Verde has style to spare, great cocktails
The smoked chicken flautas with their crispy tortillas and crunchy cabbage salad at Verde Mexican Kitchen.
The bar at Verde.
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Verde Mexican Kitchen and Cantina opened in Garfield in mid-November. But thanks to owner Jeff Catalina's active presence on Twitter, Facebook and the restaurant blog, by the time Verde opened its doors, the upscale restaurant was already a well-known member of the Pittsburgh dining scene.
Other restaurateurs should take note -- Mr. Catalina created an impressive amount of buzz with relatively little effort, and that buzz has undoubtedly played a role in Verde's constantly crowded dining room.
The restaurant has other assets besides its social media presence. It's strong on style, with colorful lights gleaming through the all-glass facade, which is tucked beneath the angular Glass Lofts. Inside, the sprawling dining room is anchored by a curved bar and a striking display of the restaurant's impressive tequila collection (170 bottles and counting), as well as vibrant murals created by local artist Gabe Felice.
2 stars = Very good
2 stars = Very good
3 stars = Excellent
2 1/2 stars = Very good+
5491 Penn Ave.
- Hours: Dinner: Mondays-Thursdays, 5-10 p.m.; Fridays-Saturdays, 5-11 p.m.; Sundays, 5-9 p.m.; Cantina: Mondays-Thursdays, 5-11 p.m.; Fridays-Saturdays, 5-midnight; Sundays, 5-10 p.m.
- Summary: Tasty Mexican cooking in a colorful, comfortable space with a fantastic, tequila-focused drink program.
- Recommended dishes: Flautas, queso fundido with house-made chorizo, pozole verde, enchiladas de verduras, carne asada, tres leches bread pudding.
- Prices: Appetizers, $4-$10; entrees, $11-$23; sides, $3-$4; desserts, $8.
- Drink: This tequila-focused bar offers more than 170 tequilas and mezcals to sample and explore as single pours (starting at $6) or flights (starting at $7); the cocktail list includes classic and creative margaritas, as well as other well-crafted drinks, $7-$14; there's also a small list of bottled beers and a rotating draft list; the focused wine list offers four whites and four reds by the glass (starting at $7) and bottle (starting at $27) and one sparkling wine by the bottle only.
- Useful information: : Wheelchair accessible; credit cards accepted; reservations strongly encouraged; corkage, $5.
- Noise level: Medium loud to extremely loud.
Verde sets a lively scene. But a restaurant is ultimately only as impressive as the food that it serves, no matter how pretty the Moravian star lights.
Happily, Verde's kitchen, led by executive chef Lynette "Elbee" Bushey, is producing a number of well-executed, flavorful dishes. One basket of crisp, freshly cooked tortilla chips and tart-sweet tomatillo salsa come gratis, a great accompaniment to thirst-quenching cocktails like the copa de fuego, a warming mix of tequila, lime, jalapeno and cardamom, or the lively pina al pastor with tequila, pineapple and cilantro ($10).
There are stick-to-your-ribs appetizers, too, like the queso fundido, a cast-iron skillet of gooey cheese, even more indulgent if topped with spicy, just a touch greasy house-made chorizo ($10). A shrimp and bay scallop ceviche was much lighter, but still generously portioned, the cool seafood seasoned with a tomato salsa and pickled beets and served with thin plantain chips.
Don't miss the pozole, a thin stew of tender braised pork shoulder and starchy hominy ($8). The thin, milky broth was richly flavored and incredibly soothing, but acidity and heat kept each bite fresh. The soup was garnished with toasted pumpkin seeds and served with sliced cabbage, radishes and lime wedges. The large bowl probably belongs on the entree menu, but wherever it's placed, it's a spectacular dish.
The entree section included many familiar dishes, such as fish tacos, chile rellenos and enchiladas, but with more subtlety and panache than diners have come to expect from many of Pittsburgh's Mexican restaurants.
The carne asada was a gorgeous plate, the medium-rare steak gleaming red, fanned out and spread with a chopped chimichurri sauce and thick crispy onions ($20).
Enchiladas can be flavorful and refined when they're not drenched in cheese. The delectable enchiladas de verduras were filled with sauteed swiss-chard, mushrooms, caramelized onions, just a bit of mild fresh cheese and insanely flavorful smoked tomato ($15). There's also a smoked chicken version, which combined shreds of moist chicken with roasted poblano peppers and fresh cheese, the tortillas gently blanketed in a pale green poblano sauce ($16). These were good, but not quite as good as the smoked chicken flautas on the appetizer menu, with their crispy tortillas and crunchy cabbage salad ($6).
Fish preparations change based on availability, which is nice to see, though it would also be nice if servers offered up this information freely. Grilled mahi-mahi fish tacos were substantial and flavorful, and cornmeal-crusted, pan-fried walleye stood up nicely to the robust flavors of capers, kalamata olives, jalapeno and tomato ($22).
Verde isn't an expensive restaurant, but the prices are a step up from other Mexican restaurants in the area. The restaurant's polish, as well as the prices, set the bar high, and some dishes miss the mark.
Puff pastry was a bizarre choice for empanadas, and the rich dough quickly grew soggy ($9). A grilled half chicken was well-cooked, but the mole sauce was a little too sweet and oddly reminiscent of peanut butter ($16). Yucca fries were floury and dry. On one visit, this chicken came dressed up with some delicious charred spring onions, but they were missing a few weeks later.
The chicken, as well as a number of other dishes, was let down by the rice and beans that accompanied it. This essential duo of Mexican cooking was totally unimpressive, the rice overwhelmed by tomato paste; the beans, bitter and drastically underseasoned.
The desserts -- creme brulee, chocolate cake -- were a bit perfunctory, with the exception of an excellent tres leches bread pudding, studded with raisins and moistened by a sweet, milky custard ($8).
The service staff are struggling to keep up with the pace, and there are occasional errors, but they seem to be progressing. In a restaurant with this much bustle, table-side guacamole preparation comes off as more of a distraction than anything else, and it's hardly a unique offering.
A few poorer dishes could easily be shrugged off, but even when the food is at its best, this menu somehow feels disappointing. Verde promised more than just better versions of standard Mexican fare, but those who are seeking a more exciting, challenging style of Mexican cooking are going to be disappointed.
Of course, from the looks of their reservation book, there are plenty of diners who have different expectations. For now, Verde is a more sophisticated bar than it is a restaurant. Those tequilas are worth exploring over many evenings. The appealing, creative cocktail menu is supplemented by a small selection of wines and a solid beer list.
But I still have hopes that Verde could challenge its customers a little more, and a little more openly. The menu has been changing and adapting frequently since the restaurant opened, and there's no reason it won't continue to do so. The restaurant has finally hired a sous-chef, Ms. Bushey said, which should give her more time to experiment.
Recently, duck and whole branzino popped up as specials, and Ms. Bushey said she was looking for a supplier of lengua (tongue). I'll keep an eye on the menu (and the Twitter stream) and until then, I'll see you at the bar.
First Published February 23, 2012 12:00 am