late night $4 to $12; soup and salad $6 to $10; pasta $13 to $16; entrees $19-$24.
Bar; dining room; parking on street or in lots can be difficult; credit cards accepted; no corkage fee.
- Noise level:
When what had been an exotic ingredient five years ago makes it to Main Street, it has arrived.
Next thing you know, said ingredient will be featured in a fast-food, mass market taco, or as a seasonal teaser with buildup akin to McDonald's porky McRib sandwich.
A table of three had their guinea pig moment on a recent Wednesday evening at Up Modern Kitchen, the upstairs restaurant from restaurateur Gregg Caliguiri.
Up Modern Kitchen had been Walnut Grill, Mr. Caliguiri's retired player traded in for a more conscientious, chef-driven neighborhood restaurant.
Like an Instagram photo, the room is awash in sepia, browns on browns with beige accents. The formerly open kitchen is sheathed by a mirrored wall. Red and white dish towels as napkins acknowledge a trend.
There have been changes already since Up Modern Kitchen opened this past spring. More than a month ago, executive chef Ron Deluca was replaced by Eric Wallace, formerly at Casbah in Shadyside and Lidia's in the Strip District.
For our meal that Wednesday, sardines seeded a list of specials. Sardines suffered a bad rap until 2008 or so, when foodist destinations such as San Francisco and New York trotted out this fishy fish as a sustainable delicacy, chock-full of vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids.
Sardines were also revived by Mario Batali, the orange Croc-wearing firebrand. To neutralize their fishiness, Mr. Batali pairs them with big flavors: sweet peperonata, or fennel, raisins and Champagne vinegar.
The flavors at Up Modern Kitchen aren't quite as big as those coupled with Mr. Batali's sardines, but they are a start.
A generous quartet arrives naked on a plate, sauteed sardines, head-on. Their papery silver skin glistened. A server delivered them with a bowl of toasted fregola, a bead-like pasta from Sardinia seasoned with a simple trio of chili pepper, garlic and San Marzano tomatoes.
Flaky fish brightened with the juice of fresh citrus, these sardines were quite satiating, though they made for awkward eating. For a diner not comfortable filleting, a clumsy silverware saw is followed by the scooping of pasta pearls as apt to stay on a fork as marbles on a plank. Despite the graceless ritual, the flavors of this dish are resonant.
Whole sardines aren't the only fish diners can order whole. The trout entree ($22) is swaddled in a spiral of pecan-smoked bacon beside a medley of mushrooms and "neeps," a member of the Brassica family along with turnips and rutabaga.
"This is an XY chromosome dish," said Mr. Wallace. "It appeals to guys who like to camp and fish."
Less delightful than sardines if only for presentation, trout must be unwrapped like a tamale before eating, then filleted with a standard blade. This is not first-date food.
If whole fish is not your dish, the menu speaks to diners whose ambition falls in many tiers.
The bar food options are most comforting, for good reason. "People like to eat bar food because they don't want to get walloped when they go out to eat," Mr. Wallace said.
Beef jerky ($6) is cured in-house and served as a butcher papered baton. Warm, spiced olives ($4) arrive in a Mason jar. A crispy mozzarella sandwich ($9), minus crust, is breaded and deep-fried. A fried fricco ($9) sticks to ribs by means of cheese and potato.
The service, though solid, can be as disjointed as this segmented menu, with servers pushing $4 tequila drink specials as enthusiastically as a dinner special.
As a meal unfurls, things even out. The front of the house staff is trained in recommending menu items, presenting and removing dishes and replacing silverware between courses.
The soup and salad selections are puzzling items from a chef whose preference is meat and potatoes.
A beet salad ($10) disappoints like a feature on a lunchroom tray, a medley of undercooked and underseasoned beet and butternut cubes on lettuce.
It is here I fantasize that this restaurant or anywhere, really, offers something creative such as beet tartar: beets roasted and chopped, mixed with caramelized shallots, Dijon, capers, lemon and Worcestershire.
If only more Pittsburgh restaurants showed what they could do with vegetables beyond beans and greens.
More evidence to the contrary, the lone soup of the day, a Pittsburgh chowder ($6) of cabbage, kielbasa, potatoes and onion is layered with heavy cream, stock and thyme. It's an appetite bludgeon by blue collar decadence.
"Eric's not going to be your doctor," said Mr. Caliguiri. "I can tell you that."
Pasta selections will please any picky eater or child, of which a handful were in-house at this family-friendly destination. They include pappardelle with sausage and greens ($15), a balance of starch, protein and vegetable: A satiating one-dish meal. They also include pillowy house-made gnocchi with savory duck ragu ($16), perhaps the most memorable of the pasta dishes.
The half-roast chicken is gratifying, a must-have menu item in many stylish casual restaurants lately. Presented with blackened skin, the half-bird lies on a bed of roasted potato spears and dozens of garlic buds -- it's Mr. Wallace's nod to Jacques Pepin's chicken with 40 cloves recipe. This dish is so fragrant customers can smell it across the dining room.
A duck entree ($29) is striking for its perfectly cooked breast served atop a cider rutabaga kraut dappled in dried cranberries: a sour, sweet and salty presentation.
Speaking of sweet, there's only one dessert -- what Mr. Wallace calls the perfect creme brulee. With Mr. Wallace's menu in its current iteration, a lone dessert should not come as a surprise.
Perhaps he came to an inevitable conclusion. Instead of something sweet, diners wrapping up at Up Modern Kitchen are more apt to crave a nap.
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 or on Twitter @melissamccart.