A “Nu” Adventure, or, The Advantages of Living in Squirrel Hill

We set out last weekend to check out a restaurant that we hadn’t been to yet, Everyday Noodles. We were excited, we had done some research online and had some ideas about what to get, and we had Anna and her booster seat and we were all set.  Unfortunately, I had a lot of work to do over the weekend and I was hard at work all afternoon, so we were also setting out about half an hour later than we had initially planned, getting to the restaurant right around the prime time of 6:15.

When we got there, people were waiting outside in the chairs on the sidewalk.  Multiple large groups of people.  There was a 30 minute wait. And thirty minutes doesn’t work when you have an antsy toddler.

And so, we walked. Where else could we check out?, we asked ourselves. There’s a new ramen place, but that would be a little tough for Little Miss to eat. The new Thai place looked too fancy, and Sun Penang also looked pretty busy.  Then Chris suggested a place we had been talking about a few weeks ago, a place that has been around for a while now but that we’ve never had a chance to check out: Nu.  They call themselves a “Modern Jewish Bistro.”  So, not really having any idea what to expect, we turned down Murray and went to check it out.

And I am so glad we did! I’ll say it was “unexpectedly delicious,” not because I didn’t think they would do a good job with the food, but rather because we went on a whim and with absolutely no expectations or ideas about what to get. And it was wonderful! It was more casual, a little tongue-in-cheek, and our server was friendly and fun. They were running brunch specials for the weekend, and everything looked great. I had a tough time deciding!

Chris got a smoked meat sandwich, piled high with tender, flavorful meat.  Sometimes corned beef and things like that can be a little chewy, but this just melted in your mouth. I got a brunch special (though I don’t think I would have wanted it as an actual morning food): an open-faced sandwich with carved turkey, tomato, thick-cut bacon, and cheddar-hollandaise sauce with a side of shoe-string sweet potato fries. The bacon was delicious, the turkey was tender and flavorful, and even the tomato was fresh and juicy.  Everything was so well done, I was really impressed!

We also ordered a plate of kishka, which our server described as a Jewish stuffing. It was more like a loaf than a stuffing, I would say, though, because I (obviously) didn’t get the chunks of bread that I think of when I think of stuffing. It’s matzo meal mixed with pureed vegetables like celery and carrot, grilled and topped with gravy. We could really taste the vegetable puree in it, making it a little more savory that we expected. It was great, and Little Miss couldn’t get enough of it.

I was sad we couldn’t try dessert (grilled cinnamon babka with apples? Or chocolate babka with ice cream? Yes, please!), but again–antsy toddler puts some limits on your dining experience. With casual fare that was so tasty, though, I look forward to going back again!


A new bakery in town

After my morning work session at my local coffee shop the other day, I decided to check out the newest bakery in town, the Pink Box Bakery. I saw their storefront preparing to open, decorated with bright pink signs with English and Chinese characters, and when I was walking to the library earlier in the week, I saw that almost all of the Asian restaurants had colorful signs advertising for the grand opening of the bakery. Needless to say, I was intrigued.  I was also curious as to what was going to set this bakery apart. There were already a number of bakeries in Squirrel Hill, and a fantastic one right next door; what would make this one different?

Okay, that was incredibly naive of me. Next time, perhaps I should do my research. 🙂

The inside of the bakery was bright, fresh, and very neatly arranged.  Right inside the door, there were baskets and tongs, and the space in the shop was filled with a table and long shelf unit lined with wicker baskets, each full of individually-wrapped buns and pastries, clearly labeled in English and Chinese. There were all different kinds of buns and pastries: savory ones filled with red bean paste or meat, ones topped with cheese or onions, sweet buns filled with cream or topped with strawberry or blueberry. There was also a case with beautifully decorated cakes.  As I was there on a whim and on a budget, I picked up two of the buns. Most of the buns were between $2 and $3, but for a treat, and for the generous size of the buns, it seemed reasonable.

