Dining Review: Asian-themed Soba still attracts young diners 10 years on
Ryan Burke, general manager of Soba in Shadyside, which serves innovative, seasonally inspired food.
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Pale gold gauze drapes expansive windows, creating a wall of shimmering silk. The main dining room is broken up into a series of intimate spaces by the jagged lines of a stairwell -- black paint stark against a strip of golden wood. A low wall is embedded with stones, another is literally a waterfall.
Soba would have created a stir in any city, but in Pittsburgh the crowds have remained devoted long after they should have moved on to the next trendy restaurant. Their continued loyalty speaks volumes both about the substance underlying Soba's sheen of glamour, and the fact that even after 10 years, it is still one of very few restaurants catering to young, stylish Pittsburghers with money to spend.
Soba frequently updates its menu with a focus on seasonality and freshness. Executive Sous Chef Danielle Kane credits ingredients from local farmers for providing much of their inspiration. On my visits, chunks of local apple emphasized the sweetness of braised pork and shrimp fried rice ($17), as well as adding a pleasant crunchy note to Duck hot pot ($24), though I think I would have preferred a traditional braised leg to the duck breast, which got a little soggy in the peppery, complex broth. Braised greens, baby carrots and root vegetables were other signposts that fall had truly arrived.
5847 Ellsworth Ave.
- Hours: Sunday-Thursday, 5 p.m.-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday, 5 p.m.-11 p.m.
- Basics: Sophisticated, sultry and smooth, Soba pleases the eye and the palate. Serous diners will want to seek out the restaurant's more unusual offerings.
- Recommended Dishes: Sockeye Salmon Two Ways, Pork Dumplings, Thai Corn Chowder, Braised Pork and Shrimp Fried Rice, Seared Rare Tuna, Braised Beef Short Rib, Pumpkin Creme Brulee, Poached Pear in Puff Pastry.
- Prices: Small Plates, $6-$11; Soups and Salads, $6-$12; Large Plates and Bowls, $16-$36; Desserts, $7.50; Wine by the glass starts at $8, bottles start at $28.
- Summary: Wheelchair access on first floor only; smoking permitted in the lounge and patio areas; small parking lot is usually full and parking can be difficult on crowded Ellsworth Ave; credit cards accepted; reservations recommended; corkage $20.
- Noise Level: Low to loud depending on your seat.
Braised Beef Short Rib ($25) is the "in" dish this winter -- you can find it on menus all over the city, but no one has a version as innovative as Soba's. Executive Chef Jamie Achmoody reinvents the perfect cold-weather dish, balancing the rich fatty cut with a clever combination of Massaman curry, which gets its distinctive flavor from the sour-sweet tamarind fruit, and kafir lime gremolata, a brilliant twist on the traditional accompaniment to veal osso bucco.
The Thai Corn Chowder ($6) was surprisingly spicy in the manner of a Thai green curry, but the sweetness of the corn and the crab meat came through beautifully.
Pastry Chef Melisha Stoltenburg's best desserts made splendid use of seasonal fruit, including a stunning poached pear in puff pastry with creme anglaise and creme fraiche ice cream ($7.50); and a thick, luscious pumpkin creme brulee with a spicy tuille cookie studded with pumpkin seeds ($7.50).
A few dishes suffer from creativity without enough forethought.
Crispy whole Bronzini ($25) was presented "fighting fish" style. The filets had been carefully separated from the bones, and the central skeleton removed. The fish sat upright, curled as if about to swim away, festooned with a tangy pile of shredded vegetables including carrot and daikon. This dish was delicious, but as soon as I began to eat the fish, the plate became a giant mess. I applaud them for serving whole fish -- the impact on flavor is enormous --but I wish there had been a bit more order to the dish.
The Tandoori Spiced Sea Scallops were subtly smoky and perfectly cooked -- just a bit translucent in the center. The aloo sag was simpler and purer than almost any I've tasted, with spinach and potatoes transformed into ingredients of unexpected richness and depth. Unfortunately, this dish was seriously diminished by the tomato chutney, which smelled and tasted like cocktail sauce. Homemade, well-balanced cocktail sauce, to be sure, but cocktail sauce nonetheless.
These flaws exist, but they are the consequence of a chef and staff that challenge themselves to create innovative, seasonally inspired, consistently excellent food. This level of quality is being undermined by a series of dishes that seem to exist only as "crowd-pleasers." I originally labeled these dishes as dull, signs that the kitchen's creativity was limited to a few star dishes at a time. I was a bit relieved to learn that, frankly, the kitchen is bored with some of these dishes as well, but feels the need to keep them on the menu because frequent customers would balk at their removal.
Pan-fried calamari ($7) was well-executed, but seemed out of place on the menu. Tricked-out with chilies and mint, this was "pan-Asian" at its most mediocre. The Sweet Soy Garlic Beef salad ($12) would have been far better without the salad. Where were the "strong, contrasting flavors" that the server mentioned? The mushroom and spinach dumplings were a poor example of healthy options. Because they had been steamed, there were no textural contrasts. Chopsticks slid right through them and they tasted flat and dull. Crispy Tofu with lemongrass sauce ($6) is another popular item, but I skipped right over it. This type of dish can be found at any standard Thai restaurant. Why order it at a place like Soba?
While I certainly understand the fear that removing favorite dishes will hurt business, I would encourage the kitchen to have a little more confidence. Trimming the menu of a few mundane options and giving creativity slightly freer rein is likely to transform Soba from a very good restaurant into a truly great one.
There's room on the menu for a few standards, but these standards should be limited to one or two at a time. The Seared Rare Tuna ($27) is still worth ordering. Supplies of the highest grade tuna have decreased dramatically in the last few years -- even American companies tend to send their highest quality fish to Japan, where it will fetch much higher prices. Soba's version improves the texture with a thick sesame crust, and bumps up the flavor with wonderfully spicy kimchi, ginger fried rice and addictive Korean barbecue sauce.
On the whole, the service was exceptionally strong, though there were a few minor mistakes. On my second visit, two out of four menus were slightly out of date. This caused several minutes of confusion as we tried to reason out which was most likely to be correct, until our server returned and resolved the dilemma. On one visit, espresso was served lukewarm, and on another, the server didn't ask if we wanted sweeteners or milk until after the coffee had already been served.
The servers had better than average wine pairing skills, which may help you navigate Soba's lengthy, varied and interesting wine list. But be warned, the markups are fairly high. Wines by the glass seem to have a higher markup both by the glass and by the bottle than those wines that are just offered by the bottle. Soba also has an interesting cocktail list, a lengthy list of sakes and a few unique non-alcoholic options such as Tibetan Tea, a sort of herb-based soda made with cane sugar and without any artificial flavors.
Part of me yearned to judge Soba only on its successes and to ignore the mundane dishes that dilute the restaurant's promise, but weaknesses as well as strengths must be taken into account. It's almost as if there are two Sobas, sharing a space and a staff, and intermingling on the menu.
One seeks primarily to please, turning out likable, uncomplicated dishes, catering to the customers' tastes, rather than the kitchen's.
The second Soba takes a little more care and attention to discover. You may not like everything you order; you'll have to take some risks. But this Soba will feed your desire for the new, the exciting and the unique. It is this Soba that will inspire you, even compel you, to return.
First Published December 6, 2007 12:00 am