ERIE, Pa. -- Rustic French, authentic Thai, chic Latin-Asian fusion and mouth-watering barbecue; everything one might hope for in a food-focused weekend trip.
Who would have thought all this -- and more -- could be found in this Pennsylvania city that is more widely known for its post-industrial decline than its variety and quality of dining experiences?
After a little Internet and word-of-mouth research, I headed to Erie a few weeks ago to see what the city had to offer. I found an influx of new cuisines and creative cooks -- some open for less than a year -- that have had a big impact on the local dining scene. Erie's proximity to great local products and its up-and-coming status as a wine region don't hurt either.
Bertrand's Bistro, a casual French restaurant owned by the chef, Bertrand Artigues, and his wife, Lu-Ann, a dining room full of well-dressed locals (many of them regular customers) made an immediate impression.
Although the dining room appeared slightly worn, freshly painted dark brown walls, lush ferns hanging in the window, white tablecloths and leather menus projected a cheerful air. Elegant details made a big impact, such as the sterling silver wine bucket that stood next to our table and a linen napkin neatly knotted around the neck of a chilled bottle of Pouilly-Fuisse, ready to be poured into sleek Schott Zwiesel wine glasses.
The menu of classical, but casual, French dishes included charcuterie, frogs legs, steak frites and shrimp stuffed with crabmeat. The dishes were relatively simple, but with an unmistakably French style, including a generous hand with cream, butter and bacon, balanced by reasonable portions and simply prepared vegetables.
Some of the most exciting dishes were specials, including a summery preparation of foie gras, served on a slice of toasted baguette with a tomato and pepper relish, 18-year-old balsamic vinegar and fresh basil ($15). The custard-like liver dissolved into the sweet acidity of the relish, making the foie gras taste even sweeter and richer.
While most entrees emphasized heavy flavors and preparations, there were exceptions, including the Scallops St. Hubert ($23) -- three beautifully seared scallops served on a bed of soft, deeply caramelized, sweet onions.
Bertrand's daily game special was wild boar with a cornbread, chorizo, fig and cranberry stuffing -- a French thanksgiving of sorts ($28). All entrees came with a choice of two daily starches and vegetables. The starches were buttery wild rice or some spectacular diced potatoes cooked in bacon fat. The daily vegetables, beet and cabbage, could have used more seasoning.
Don't miss the fries cooked in goose fat and served with a house-made tomato ketchup and aioli ($5).
For dessert: A lengthy list of sweet crepes and a daily dessert tray. There also was an assortment of house-made ice creams served in a not-too-sweet almond praline vessel ($12), but the real cherry on top of this experience was the excellent, knowledgeable service.
Though our server spoke without a trace of a French accent, she was intimately familiar with the all-French wine list and the menu, easily answering questions about specials such as the cut of wild boar (flank) and what an iceberg mussel is ("supposed to be larger and sweeter than a Prince Edward Island mussel").
Just down the street from Bertrand's is Khao Thai, Erie's first and only Thai restaurant, which opened in late 2009. The menu is smaller than at many restaurants, but it represents a range of authentic options. A warning: If you order your food Thai hot, you will get what you ask for. Impressively, these dishes were as flavorful as they were fiery. Tom Yum soup was served in a beautiful silver pot that covered a heat source, so it simmered away on the table (large, $7.95). A generous assortment of shrimp, tomatoes and straw mushrooms bobbed in the spicy, lemongrass broth.
Chicken larb salad had the distinctive taste of toasted rice powder, and the minced chicken soaked up all the flavor of the spicy lime dressing ($4.95). A refreshing green papaya salad with tomatoes and green beans came dressed in a similar manner and garnished with roasted peanuts ($4.95).
The most exciting dish we tried was the Pad Phed Pha, a stir fry of Thai eggplant, carrots, green beans, broccoli and tofu, flavored with chile paste, fresh basil and young peppercorns. The dish was crowned with bundles of the peppercorns, like miniature grape clusters, which infused the dish with their light, peppery flavor that had an herbal quality similar to the basil ($8.95).
Next time I visit the BYOB-friendly Khao Thai, I'll bring along some beer from the nearby Erie Brewing Co. It offers tours Friday afternoons, but the tasting room is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. A lot of Pittsburgh beer lists feature Erie's mainstay Railbender Ale, but the tiny-but-growing brewery produces four year-round and six seasonal brews. After sampling a range of products, we put together a mixed case to take home.
Bottles of the Derailed Black Cherry Ale were still sweating because they'd been bottled just that morning. This midsummer brew is fruit-forward but quite dry, great for a hot afternoon. This month, they'll start producing Fallenbock, their Oktoberfest lager.
At 1201 Kitchen, Erie-born executive chef and co-owner Dan Kern, along with his sister and sous chef Meg Kern, have been serving a frequently changing menu of Latin-Asian fusion since 2009, while Mr. Kern's partner, J.B. Innes, handles the front of house.