For lunch, I picked up a BBQ pork bun, not really knowing what to expect but intrigued by all the different offerings.  I did a little hunting around online to see how to eat it: hot? cold? reheated?  Most of the recipes I saw featured steamed buns, but this bun looked too GBD (golden brown and delicious) to have been steamed, in my humble estimation. I did find one recipe that baked the buns, and it recommended reheating the buns in a 350 degree oven for 8-10 minutes, so I wrapped my bun in foil and stuck it in the toaster over for 10, a choice which seemed to produce a pretty good product! The bun itself was light and soft and fluffy, and you could taste a bit of sweetness on the golden exterior.  (I’m betting there was an egg wash of some sort involved.)  The pork filling inside was flavorful and diced, and I thought they achieved a really nice balance between the amount of meat and the amount of bun. Granted, I had never had one before, but to my untrained palate, it was a great lunch!

After dinner, Chris and I sampled the second treat I bought: a pineapple cream bun. It was not quite what I was expecting; I think it might be an acquired taste, as I read people raving and reminiscing about them online.  It was a soft bun that had been topped with a slightly sweet, slightly crumbly mixture, so that when it baked, the topping cracked on top, sort of like a shell.  While the bun itself was puffy, there was a large air bubble inside, and on the bottom of the empty space, there was a sweet “cream” filling. It reminded me somewhat of the cheese filling you’d get in a cheese danish, but more sugary. Well-executed, I’m sure, but not my favorite.

That being said, I’m looking forward to going back and trying some other, different baked goods.  There was an sweet almond pastry that caught my eye (but I didn’t think Chris would share it with me), and the savory cheese-topped buns looked delicious. I might try to talk Chris into checking it out with me this weekend, or maybe I’ll just pick a few up for dinner next week!

Istanbul Sofra

A little while ago, I had the pleasure of meeting my friend from work, Julie, out for lunch.  Being an incredible considerate person, she let the “foodie who doesn’t get out much because of the small person who cannot be taken everywhere Mommy and Daddy would like to eat” pick the restaurant. Again, being the considerate person that she is, she was also willing to travel out to my neck of the woods to check out a new restaurant with me, Istanbul Sofra. (When you’re done here, go check out their website. How amazing does all that food look?)

The restaurant is where Alma used to be (I wrote about that…oh, years ago by now, I guess, but we enjoyed our meal there).  It’s on the corner of Braddock and Forbes, across Braddock from Frick Park, which makes for a pleasant space if you sit outside, which we did.  Inside was lovely and felt a little fancier, but we opted for the slightly more relaxed patio seating, and there were plenty of umbrellas to give us some shade while we dined.

The cuisine here is Middle Eastern, and everything we had was delicious! I got the Adana Kebab, which was seasoned ground lamb, reshaped onto a skewer and grilled. I must admit, it was a lot more flavorful than I expected it to be, earthy and with a little bit of heat.  There was a nice yogurt sauce that I thought worked really well to cool down the spices in the lamb, along with rice, a couple of grilled vegetables, and a small salad on the side. I really enjoyed how everything on the plate worked so well together and was impressed with how nicely everything was done.  My friend had the chicken kebab, which I might have to get next time. I enjoyed my dish, but I was a little jealous of how amazing the spices looked on the chicken and how nicely grilled it was. It looked really delicious, and she thoroughly enjoyed it.

Our dishes came with fresh pita, as well. In retrospect, I wish I had eaten some of that with my lamb, because I think it would have paired really nicely together. And because the pita was so thin and soft and delicious, I just wish I had eaten more of it! (I did take the leftovers home, but I gave Anna my leftovers that night for dinner. She liked it…but then there was no more pita for me. 🙂 )

