Locals appreciate Big Burrito Restaurant Group for having shaped Pittsburgh's dining scene since the first Mad Mex opened in 1994. Kaya and Casbah soon followed, with Soba making a 1996 debut. Since then, pan-Asian Soba has become a stalwart of Shadyside.
This longevity does not mean the restaurant hasn't seen its share of changes. Most recently, the space expanded into the former College Inn next door, doubling the restaurant's capacity. This new area debuted in May, followed by the renovation of the original dining room, which reopened July 5.
1 1/2 stars = Satisfactory+
1 1/2 stars = Satisfactory+
3 stars = Excellent
2 stars = Recommended
5847 Ellsworth Ave.
5-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 5-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
A stylish bar and a comfortable updated dining room, Soba is an anchor restaurant in Shadyside with a pan-Asian menu, interesting cocktails and a compelling beer and wine list.
Share $9-$14; small plates $12-$14; soups and salads $8-$9; plates $29-$38; rice $18-$22; noodles $17-$22.
Thai corn chowder, clay pot duck, calamari, crispy tofu, pork and shrimp fried rice.
Wheelchair accessible, credit cards, valet, street parking.
- Noise level:
Although "lounge" was dropped from the name more than a decade ago, Soba's ground floor feels loungier than ever. This airy space displays low block seating and mid-century modern accents. A fetching booze library frames the bar while a chill-out playlist sets the mood. Music remains in the background as in the days of yore when it didn't drown conversations as it often does in newer, louder restaurants.
Thankfully there's no sprawl in the dining room, as groups of tables offer islands of intimacy. White tablecloths dress up this space. Low lighting and floral arrangements feminize woods and neutrals. A staircase leads to more seats and a covered patio. Perhaps a nod to Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, the slate fountain wall greets diners in an alcove near the entrance, which eventually will host communal tables for walk-in patrons.
Gutsy menus here have drawn loyalists from the start. The first menu offered nori-crusted frog legs, crowd-pleasing lo mein or mussels in lemongrass broth. A decade later, a menu featured beef short ribs, crispy whole bronzini and Tandoori-spiced sea scallops.
Even with changes to dishes and decor, what was once a pioneering restaurant has settled into mainstream, as many diners no longer consider Asian food exotic.
Asian cuisine has gone mainstream nationwide, as diners learn the differences between regional foods from Tokyo to Thailand. These cravings have given rise to a crew of Asian super chefs, with David Chang of Momofuku the ringleader. While some chefs may satisfy a purist's call for authenticity, others embrace fusion, such as Danny Bowien's "weird Chinese," as he calls it, which appears on the menu at New York's Mission Chinese as chilled kale with amaranth greens or spicy mapo ramen.
At Soba, a new dining room and an alluring beverage program are stylish, but the menu needs tuning. Even with the swapping of seasonal ingredients, some dishes seem dated, while others are overpriced.
Take the chicken ramen, one of the first available in the area when chef Danielle Cain put it on menu in 2011. A Japanese dashi made with kombu, bonita and shiitake mushrooms, Ms. Cain's version displays confit thigh meat and chicken breast, shiitake mushrooms, scallions, grated fresh ginger and an egg.
While the dashi broth is nice, this dish doesn't quite resonate, especially for the price of $22. Even in the very expensive city of New York, Mr. Bowien charges only $13 for his inventive take. Compare this to local starting prices -- $9.50 at the utilitarian Ramen Bar in Squirrel Hill or $10.50 at the charming Fukuda in Bloomfield.
Similarly, the clay pot duck for $27 offers a healthy portion of leg and breast meat over noodles, served with egg, pickled radish and baby bok choy. Thai basil and edible flowers decorate the bowl. The menu tells that the dish features chanterelles, but they're oyster mushrooms.
Service remained inconsistent over five visits. One diner was served a chipped water glass, and servers announced the wrong dishes or ingredients as plates arrived. On one visit, a group had to fetch a check when a server disappeared.
Share plates aim to please and often they do, although the execution is inconsistent. On one visit, a pair of scallops ($13) were served raw in the center and not quite caramelized, atop spicy peach chutney and pickled cucumbers. Calamari ($11) arrived in a super crisp batter, latticed with uni emulsion, garnished with mint and green chilis. On another occasion, grilled octopus with yuzu and hoisin ($14) was a bit dry. Crispy tofu ($10) was a flavorful square garnished with scallions, cashews and a lemongrass sauce.
Frankly, many of these dishes can be found on menus at the growing number of Asian restaurants around Pittsburgh, displaying bold flavors and creative presentations. With that kind of competition, Soba's selections could be better.
But perhaps the goal is to cater to the neighborhood, which fully embraces Soba of the past and present. This embrace may start with a drink.
Built by veteran bartender Rob Hirst, the beverage program is terrific. Mr. Hirst worked his final shifts recently, ending his 11-year tenure at Soba and his 18-year tenure with Big Burrito, to work for Sienna Sulla Piazza, Downtown.
There are 16 cocktails, and the beer and wine lists are intriguing selections that complement Asian flavors. A beer lover appreciated a hoppy Ithaca Flower Power ($6), while another liked the Hitachino White Nest Ale ($10). The sake list displays filtered and unfiltered selections, a handful of sparkling sakes and more expensive special bottles.
Service at the bar is not as strong as the cocktails. "May we get another round?" a patron asked at the bar. "You have to wait for the bartender to help you," said the bartender's assistant on a quiet night. He chose not to inform staff customers wanted drinks, so they continued to wait.
So it goes, especially at a place like Soba, which has such a history and so many loyal fans. With a doubled dining room and a sea change in staffing to accommodate a bigger space, Soba likely will find footing by the fall. In times of transition such as this one, sometimes the thing to do is wait it out.
Melissa McCart: 412-263-1198 and on Twitter @melissamccart.