Casbah in Shadyside knows how to makes its customers happy
Veal tortelloni with spinach, lobster pieces, oyster mushrooms and pine nuts, sauced with a butter-enriched reduction of lobster stock at Casbah.
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Casbah, a Mediterranean restaurant in Shadyside, is distinguished as much by its crowds as by the quality of its food. On a Tuesday, it's full, on a Saturday, packed. Don't even get me started on brunch.
One of the earliest ventures from the influential Big Burrito Restaurant Group, Casbah remains enormously popular. This is a restaurant that knows how to make its customers happy and takes great pleasure in doing so.
229 S. Highland Ave.
- Hours: Lunch, Mon.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; brunch, Sun., 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner, Mon.-Thurs., 5-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m., Sun., 5-9 p.m.
- Basics: Mediterranean flavors, local ingredients and refined technique yield impressive results at this lovely, welcoming restaurant. Recommended dishes: Roasted garlic cream, caramelized onion soup, sea scallops with beet coulis, short rib ravioli, cauliflower risotto, braised Elysian Fields lamb shank, grapefruit and yogurt panna cotta, honey-cardamom frozen mousse, raspberry chocolate bread pudding.
- Prices: Appetizers, $3-$14; pastas, $19-$31; entrees, $24-$38; desserts, $8.
- Drink: Seasonal cocktail list, $9-$11; about a dozen bottled beers, including a number of interesting micro-brews, $4-$7.50; 3 sparkling, 12 whites and 15 reds by the glass, starting at $9; 6 sparkling, 7 whites and 13 reds by the half-bottle, starting at $20; lengthy wine list organized in part by region and in part by varietal offers many options for a range of prices; red wine is emphasized over white; very good selection of after-dinner drinks by the glass and half-bottle.
- Summary: Wheelchair accessible on patio and in main dining room; credit cards accepted; reservations encouraged; corkage, $15.
- Noise level: medium loud.
They serve a generous bread basket, a crusty white loaf made at sister restaurant Eleven, with good butter and a delicious green herb spread one evening, a white bean puree on another. Warm colors, whimsical glass adornments and white linen-covered tables add up to a warm and welcoming dining room.
The lengthy menu includes several types of soup and salad, a wide array of meat and seafood options and an impressive number of vegetarian dishes. Portions are ample. The framework is comfortingly familiar. But while Casbah might not directly challenge, it doesn't pander either. Casbah has gently led a large swath of Pittsburgh diners into a more expansive view of Pittsburgh restaurant cooking. After 15 years, it's no longer the most dynamic restaurant in town, but it still has the capacity to surprise.
Take the cleverly named Beet and Potatoes cocktail, Boyd & Blair potato vodka infused with golden and red beets, then combined with a bit of orange juice and tarragon simple syrup ($10). Tart and earthy, with just the right hint of sweetness, one sip transformed skepticism into respect.
A caramelized onion soup reveals hidden depths of flavor, the broth built from bacon and bourbon and a hint of saffron and layered with sliced onions caramelized to a deep, velvety brown ($9). It evokes the ubiquitous French onion in the quietest possible way, a single crostini topped with a few paper-thin slices of Pleasant Ridge Reserve, an award-winning cheese similar to Gruyere from Uplands Cheese Co. in Wisconsin.
Risotto was lightened with cauliflower puree, the creamy rice adorned with a sash of hedgehog mushrooms and Brussels sprouts leaves, crispy and sweet ($23).
The Mediterranean influence is undeniable, but over the years local contributions have proportionally increased. They're relatively quiet about it, but, as at all Big Burrito restaurants, Casbah's staff is devoted to local sourcing and seasonal cooking. You will find no fresh tomatoes or asparagus spears in February. Perhaps more important, the current menus revel in winter staples such as root vegetables and alliums.
Neat wedges of roasted beet lined up in a row were tucked beneath baby mustard greens and endive, bitter and peppery, sprinkled with tart sumac and toasted pistachios ($10). The combination beautifully married Middle Eastern flavors and Western Pennsylvanian ingredients.