Finally, when we were done with our meals, we ordered Turkish coffee. I knew it was a different experience from other coffees, but I had never had it before. Delicious! But not for the weak coffee drinker.  Apparently (I found this out when I looked it up when I got home), Turkish coffee refers not to the coffee itself but to its preparation. The beans are ground very, very finely–even more so than for espresso, from what I read–and then boiled in small amounts in a special kind of pot with some sugar and sometimes other spices.  The entire mixture, grounds and all, is poured into a very small cup and served. It makes for a very rich, very bold cup of coffee. However, I found it to also be very smooth; there was no bitterness at all.  Served in small porcelain cups set into ornate silverwork that gave it a handle and had a separate lid, the presentation was beautiful and made this something special.  It was a drink to be gently sipped, and it was a wonderful end to the meal. (Here’s a picture to give you an idea of how it was served. Obviously it wasn’t exactly the same, but it helps you picture it if, like me, you’ve never seen this before.)

Over all, we had a delicious lunch (and, of course, wonderful company). Maybe best of all, I think Anna would enjoy this if we were able to get a seat outside, so we can go back again! I definitely want to try more of their food. Next time, I’ve got my eye on a few appetizers and definitely on dessert. 😉

An Unintentional Recipe Shuffle and Other Weekend Goodies

This post is a bit of a jumble. I guess the common theme here is how wonderful my friend are in partaking in foodie adventures with me.

You may have noticed that last week featured Theresa’s Slow Cooker Spaghetti Bolognese.  Recipe Shuffle time!  It looked delicious, she had good things to say about it, it had her son’s stamp of approval, and it would be easy to bring together at the end of the day when Chris was coming home from work–all winning traits in my book!  So I tried it, taking into account her suggestion of adding more herbs.  I added about 2 tablespoons of Italian Seasoning while I was browning the meat.  (I think I should have either used Penzey’s seasoning, which I didn’t have on hand, or added it at a different time. I still could have used more of an herby punch.) I also should have taken her suggestion about adding salt.  I was hesitant after cooking the bacon, thinking that would be enough salt. I was wrong.  (Next time, Resa, I promise to trust you completely. 🙂 )  That being said, it was pretty fabulous, and Little Miss had seconds, so she seemed to agree. I will definitely be making it again!

Speaking of best friends and awesome food, another best friend, Vanessa, was in town this weekend for a family reunion, and she was able to make some time for us on lunch both Saturday and Sunday. We made the most of those opportunities, loving the company, of course, but also the food. Saturday we braved the permanent drizzle to check out Squirrel Hill’s sidewalk sale and the Mac and Gold Food Truck.  I’m a sucker for mac and cheese, so I would like to think I know a good mac and cheese when I eat one…and this was good.  The base mac and cheese was rich and full of real cheese, the perfect balance of creaminess and sharpness. We all got different things with it, which were prepared well and served on top.  I got asparagus, spinach, and roasted red pepper, but I also tried Chris’s roasted brussels sprouts and bacon.  Delicious!

We also spend Sunday sampling some exotic favorites. I’ve been craving Green Pepper’s bibimbap, so we checked them out for lunch (and found a great little consignment shop along the way. We stopped in because Vanessa liked the pants in the window.  She walked out of there with a dress and I got four shirts, so I would say it was a successful trip!).  The bibimbap was fabulous, as always, with great fresh ingredients, rice that got perfectly crispy along the sides of the hot stone bowl, and delicious pieces of bulgogi (Korean barbequed beef).  And then we came back and shared delicate French macarons from Gaby et Jules patisserie, which are just beyond words.  A wonderful shared foodie experience!

So far, this week looks a bit more tame on the food front–maybe a trip to the Pittsburgh Public market and baking something for Chris’s company picnic on Thursday, but otherwise, pretty average. We’ll see how it ends up, though–you never do know around here!  Coming soon, to continue the friends and foodie adventures, will be some notes on a new restaurant…with a new kind of coffee. Stay tuned!

Off Our Beaten Path: Smoke Barbeque Taqueria

Last week, we decided to try something we’ve heard great things about but something that was totally different for us: Smoke barbeque taqueria in Homestead.  They’re apparently known for their unique tacos wrapped in house-made tortilla–and for their macaroni and cheese.  I was intrigued.  Tacos aren’t something we normally do, and I’m a real wimp when it comes to spicy food.  But we kept hearing how wonderful it was, so we went to see what all the hype was about–and when all was said and done, I was definitely impressed.