A full sushi menu includes appetizers such as seared kobe beef sashimi with scallion-ginger oil, three vinegars and Japanese sea salt ($15), nigiri and sashimi and specialty rolls, such as soft shell crab with avocado, shiitake, asparagus and sprouts ($12). The sushi was good, but couldn't quite compete with some stupendous offerings on the main dinner menu.
Avocado bisque was served hot, with a texture just slightly thicker than cream, the smooth richness of the avocado balanced by a distinct spicyness. The bowl came garnished with a "jalapeno popper" of charred pepper filled with creamy fresh mozzarella ($5).
Entrees were enticingly complex. Scarlet snapper Vera Cruz was served with a smoky -- yet sweet -- tomato and olive sauce, well-seasoned black bean fritters with crispy edges and sauteed spicy greens ($22).
Slices of grilled hanger steak with beautifully charred edges perched atop egg-sized dumplings made from a mix of potato and masa corn dough. The mild and incredibly tender dumplings were perfect for soaking up every last spoonful of the summer raisin mole, one of Mr. Kern's variations on the mother sauce of Mexican cuisine. Building upon a base of tomato, onion and chiles, the raisins contributed their sour sweetness, slightly counteracting mole's characteristic bitterness. Shredded zucchini and smoked shiitakes added yet another layer of flavor to the dish, the smokiness of the mushrooms somehow enhancing the delicate sweetness of the zucchini ($28).
An interesting wine list, including several local choices, enhanced an already impressive meal. Dessert, however, was not as exciting. A coffee cream milk shake with hazelnut chocolate chip cookies ($8) and a brown sugar shortcake served with whole strawberries and whipped cream ($8) were tasty but not as exciting as I had hoped.
In the future, I hope to experience 1201 Kitchen's chef table, where each Thursday night Mr. Kern prepares a special five-course menu paired with wine for a group of six to eight dinners for $55 per person.
From 1201 Kitchen, it's just a short walk to The Brewerie at Union Station, a brew pub and restaurant built inside a former railroad station. Much of the 1927 station has been preserved, from the arrival and departures board to the soda shop bar -- now used to serve beer -- and even most of the original light fixtures. There's a lengthy menu of typical pub food, but beer seems to be the biggest draw, including a changing selection of the Brewerie's beers on tap and a variety of bottles from Pennsylvania micro-breweries. There's also an interesting list of local wines. If the weather cooperates, check out the trackside beer garden, where you can imbibe sitting on picnic benches as trains rumble by -- a truly urban experience.
Beer, bacon or barbecue lovers should drive to Erie just to visit Three B Saloon, which, as the name indicates, specializes in all three. Owner and cook J.J. Brown is from Edinboro, but he heard a friend was selling his bar in Erie and seized the opportunity to fulfill a 16-year dream. He opened for business in late 2009 and has been slowly building a reputation for the bar's interesting beer list and excellent food, and for the fact that every beer comes with a slice of crispy bacon.
Broccoli slaw combines bright green, chopped florets with red cabbage, bits of bacon and crunchy dry noodles in just enough tart, creamy dressing ($1.75).
The pulled pork sandwich, served on toasted white bread, comes with a layer of slaw as well, a crunchy, tart foil for the moist pork ($7.50).
St. Louis-style ribs, tender without being stringy, are slathered in barbecue sauce with the perfect balance between sweet, smoky and tart. A half-rack order can be combined with various other additions, including a portion of brisket, which is smoked for 16 hours, but carefully.
"We want it to have that smoky flavor, but we don't want it to overpower people," Mr. Brown said.
The menu includes all the usual sides. Don't miss the excellent mac and cheese, gently coated with creamy sauce, with more cheese melted on top. The cornbread, which is baked to order, is light and not too sweet.
Mr. Brown's mother is from Laurel, Miss., and he acknowledges her influence, but many of the recipes are his own. "The broccoli slaw, it took me a lot of recipes to get to where that works," he said, but "the barbecue sauce was the first try."
The bar isn't fancy, but it's a pleasant space, mixing framed football jerseys with a few vintage ads and barbecue-inspired knickknacks.
Mr. Brown tried to talk us into dessert -- grilled shortbread with pineapples, brown sugar and cinnamon, topped with a drizzle of sweet cream icing. It sounded amazing, but with a long car ride ahead, we declined.
Besides, we already had a sweet treat packed into a cooler for the ride home. A dozen raspberry cups from Pulakos 926 Chocolates, a 100-year-old candy business that has a raspberry festival once a year, making thousands of milk chocolate cups filled with two fresh raspberries. "Like peanut butter cups," a helpful saleswoman said, "but with raspberries instead."
It goes to show, you never know quite what you'll discover when you venture out with an open mind and a good appetite.
Correction/Clarification: (Published Aug. 4, 2010) Meg Kern, the sous chef at 1201 Kitchen in Erie, is Dan Kern's sister. Their relationship was misidentified in this story as originally publishedAug. 1, 2010 about Erie restaurants.