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.
Me and my lovely dining companion (also known as Mom) were both in dire need of a drink after our respective work days, so we plunged right in with a pitcher of sangria. My mom was surprised by its more savory notes, especially the cinnamon that neutralized the bite of citrus. I couldn’t have been more pleased. So much of what passes for sangria in other places is just a sugary concoction with whatever cheap wine can be thrown into the pot, not that I’m above such a brew in my own kitchen. But if you’re paying a decent amount for a refreshing glass of the stuff, it better be something worth more than some wine discards, a cup of sugar, and an orange slice.
La Casa talks a big game where its sangria is concerned, so I was pleased to see that they delivered on the reputation. Sweet, but mellow, and refreshingly crisp, the two of us managed to finish off the pitcher without too much trouble, although we had to take a few extra minutes at the table to let the drinks work through our systems before we were ready to leave.
Luckily, we had ordered a few snacks to go with our drinks. We stuck to the tapas and sangria template and ordered a few small plates, starting off with the Zaalouk, an eggplant dip similar to Baba Ghanouj, but without the tahini. Accompanied by lightly toasted pita slices, the dip served as an excellent snack starter, the perfect thing to return to between sips of a refreshing alcoholic beverage. It had a nice acidic bite that was well complimented by the neutral pita, and even better when a little olive oil was added to the pita slice. The only slight complaint here is the amount of pita, which is so small compared to the dip portion, it seems to be designed to get diners to pay the extra $1 charge for extra pita. Still, with such an ample portion and not much pita to use it up, there was enough to take with us, which isn’t the worst thing in the world.
Tempura-fried shrimp in a raspberry sauce was the exact type of plate expected at a tapas restaurant, served exactly as you would imagine. Fortunately, it tasted far better than even expected, with the crispy coating yielding to tender, meaty shrimp. The raspberry sauce is surprisingly well suited to the seafood, sweetening the savory elements just enough to counterpoint, but not to overwhelm. But I was most impressed with the fried coating, flakey and well proportioned, delivering a little crunch and a lot of flavor.
For our third and final plate, we went with mushrooms stuffed with crab meat and topped by a tomatoes, chives, herbs, and a thin, crispy coating of cheese. I would have liked if the mushrooms were cooked just a tad more, but the slight crunch did work well with the soft crab, and all of the elements of the dish worked perfectly with the sauce, which was equal notes mustard and lemon. The sauce was so delicious, I was looking for other things to try with it, including the complimentary bread and the (all too scarce) pita slices.
We finished our meal and put some extra calories on top of the booze by ordering dessert, a warm apple empanada served with vanilla bean ice cream and a pool of caramel sauce. Here we hit the only down notes of our otherwise terrific meal, as the apple was gummy and flavorless, the empanada crust was minor and insignificant, and the sauce was all too sharp, overtaking everything with a decidedly rum flavor. The ice cream cooled the flavor to an edible point, but without it, it was too tart and texturally unappealing to finish.
The dessert misstep aside, we were exhaustively satisfied with our visit to La Casa. The service was friendly and quick, if a tad scattershot, but the overall atmosphere was a penetrating and pervasive calm. If this is what people have in mind when they think of upscale dining, I’m more than happy to comply.