We headed across the bridge to Homestead and missed the restaurant the first two times we went by it.  The sign is low in the window and the lighting inside was dark enough that it really didn’t stand out.  We nearly missed it even walking by, on high alert for it.  When we went in, surprisingly, we were the only customers there, though a fairly steady stream of people came in while we were eating, both for take-out and to sit down and eat.  It’s a small place with a throw-back sort of feel–the tables and chairs are neat, antique-y looking pieces in a delightful mismatch, the colors are rich and dark, and a giant staircase on one side of the restaurant leads to nowhere.  It’s small, about 5 tables and some seats at a bar–and really, it seemed like they could fit 2 or maybe even 3 more tables in without feeling crowded.  But it did make the place nice and open, which was refreshing.  It’s BYOB, but we hadn’t brought anything, so Chris just got a lemonade–which I was later envious of, as it came with freshly-grated lime rind and really refreshing flavor.

On to the food.  Of course we ordered the mac and cheese, which was pretty awesome.  It wasn’t drowning in cheese, but the cheese they used was still rich and flavorful.  There was a blend of cheeses–including white cheddar and mascarpone, so it was a little sharp and a little nutty.  Some of the cheese was just grated into the macaroni, so it melted together without being too much of a sauce.  It wasn’t what I was expecting, but I think it was better–more real and fresh-tasting, if that makes any sense.  I was also intrigued by their chili and mac–chili on top, mac and cheese on the bottom, and the chili sounds pretty quality, with a different kinds of meat than your standard ground beef (that’s just too boring!).  I might get it next time–and I don’t know if I’d be sharing or not.  😉

And then there were the tacos.  All of the meats were house-made (house-smoked?), and in fact, a new batch of ribs had just come out when we came in to eat, so the whole place smelled amazing.  Chris and I each got two different tacos.  He got an apple, chicken, and bacon taco with a smoked jalapeno mayo.  This was quite tasty, and as I got to try a bite, I can say that I would absolutely try that for myself next time.  He also got a chorizo taco with pinto beans, potatoes, and a smoked pepper pico de gallo sauce.  I didn’t try that one, but Chris said it was a little dry; he would have preferred a bit more sauce with it.  As for me, I got the special that night–a chicken taco with strawberries, toasted pecans, and a strawberry-serrano sauce.  It was awesome, but perhaps a little more heat than I was expecting.  I don’t know what I was thinking (serrano pepper was totally in the description…), but the thing that I liked about it was that, despite the heat, there was a lot of flavor.  It wasn’t just an overwhelming heat for the sake of blowing out your taste buds, but it was well-balanced between the heat of the pepper and the sweetness of the strawberry–it kept me coming back for more.  My second taco was a rib taco with pickles, onions, and porter barbeque sauce, which was also quite tasty.  The pickle was an interesting addition that I never would have thought of, but again, it added a nice contrast and balance.

Overall, we really enjoyed this little place.  I hear that it can get pretty busy at prime dinner time and I know people who’ve tried to eat there only to find that there were no tables left.  Chris and I might even do take-out, as it’s so close, and then we can avoid the possibility of not getting our tacos.  It was spicy, but flavorful, and there’s enough interesting things to keep us coming back to try something new.

SMOKE barbeque taqueria on Urbanspoon

New Restaurant Adventures: Alma

A couple of weekends ago, Chris and I finally had some time to try out a new place for dinner. We decided on Alma in Regent Square, a relatively new place that describes itself as a “Pan-Latin Kitchen.”  I had remembered reading Snickie’s review of it (which you can find here if you’re curious) and thought it sounded good, so it’s been on my radar.  It was a pleasant night and we knew they had seating outside, and it was one of the few times we were able to get our act together at a decent dinner hour so we thought we might have a chance at getting in without a wait.

