Tag Archives: dining out

Ramen Bar

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Unlike the seeming many of my peers, I don’t have regretful notions of a college era spent subsisting off of a ramen. It was there, of course, those shiny plastic packets stocked next to the microwave-safe containers of Campbell’s, the boxes of Easy Mac (the best/worst thing to happen to college students since Stouffer’s frozen mac’n’cheese), and (always my mainstay, even to this day) the PBJ fixings.

But while I was not immune to the seductive allure of processed, easy and fast, microwaveable junk dinners, I had it better than a lot of other students because my campus was small, the dining options quick to get to, the selection of decent quality, and I was the proud owner of a complete meal pass for three out of four years. Even when I moved to a campus apartment, which was outfitted with a kitchen for the express purpose of self-feeding, I continued near daily visits to the dining hall. My ramen era would have to wait.

I am not so ignorant of the food traditions of various other cultures that the idea of a moderately upscale ramen place was surprising to me. Admittedly, I assumed such a thing was inevitable. Remodeling the street food of other cultures into destination dining is an easy sell in the contemporary culinary landscape. The Ramen Bar has a hook that is both international and innately familiar, making it a perfect complement to its fellow restaurants in the busy Forbes/Murray/Shady corridor of Squirrel Hill.

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Summertime, Sweet Summertime: Custard Crossing and Mercurio’s

It was a hellish July, but that gave way to a remarkably lovely August, filled with 80 degree days and 68 degree nights. Still, it’s the Dog Days, and like any good summertime citizen, I’ve been spending the warm weather months enjoying some of the various iced sweet treats available in our fair burgh.

I now live a mere five-minute walk to Oh Yeah! Ice Cream and Coffee Co., and while it’s a little pricey for my day-to-day sweet tooth, it’s an incredible little place that has lived up to every bit of praise thrown its way. The selection of ice cream base flavors is limited, but well-chosen and includes several vegan options. Then there’s the mix-ins, which number somewhere beyond fifty and include fruits, spices, chocolates, candies, meats, and intangibles, like “magic.” In addition, there are waffles, coffee, milkshakes, cookies, sodas, penny candy, and, my favorite extra sweetness, wireless internet. It’s the kind of place that one dreams of owning and operating.

When I haven’t been actively resisting the urge to run down South Highland into the gooey, lovely arms of Oh Yeah!, I’ve been gradually sampling other kinds of local iced offerings. And I have to sing their praises:


On a hazy midweek afternoon, I made a visit to the Waterfront Barnes and Noble, where I rewarded myself for errands achieved by making a stop at Custard Crossing, a frozen custard stand across the way from Panera Bread. City Paper featured a nice little blurb about the shop, notice that it deserved not just because of the deliciousness offered up there, but also due to its intriguing backstory (without spoiling the article, owner Tom Crankovic might have the most admirably one-track mind that ever opened a custard stand).

Custard Crossing also serves Italian ice, smoothies, hot dogs, etc., but the draw here is the sweet, dense custard. Egg-based and whipped with less air than conventional ice cream, the custard is smooth, silky but heavy and absolutely packed with flavor. On my visit to the counter, I bounced between tempting basics like vanilla and chocolate and conventional favorite mint chocolate chip, but settled on maple walnut. It was fantastic, deliciously rich to an absurdity. Every tiny taste boasted a ton of flavor, with the maple and walnut playing well against each other and the innate flavor of the custard. I could have done with slightly more walnut pieces in the mix, but my complaints vanish every time I think about the smooth finish of maple flavor.

I want a scoop of it on a stack of pancakes. Because you can get pints to go, that might just be what I have to do.

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From the Waterfront back to Shadyside. Like Oh Yeah!, Mercurio’s is in the neighborhood, about a ten minute walk over to the main business district on Walnut Street. Their specialty is gelato and Neopolitan pizza, a kind of perfect pairing if you think about it. First the salty, savory pie, then enjoy a little extra indulgence with the gelato.

Like custard, gelato is a low-fat ice cream alternative. It’s lighter than custard, heavier than standard ice cream, and silkier than both, with a lovely, velvety finish to each taste. Mercurio’s boasts thirty standard flavors and a smaller menu of special daily flavors. The organization at the shop was not top-notch (almost none of the display cases were marked correctly and some of the flavors labeled to be available were not in stock), but there’s no denying that the variety gives a customer a lot to play around with.


