In this, the third year of Pittsburgh's restaurant boom, diners are experiencing some unexpected trends -- some that are happening in other cities and some that are specific to ours. Here's a look back on the best of the year in dining.
Rise of International Cuisine
Nine new ethnic restaurants have opened on Smithfield Street this year, bringing to Pittsburgh a world of dishes from Syria, Uzbekistan, Mexico, India and Thailand. The eateries are run by relative newcomers to Pittsburgh and offer inexpensive weekday fare.
In Squirrel Hill, Sichuan food has made a mark and we're lucky for it, as the Chinese province is a mecca for some of the world's most interesting food. Cookbook author Fushia Dunlop in "Land of Plenty: A Treasury of Authentic Sichuan Cooking" (Norton, 2003), tells us Sichuan food is very complex, with 56 cooking methods and 23 flavor combinations such as "strange flavor," "hot and sour" and "tangerine."
The month-old Chengdu Gourmet is cooking up some truly memorable rustic Chinese sausage, spicy beef soup, green beans with pork and fermented black beans, and a hot-and-sour cucumber dish. With a daily special list for the daring, that includes everything from mushroom with pig trotters to hot-and-sour eel, Chengdu is positioning itself as an ambitious spot.
Another good restaurant, Sichuan Gourmet on Forbes Avenue, is the go-to for lunch delivery for more than 100 Chinese students at Carnegie Mellon University every weekday because the food is interesting, well-priced and reliable. When you go, try the shredded potatoes in vinegar and the hot-and-sour fish soup.
In Monroeville, Kohinoor is turning out the region's best Indian food cooked by super-talented chef Tamilselvan Thangadurai. The place is run on a shoestring and he doesn't have much staff, so it may take him time to serve your order, which should include tandoori meats; a complex chettinad with poppy seed, peppers and kaffir; and some pillowy warm breads.
Diners can also find Indian-influences in Nepali cuisine among the three restaurants that opened this year including Everest Ethnic Restaurant in Brentwood, Subba on the North Side and Himalayas in Cranberry. Nepali restaurants are new everywhere, with pockets in New York and Texas.
Healthy updated Thai food also debuted this fall at Bakery Square's Asiatique from Ling Robinson of The Green Mango in Monroeville. And in Shadyside, a new Korean place, Nak Won Garden, attracts a line for tables that snakes out the door.
Dominance of Beer, Coffee and Cocktails
In keeping with national trends, local craft brewers are turning out beers that range from low-alcohol sessions to bold seasonal brews. East End Brewing celebrated its 10th anniversary with the opening of its pub this month. And speaking of taprooms, Roundabout Brewery in Lawrenceville courts a regular neighborhood crowd in its first year, as do Millvale's Grist House and Draai Laag.
At more than a half-dozen coffee shops, customers have access to baristas who are more versed than ever on the intricate differences between an acidic Ethiopian and a citrusy Kenyan coffee, for example. Never before could Pittsburghers order espresso served in a range of styles, from bright to sludgy, on account of the style, not the pour.
In the new year, expect more from Zeke's in East Liberty with the first in-town drive-thru. And in Bloomfield, 4121 Main will open with co-owner Kira Hoeg's fancy Danish coffee lever machine.
Focus on Design
Restaurateurs have turned an eye on design this year as more restaurants open and compete for diners. The strongest examples are found Downtown. Look to Butcher and the Rye and Grit and Grace as the first wave. Butcher's baroque decor ranges from graffiti to taxidermy to flocked wallpaper to swine-style flourishes. Grit and Grace is more mid-century modern, with attention to flattering lighting, the backbar design, glassware and table height.
Sienna Mercato has drawn the most attention with a retractable glass rooftop at Il Tetto. At Mezzo and Emporio, the property's second and first levels earn points with pocket walls that allow the outside in. Overall, the place sticks to basics such as brick, steel, slate and concrete.
Expect the design focus to continue through 2015 at Tako, which opens this season, and at the Kimpton's Hotel Monaco that will open Downtown in March.
Despite the fact that many dining events cost well more than $75 a head, many of them sold out for good reason: The food often was better than dishes on daily menus. This is interesting because events used to hold the reputation as having just-above banquet food because it can be a challenge to cook for a crowd. Though I'm certain there are terrific events in many cities, it's unique that some of Pittsburgh's best food is consistently found at city events.
Among the best events were the weekend wine dinners at Bar Marco in the Strip, where early diners dipped in to a three-course tasting menu while the second set enjoyed a 10-course wine pairing at a more leisurely pace. In addition to showcasing the kitchen's most ambitious dishes, Bar Marco served wines that have been among the most esoteric and boutique-y in the city.
This is the second year that Justin Severino of Cure in Lawrenceville has brought in notable out-of-town guest chefs, from "Top Chef" Season 6's Mike Isabella and Bryan Voltaggio of D.C. and Maryland to Mike Solomonov of Zahav and Dizengoff in Philadelphia. Mr. Severino's Italian barbecue at White Oak Farm also was a sellout, a team-player event from the chefs at Dish, Stagioni, Vivo and Piccolo Forno.
Keith Fuller of Root 174 in Regent Square and Rick DeShantz of Meat and Potatoes and Butcher and the Rye, Downtown, often were partners for gigs such as Urban Suppers Downtown from Eat Pittsburgh. And they joined chefs such as Kate Romane from E2 in Highland Park for sellouts at Churchview Farm in Baldwin, which already is selling tickets for its 2015 dinners.
In November, the game dinner at Bar Marco was my favorite event of the year. Sam DiBattista of Vivo, Stephen Felder of Stagioni, Michele Savoia of Dish, Rick Easton of soon-to-open Bread and Salt in Bloomfield along with Justin Steel and Jamilka Borges of Bar Marco cooked at the event. It was here that Pittsburgh chefs plated their most inspired work.
It also was a rare experience for diners to meet Vetri Ristorante's Adam Leonti, who has earned a deep education in Italian cuisine, having studied abroad early in his career and having returned often.
After a dinner like that one, I was inspired by the city's potential -- especially with a little help from visiting friends.