We were well rewarded.  Almost as soon as it got there, it started drizzling, so we opted for  table inside, but we got to sit by a window, so that was nice.  The restaurant is across the street from Frick Park, so it’s a pleasant view, and the inside is split into two sections.  The front section is very light and open, with big windows overlooking the sidewalk, brightly colored walls, and light wood tables and chairs.  The back looked a little fancier–the colors were richer and darker, the furniture was black, and it just seemed a little classier.  I was happy by the window.  🙂  (Actually, I suppose the whole place is really split into three sections; they also have a Cantina area with drinks.  For tonight, we stuck to the food.)

And the food was excellent.  First, the appetizer, which may have been my favorite part of the meal.  We got the papitas rellenas, which hails from Perú; the restaurant describes it as “yuca and potato pillows stuffed with seasoned beef.”  What they don’t mention is the delightfully crisp fried outside of these little “pillows.”  They were delicious, and the sauce that they were served on was savory and flavorful but not too spicy.  I would absolutely get those again!  (There were one or two others that also looked really tasty, but they had soft cheeses–something I can’t be eating right now.)

For an entree, I got marinated skirt steak with chimichurri sauce on top and black beans and rice (from Argentina).  It was quite good.  I really enjoyed the freshness of the sauce on top–it was more of a salsa than a sauce, really, and like the appetizer, it was flavorful but not hot.  It was a refreshing touch with the beef.  (The beans were a little firm for my taste, but if that’s my biggest complaint, I think we made out pretty good!)  Chris got a beef brisket with rice and pigeon peas (from Cuba/Puerto Rico).  The meat came shredded, looking almost like a pulled pork would look, but it was so juicy and flavorful!  It wasn’t what I expected, but the bites I had were great and Chris really enjoyed it.

We were still up for some dessert, so we tried the tres leches cake (three milk cake) from Honduras.  It was quite interesting, and very tasty.  It was a dense-but-not-too-heavy cake, topped with evaporated and/or sweetened condensed milk (I think that’s what we decided it was) and with whipped cream and berries on the side.  Somehow, though, the cake didn’t get soggy, and the fact that the cake itself and the whipped cream weren’t overly sweet helped balance the sweetness of the glaze on top.

It’s nice to not only have interesting, international cuisine around, but to have it so nearby our house.  I’m looking forward to coming back again and trying some of the other dishes!

Alma Pan-Latin Kitchen on Urbanspoon

The Monroeville Green Mango

Last night, Chris and I had our annual “date night” to the school musical, which means we get to venture out of the city and look for someplace to eat out in Monroeville.  This year, we settled on The Green Mango.  There are apparently now three different locations for this restaurant: one in Regent Square that we visited years and years ago, one in Monroeville, and now one at the Waterfront, which is very exciting.  We had a lovely meal and some excellent food–I don’t know why we haven’t frequented this place more often!

This particular outpost of the restaurant was small but cozy, with walls painted in orange and bright green, adorned with pictures and tapestries.  The service was prompt and helpful.  All of the servers seemed to share the work equally; we were helped by about three different people over the course of our meal, but they were all pleasant and got us whatever we needed, whether it be refills of water or bringing Chris another bowl of rice for his curry.

We started our meal out with somosas, which were perfectly folded into little wedges of wonderfulness.  If you’re not familiar with somosas (I’ve also seen it spelled samosa), they are little triangles of thin, flaky dough, usually filled with slightly-curried mashed potatoes, peas, and occasionally other vegetables.  These are then fried to a golden brown and served with some kind of sauce.  The versions at Green Mango were deliciously seasoned and fried perfectly–crisp and golden without being oily or heavy.  There was a little bit a sweetness, but also a bit of heat in the sauce.  I couldn’t quite tell what the sauce was–the color was reminiscent of a sweet-and-sour sauce, but there was more heat and less cloying sweetness in this particular sauce.  Whatever it was, it was a great start to the meal.