My companion on this visit, Kate, went for a match-up of dark chocolate gelato and mint chocolate chip. The result was heavy on the chocolate, light on the mint, and perfectly divine. I especially liked the dark chocolate which when slightly melted, had a texture and flavor like that of an uncooked, fudgey brownie.


After some ordering confusion, I got a blend of hazelnut and vanilla caramel cashew. The hazelnut was perfect with the decadent caramel, but it was short on the expected cashew crunch. Didn’t stop me from scooping up every bit I could with the little shovel-like plastic spoons.

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I’m still working through my summer iced treat to-do list, but I’m curious as to your suggestions. Any summertime sweet treats that I have to try?

Brookline Pub


Bar-and-restaurants are not created equal. For every notable, really decent place to grab a brew and some food, there are at least a dozen that are notable only in their place-less, generic nature. These sub-par establishments usually serve the same blend of tasteless, mediocre (and below) food at junk prices to complement whatever beer special is attracting the local population. This isn’t meant as an insult to these places. A perfectly fine watering hole does not guarantee a decent place to eat, but that does not negate the positives of visiting. You just have to keep your expectations in line with where you are.

The problem with setting expectations, however, is that it’s often difficult to discern the good from the bad upon initial glance. Some sparkly, polished, pre-fab pubs offer dismal food offerings, while some of the dingiest, grimiest hole-in-the-walls conceal culinary treasures worthy of frequent visits with or without drinking.

Situated in the middle of the business district on Brookline Boulevard, Brookline Pub certainly has its location going for it. Also to its favor: The multi-room set-up, including a sheltered patio area and an enclosed dedicated non-smoking room. The main area is taken up by a smattering of tables and chairs, with the bar dead center.

As far as general environment, this is the type of place to go drinking, not eating. The main area is large, loud, and smokey, and the non-smoking section is small and rundown. Also, because it is tucked away off to the side, the non-smoking section is seemingly forgettable from a service standpoint. (Although, I will admit, this is more of a service matter than an issue with the layout, which I will get to eventually.)

Given its size, location, and agreeable price-point, it excels as a place to grab a cold one, but as a spot to get some grub, it proved less desirable.

Anyone who has watched a considerable amount of Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares can tell you that one of the main problems found in most mid-level restaurants is that the menu is too large. While a laminated double-sided menu doesn’t seem like it would be huge, Brookline Pub manages to pack a lot of stuff onto both ends, including a list of wing flavors numbering somewhere around twenty. Quantity and variety seem like positives, but so many options give the kitchen little time to specialize and strengthen specific meals. Everything ends up mediocre, and because there is so much of it, that’s a whole lot of mediocre.

Worse still, the mediocre offerings were on classic bar menu items, proving that even something as simple as a chicken wing or pierogi can be undone by lackluster preparation.

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Blue Dust


Pittsburghers have a weird relationship with our industrial past, an equal split of looking backward and forward. We want to move into the future eschewing all that limited us in the past, but our lives and the overall life of our city is irrevocably tied to those very same limitations. We make shopping centers out of smokestacks, but we’re still learning how to address the past concern while retaining a contemporary focus.

This tension is evident in all matter of city-living, including dining out of both high and low end varieties. Truth be told, the more casual, low-key establishments have the edge. However intriguingly the local past is interpreted by the latest four-star restaurant, our industrial roots are far more linked into the culture of the watering hole, the post-work drinking spot, the refuge of idle for those with far too much weight to carry.

It’s very possible to  envision the direct ancestors of Blue Dust as the type of safe haven for the sullen, sullied masses, even as the present-day variation features accommodations unknown to that history. Its placement – just over the railroad tracks from the Waterfront in Homestead – is indicative of the type of establishment it means to be, the type of establishment far more linked with the Homestead of yore than the glossy, consumer-paradise of today.


Pittsburgh’s industrial past is represented not just in placement but in decor. Dusky impressions of mills and factories adorn the far wall and the lighting is spare but golden, hanging from metal rods and fixtures that give the restaurant a factory-floor feel echoed by the earthy color of the tiles and woodwork.