A generous dish of creamy roasted garlic spread topped with a layer of salty, gutsy kalamata tapenade and served with grilled bread was a knockout ($10), while cider-glazed turnips -- yes, turnips -- stole the show from a duo of slightly underseasoned duck breast and leg.
Periodic leadership changes have infused the restaurant with new energy. Early last year, Eli Wahl took over the kitchen and in August Christen Biddinger became the new pastry chef.
Mr. Wahl grew up working in his family's pastry shop in Zelienople and later attended Pennsylvania Culinary Institute. After years at the Fox Chapel Golf Club, he spent time as Casbah's sous-chef before being promoted to the executive chef position.
Casbah's menu changes frequently, but one of Mr. Wahl's signature dishes will likely linger on the menu. Veal tortelloni were paired with chunks of sweet lobster and oyster mushrooms, all bathed in a satiny reduction of lobster broth, while a handful of gently wilted spinach and toasted pine nuts emphasize the mild sweetness of the braised meat filling ($29; half, $15.50).
Pastas make up a large section of the menu, and they are unequivocally delicious. Half portions are available upon request, which helps make the menu a bit more navigable. Maccheretto made the most of winter vegetables, the short curly pasta tangling with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, savory kabocha squash, Brussels sprouts, rapini and lots of toasted pecans, which added a wonderful crunch to each bite ($21; half, $11.50).
Short rib ravioli were layered beneath sauteed Swiss chard, mildly loamy oyster mushrooms and a tangy gremolata that cut the richness of the meat ($24).
On the whole, entrees were less exciting, in part because large portions grow less interesting with every bite. On a menu this size, some dishes will invariably be more successful than others.
An aversion to seared tuna, due to its high mercury content and general lack of flavor, was conquered by an unusual accompaniment of linguine sauced with cauliflower, fried bread, parsley and anchovy ($29). The crispy brown cauliflower was amazing, and the parsley and anchovy beautifully flavored the linguine, but the oiliness of the dish overwhelmed some of its flavor and didn't make up for the thick, dry squares of fish.
A tuna tartare appetizer was more successful, assertively flavored with shallots and celery leaves and a drizzle of pomegranate vinaigrette. The slight char on the grilled sourdough toasts added another dimension of flavor ($12).
One of the more impressive plates was a braised Elysian Fields lamb shank, recently introduced as a regular Tuesday special ($28). The braised shank was tender and quite flavorful, if a touch dry at the edges. But it rested on a pool of the silkiest possible white corn grits (Anson Mills, of course) with roasted cipollini onions, so juicy and sweet I could have eaten a bowlful.
Whatever you order, do not skip dessert ($8), which easily makes up for any flaws in earlier courses. An exquisite panna cotta, perfectly set, was bursting with the flavor of freshly squeezed grapefruit juice and creamy yogurt. The gorgeous plate was finished with a winter salad of grapefruit, mint and lemon zest and an airy sugar cookie with a meringue-like texture. Bread pudding, studded with tart raspberries and rich dark chocolate, had just the right texture, each bit moistened by custard, and baked in a thin wide dish to maximize crispy edges. I loved the bold flavor of a honey-cardamom frozen mousse, which tasted something like a pudding crossed with an ice cream.
This is a course to revel in, so consider a glass of port or a flight of sparkling wines. The wine list is another of this restaurant's strengths, well edited, easy to navigate and very food friendly.
Tightly packed tables sometimes make Casbah feel slightly more casual than the food (or the prices) suggest. Winter coats piled on chairs don't help with the crush, so it's unfortunate that so many diners are resistant to checking them. The enclosed patio is a little quieter, a little more spacious, but the heat lamps can become overwhelming, so it's best to plan accordingly.
Servers, however, were consistently first-rate, maneuvering through tightly packed tables with ease, juggling multiple tables, the genuine smiles never leaving their faces, even when dealing with difficult customers.
Casbah is a restaurant that many frequent, but not everyone appreciates. Life has few enough reliable pleasures. This one should not go unrecognized.
First Published February 17, 2011 12:00 am