Our entrees came out before we were even finished with our appetizer, which might be my only complaint about the meal.  We had even ordered the appetizers first, because we weren’t sure about our main courses yet, and they still overlapped.  It was a small thing, but it would be my only complaint.

The food, however, was flavorful and made with care.  Chris got the green curry, and though it was on the spicy end of his tolerance level, he greatly enjoyed it.  (I’m a bit of a baby when it comes to spice, so I stayed away.  I was too happy with my meal, anyway!)  I got the pad thai.  I know, it’s a little boring, seeing as I always get pad thai, but I also figure it’s a good benchmark.  Since I’ve had it at just about every Thai restaurant, it’s my way of gauging the quality of each place.  Or maybe that’s just how I justify it to myself.  Either way, they did an excellent job with it.

First of all, they were very willing to work with me.  I requested no bean sprouts at all, and asked for both vegetables and chicken (the normal option is just one or the other).  They were happy to accommodate and only charged me an extra dollar for the vegetables.  Second, the flavor was delicious.  Sometimes pad thai can taste either artificial or overly peanutty, and this was neither.  It was wonderfully balanced.  The vegetables–a lot of carrots, some cabbage, and a few stay green beans and florets of broccoli–were cooked to a lovely al dente, and the noodles were the perfect texture as well.  Finally, the chicken was one of my favorite parts.  In some restaurants, they shred the chicken into pieces and toss it in the sauce–the sauce itself may be great, but the chicken is relying on the sauce for any of its flavor.  Not so here.  The chicken was clearly marinated or seasoned, grilled, and sliced (against the grain, of course, for maximum tenderness) into thin strips.  This gave it its own flavor which complemented the sauce.  It sounds like such a small detail, but it really rounded out the dish.

Overall, a great dining experience.  We’ll certainly have to check out the one at the Waterfront more often, now that we know they exist.  While I’d love to go back and try something else, I would have a hard time not ordering the same thing again!

Green Mango on Urbanspoon

E2, Brute? *

I’m still digging my way out from the culinary posting hole that I got myself into at the end of this past marking period, so this post is also rather belated.  But no less relevant or true, despite the delay!

A few weekends ago, Chris and I were looking for somewhere to go for dinner.  I had a hankering for some good pad thai, so we drove up to Highland Park, near our old apartment, with the intention of visiting an old favorite, Smiling Banana Leaf.  They used to be about a 5-block walk from our apartment, with an affordable menu of really great food.  This was still during the days of Chris’s second shift, Tuesday-Saturday job, so sometimes when I needed a little boost, or on a Saturday night when it depressed me to cook all by myself, I would order some take-out and then walk down to pick it up.  It was a tiny little place, and it looks like it’s expanded since then.

…But, that’s not the point here. The point is that they were booked with reservations straight through to 9:00.  Nine o’clock!  And I didn’t even think they took reservations!  So, happy for their success but sad for our lack of pad thai, we quickly formulated an unlikely Plan B: we walked across the street to E2.  We figured there was no way we would get in, but as luck would have it, we did, and we were rewarded by a perfectly lovely dinner.

This was actually our second visit to E2 (pronounced, as the internet tells me, E-Squared, not actually E-Two).  It’s a neat little restaurant, clearly Italian-inspired though with some unique and innovative dishes, that serves good, solid food without taking itself too seriously.  (Case in point: their appetizers aren’t labeled with as antipasto or something like that; they’re called OMGs and identified by their main ingredient, whether it be vegetable, cheese, or meat.)  The servers have been friendly but not over-bearing, and the atmosphere was just a step up from casual.  Last time we went, we were a little more comfortable: it was a pleasant summer evening, and we got a table on the sidewalk outside.  While it might not be the most picturesque neighborhood, it was still nice to be outside in the early-evening air.  Inside, during the winter, we found it to be a little cramped and a little drafty. But the decor was rustic and homey, with flowers on each table and water served in those large glass jugs reminiscent of glass milk containers that seem to be popular right now.  The room had a giant chalkboard gracing one wall labeling the OMGs and desserts for the day, and bookshelves lining the other (if only I could have seen the titles!).  They also had a room downstairs in the basement for private parties or extra seating.