As a simple, stylish homage to Pittsburgh’s roots, Blue Dust’s decor and atmosphere succeeds. But what of its menu? Does it hearken back to the old days of simple, nourishing foods? Or does it play it safe by sticking to contemporary bar/restaurant casual dining staples?

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Silky’s Crow’s Nest


A while back, I worked as a front desk clerk for a hotel and restaurant in the area. Because we had no formal concierge, the front desk was expected to manage visitor requests and questions, among the most popular being, “Where should we go to get dinner?” Many times, this question would be coupled with additional criteria: “Where should we go to get dinner on the riverfront?”

To that question, there isn’t an easy answer. While we have many restaurants on the river, so where can you go is not an issue. Where should you go… well, that’s an entirely different story.

Like any waterfront real estate, properties by the riverside are highly sought after. The ability to dine while overlooking a body of water will never go out of favor – just ask the fine folks of some of the most mediocre restaurants lining our East Coast beaches. It really doesn’t seem to matter to most waterfront restaurants whether their food is of decent quality, their staff well trained, efficient, and friendly, or even their interior atmosphere welcoming. The whole sell is that they’re on the water, which puts their diners that much closer to the water, and that setting in of itself is enough to get people through the door.

There are exceptions, of course. And then there are places like Silky’s Crow’s Nest, which is neither the exception nor the rule waterfront dining, but instead inhabits a limbo between above-par dining and sub-par riverside stride. But, as with many places of its type, the bar and restaurant requires the diner to set their expectations realistically. When reaching for a menu item just a bit above ordinary, the chances of their kitchen turning out something splendid is fairly slim.

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Pure & Simple Bistro


Settler’s Ridge is about what you’d expect from the latest fashion of shopping areas. It’s expansive and open air. It’s filled to the brim with stores and restaurants of both high-class and mid-level appeal. It’s got a big movie theater. It’s got an even bigger Giant Eagle Market District, looming in the corner like an airport hanger filled with food. It’s  a huge maze of parking and commerce that on a busy Friday evening can drive a person to the brink of madness.

What a relief, then, that nestled in there, next to the movie theater, down the sidewalk from the monstrous and cacophony-laden Cadillac Ranch is a little oasis of calm?


Pure & Simple Bistro is about as far away from its neighboring establishments as it can get without an actual physical relocation. As quiet as the others are loud, as simple as the others are high concept, as low-key as the others are high energy, P&S is sweet Southern cooking with an emphasis on fresh, local ingredients and simple, classic dishes done with careful attention paid toward proportion and quality.

Walking through the doors on a hot summer night is like taking a dip in cool waters. The decor is sleek, wooden, and stylish. If you ever wondered what kind of cafe Pottery Barn would have (if, say, they went the IKEA route), you can be it would look like this:

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La Casa

Pittsburghers are often criticized for their so-called lack of sophistication when it comes to dining, but as a recent comment in the Pittsburgh City Paper pointed out, the attention and following of food trends has significantly increased in the last couple of years. We might not be New York City or San Francisco or Chicago or even (thank goodness) Seattle, but we’re not slacking in developing a contemporary culinary landscape.

Well, not slacking as much. We’ve gone from being several years behind the times in trends to several months behind, and that’s progress that I’m happy with, especially when you consider how much other cities have had to sacrifice to make both physical and consumer room for hot new eateries. It’s all well and good that you can try great culinary feats of unbelievable invention and quality, but that doesn’t mean you’re not going to miss those greasy spoon, all-night diners when they’re all but an indigestion-causing memory.

We still have space enough for both the upscale and lowbrow, and as a result, there is plenty to be found in both directions. But if one we’re looking to sample a stretch of businesses that are strictly in the realm of the posh, Ellsworth Avenue in Shadyside is a good street to try, and La Casa is the right place to start.


Nestled in the far corner of Ellsworth, La Casa’s back patio feels miles away from its neighbors, and yet, just peeking over the fences, there is the neighborhood. It’s the magic of Moroccan and Spanish tapas combined with killer sangria, the romance of little golden lights and big, artfully shabby umbrellas. As a spot for pre-dinner drinks and snacks and conversation it works splendidly.

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