On to the food.  I don’t remember exactly what we ordered as out entrees last time, except to say that they were delicious.  What I do remember, however, is the appetizer.  Their system of labeling is fun in that you don’t know exactly what you’re going to get.  (And the other nice thing is that they’re priced reasonably enough that you don’t feel bad trying something on a whim.  I think the most recent time we were there, they ran from $4 to $6, depending on if they were veggies, cheeses, or meats.)  I think ours was listed under prosciutto, and we were intrigued, so we sprung for it.  And it was fantastic!  It was a prosciutto-wrapped mozzarella and basil, grilled just enough for the outside to be a little crispy and the inside to be just-melted.  And it was fantastic paired with the signature grilled focaccia, charred just a bit on the outside but thick and full of flavor.

This time, I was a little let-down by our appetizer but was blown away by my entree–I’ll consider that more than a fair trade-off!  We started with roasted carrots, which we just not what I was expecting, I think.  They were served cool and crisp, with a heavy dose of cracked pepper and some parsley.  They were nicely done, just not what I wanted on a chilly winter night, I think.  The entree, however, was another story.  Chris got the chicken with radicchio and arugula over a mushroom risotto; he enjoyed it, although said after tasting mine, he was jealous of my choice.  I got the special, a pumpkin mascarpone ravioli in a butter-cream sauce with walnuts and prosciutto.  It was very heavy, but fabulous.  The filling of the ravioli was deeply flavored, between the pumpkin and the spices, and the cheese gave it a rich, smooth texture.  The sauce complemented it well, with some crunch from the walnuts and saltiness from the prosciutto–a combination that I wouldn’t initially have thought of but that totally worked.

We were both far too full for dessert, so we left it at that.  Between this, Smiling Banana Leaf, and Park Bruges, Highland Park is starting to boast a pretty good restaurant scene along Bryant street, and I’m glad to see it.  This is definitely a place to keep in mind for some good, hearty, twists on Italian fare!

E2 on Urbanspoon

*My apologies to Shakespeare for the title of this post.  I simply couldn’t help it! 😉

A Belated Restaurant Review: Aji Picante

A few weeks ago, Chris and I were able to host an college friend for a night.  She was in town giving a talk at Pitt and needed a place to stay, and we were excited to get to see her and catch up on all of her amazing adventures.  And so we all went out to dinner (and on a weeknight!) and were looking for a good place, close-by, relatively chill, where we could get some great food and just hang out talking for a while.

And so we chose the Peruvian fare at Aji Picante.  This is the second time we’ve been here with friends, actually.  The first time, we tested it out with a friend from choir and her boyfriend (now fiancé–so excited for her!) and the food was excellent.  So we decided to go back, and we weren’t let down this time, either.

The restaurant is small, well-lit but cozy, a nice combination of angles and wood that would look very modern along with colorfully patterned decorations to keep it looking funky, welcoming, and regional.  Both times we’ve gone, our servers have been friendly and knowledgeable, but also willing to let us have our space, something fairly uncommon but much appreciated by Chris and I–and while there are always people there, it’s never been so busy that we’ve felt rushed.  And the food is excellent!

Last time we were there, I got the quinotto (a quinoa risotto with various vegetables, including asparagus, carrots, butternut squash, peppers, tomatoes, and Fava beans); Chris got the crisped pork shank (served with caramelized Butternut squash, carrots and peas in a dark beer and cilantro sauce, or so says their website).  Both were excellent.  The flavor and texture of the risotto was inviting and delicious, and the combination of vegetables was just a little bit sweet.  Of course, being a meat-eater, I was vaguely jealous of Chris’s pork: the outside was deliciously crispy and the sauce was amazing, and I could have gone for a little bit of both dishes!  For dessert, we got  Suspiro de Limeña, which the restaurant describes as “A Peruvian style dulce de leche topped with smooth whipped cream made with Port wine. Its history starts with the wife of a Peruvian poet who invented the recipe. The poet gave it its name because it is sweet and light ‘like a woman’s sigh.'”  I don’t know about that, but it was wonderful, and incredibly unique. The custard was rich but not overly sweet–the sweetness actually came from the Port wine whipped cream.  It was like nothing I had ever had before, but it was absolutely enjoyable.

When we were there last time, both my choir friend and her fiancé got the purple potato ravioli, and so did my college friend this most recent visit.  And so, as a ravioli lover myself, I had to join them.  I got the ravioli, large handmade pockets of dough stuffed with purple potatoes and cheese, in a mushroom cream sauce.  The sauce had a bit of pepper in it, which was unexpected but pleasant–it stopped it from getting too heavy.  The filling wasn’t perfectly smooth, but the potatoes gave it some texture and character.  It was quite lovely and thoroughly enjoyed.  Chris got the nightly special, a pulled chicken dish with a slightly-spiced cheese sauce over rice and corn.  He seemed to enjoy it.  I was too busy enjoying my raviolis.  🙂  For dessert, we tried the Chocolate Crème Brûlée, which was fabulously rich and decadent, with a perfectly caramelized upper crust.  But then, I love chocolate. And crème brûlée.  So the perfection of this dessert was kind of a given.  (But it was executed wonderfully!)

In short, this is a lovely new addition to the Squirrel Hill dinner scene, and absolutely recommended if you’re looking for a new cuisine or an evening out with friends.  We will definitely be coming back to try out the rest of the menu!

Aji Picante on Urbanspoon

Expanding our Restaurant Horizons: Korean!

Last night was a new dinner experience: Korean food!

Chris’s friend Mike is here for just a little while longer before leaving to go home to Seattle, so we three went out to dinner in Squirrel Hill.  We opted to try Green Pepper, a relatively new restaurant on Murray.  We read some reviews of it, and the owners describe it as homestyle cooking–they claim they don’t make anything or do anything that they wouldn’t do for their guests at home.  While some of the reviews found some fault with the service, they all had good things to say about the food.  We didn’t have any complains about the service, and I’m still thinking about how good the food was.

For dinner, we all got bibim bop–for different reasons.  Mike, who’s eaten Korean cuisine before, said this dish was classic, one he gets each time he tries a new restaurant as a kind of yardstick to test it out.  He also recommended it to me, someone who had never eaten Koren food before, because he said it was pretty accessible.  And it sounded so good, Chris went along, too.  It was spectacular!  It came out looking gorgeous, with each ingredient in its own section–mushroom, egg, greens, pickled greens, carrots, turnip, a bit of beef–with rice underneath, all served in a blazing-hot stone bowl.  You’re then supposed to add however much hot sauce you want (I added about 5 drops, Mike added the whole dish of it…) and mix it all up, breaking up the fried egg in the middle.  Meanwhile, the rice along the sides of the bowl gets just a bit crispy.  Everything tasted so fresh and flavorful, it was just wonderful.

It came with three side dishes, but I concentrated most of my energy (and room in my stomach) on the bibim bop.  The side dishes included a cold cucumber salad, marinated fried tofu, and kimchi–which, I am proud to say, I tried.  It was not as spicy as I expected, but the heat combined with the sourness was a little much for me.  They say it’s an acquired taste–I’ll go with that.  We also opted to try cold soju, which the menu described as a Korean rice wine.  (We brought along some home brews, but the “corking fee” for BYOB was $7.50 per bottle, not something we were willing to try.  We had read they were BYOB, so were surprised to find they actually did have some beer and liquor.)  We found the cold soju to be much more of a rice liquor, and had difficulty getting it down.  We sent the rest of it home with Mike.  🙂

Overall, it was an awesome experience, and Chris and I are looking forward to going back.  The only difficulty is going to be forcing ourselves to get something else next time!