Tag Archives: east end

Alchemy N’ Ale


It was a pal’s birthday on Friday and she wanted to go out to dinner, so I asked her where she wanted us to take her. And I got the question:

“What are some good places you know?”

Oh, the question. In any conversation, an enthusiast silently and secretly waits for the question to be asked. It’s the question that once asked will unlock the bounty of knowledge that is at constant unrest inside the brain of the enthusiast. The question that will unleash a torrent of thoughts, opinions and pontifications. When presented to some people, the question will cause a four-hour marathon one-sided conversation that will consist of more exclamations and excited hand gestures then an average person experiences in a month’s time.

Anyone who has a sincere passion for something anticipates the question being asked. In my case, its anticipation coupled with nervousness, because I’m not entirely confident in the amount of my knowledge on my given topic of interest. I’m interested, invested, but how schooled am I?

It should be simple enough to answer a basic question like “What are some good places you know?” but asked at the wrong time and my mind goes completely blank. It can lead to pretty mediocre suggestions.

“Good… good places? Uh… well, there’s… um…. you know…. that new place… remember that one place that closed down last year…. well…. You know, everyone likes Primanti’s!”

(Note: Please advise that this is an example and not a statement of true feelings on the behalf of the writer on the topic of Pittsburgh’s beloved chain of behemoth sandwich mongers.)

Anyway, for people like me who have trouble thinking on their feet (and in their stomachs), Urbanspoon – apologies if it seems like I’m mentioning this site a lot, I just seem to have endless uses for it – allows its members to save desired restaurant finds on a wishlist. Mine started off small enough – a few highly lauded locations – but quickly ballooned. At first, I tried to stick to stuff that was seemingly doable, places in my average price range or easily accessible to my location, but now, I just add anything recommended to me or that sounds desirable in any way. What’s more, I’ve become a bit of a new restaurant hunter and have started to watch the listings of new places recently opened or soon to be opened, and now I add those listings onto my wishlist.

My humble wishlist has grown to more than thirty places, which seems a little like overkill. I’ll be lucky if I get to an eighth of these places by the end of the year. But what it lacks in realistic expectations it compensates for in its new use as the answer to the question. For instance, in this situation with my friend’s birthday, I advised her to do the reasonable thing:

“Oh, check my wishlist on Urbanspoon. I’ve got all kinds of places on there.”

Question answered.

That long and rambling tangent was how we ended up at Alchemy N’ Ale, a new restaurant on Butler Street in Lawrenceville, taking over the spot left vacant by the departed Mama Rosa. The co-owner and head chef of A’N’A served as executive chef at Tribeca Grill in New York, known for its star-studded clientele and star-driven ownership (Robert De Niro is a co-owner), and he’s brought a similar culinary sensibility to this gastropub, only at a slightly more affordable price range for the average Pittsburgh diners.

So, how did the wishlist gamble pay off?

Alchemy N' Ale on Urbanspoon

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D’s Six Pax & Dogz



Sometimes, you run into the limits of reviewing. Some places just seem to resist a direct assessment. For example, it seems kind of silly to “review” D’s Six Pax & Dogs. What is there really to say?


There’s a beer cave. A giant hall of beers, each one available to you, the customer, at a reasonable charge. Where some restaurants offer a one-page list of drafts, followed by a one-page list of bottled beverages, D’s offers you the world of beer. You can stick with the two-page draft list, including such highlights as the Southern Tier Gemini, the Great Lakes Blackout Stout, and even the non-alcoholic 1919 Draft Root Beer. Or you can wander about in the beer cave, running your hands up and down boxes, bottles, your life infinitely more complicated than it needed to be, but it’s beer and you’re here and what the hell, you’ve got the choice make!


D’s also generously offers a great deal to go with your beer. It’s bar food, but reliably tasty. The kind of food that is regrettable for caloric intake alone, but enjoyable for any number of reasons. Affordable enough to pile it on, big enough to share, if you’re drinking and not eating at D’s, there’s obviously something wrong.

The nachos pictured above were shared by four people, which it more than accommodated. We demolished it, wiping up remnants of gooey nacho cheese with scraps of tortilla chips. The taste was akin to snack bar nachos but with better cheese and fresh chips, a taste anyone who grew up going to their neighborhood pool and roller skate rink can get behind.

Then there were the hot dogs:


The top two are veggie dogs, the bottom two are all-beef hot dogs. They’re served on simple but fresh sesame buns and topped within an inch of your life. Hot dogs aren’t much for sharing, so I can really only discuss my veggie Chihuahua dog, with its sharp cheddar, salsa, and piles of jalapeno. The real delight here, and something I honestly never would have thought to put on a dog, was gooey, creamy avocado. It soothed out the greater heat of the hot dog without detracting from any of the flavors. The veggie dog itself was a little crunchy, a little chewy, a good meaty non-meaty hot dog.


We shared nachos. We each ate a mountainous hot dog. Then we shared a pizza.

Again, like the nachos, the pizza is like a really good generic snack bar pie, the biggest difference being the quality of the crust. The crisp crust was denser than it appeared to be and sustained the weight of sauce, cheese, and the significant amount of pepperoni and mushrooms. The sauce is decent (a little sweet, mostly inconspicuous), but cheese is applied in just the right amount, and the toppings, while generous in number, do not crowd out the basic factors of the pie. It’s salty and greasy, but it’s pizza, and it’s a perfect counterpart to its hot dog and nacho brethren.

It’s hard to review a place like D’s because everything works so well within its own environment. It’s not gourmet, and it’s not supposed to be. You don’t go to D’s to eat a life changing meal, unless your plan to change your life includes a triple bypass. You go to D’s because you want to drink some beer and eat the right kind of food to go with that beer. True, there are many places like that in this ‘Burgh. But D’s is undeniably one of the best.

D's Six Pax & Dogz on Urbanspoon

Salt of the Earth


Some restaurants are like rock stars. Everyone talks about them. They’re in every magazine, every newspaper, on every blog. First people can’t wait to be the one who discovered them, and then people can’t wait to be the first to dismiss them as nothing special. They have their devotees, their die-hard fans on one end of the spectrum and on the other end, a whole host of critics with complaints justified and unjustified.

But the point is, everyone knows about them. Rock stars, movie stars, and restaurants. Or maybe it just seems that way because I talk to a lot of people about food. But you know a restaurant has hit the big buzz when your mom brings it up:

“Salt? One of the women from work went there. They make you sit at long tables with other diners.”

Well, yes, Mom, they do. Sort of.

Since opening in last fall, Salt of the Earth  has steadfastly proven itself the new diva of the local dining scene, which is kind of funny, considering how aptly named it turned out to be. While the restaurant has high-end trappings – at least for this city – the general feel, pace, and atmosphere of the restaurant is casual. Let me put it this way: I was wearing an old dress, my dining companion was wearing cords. We saw people in business type dress, we saw people in jeans. Nobody flinched. Nobody stared. It didn’t seem to matter in the slightest.

The main dining area of the restaurant is bordered by two opposing focal points: The large blackboard with the daily menu (the entire menu, including drinks, starters, entrees, and desserts, etc) on one side, the wide open kitchen on the other. The bar lines the far wall. There’s a smaller, more intimate setting upstairs and a few high-seater tables in the windows near the entrance, but the majority of the seating is exactly what my mother presumed, long tables lined by little benches. Oh, and of course, the counter seating that lines the open kitchen, which is exactly where me and my dining companion, Meghan, found ourselves when we visited this past Monday evening.

Salt of the Earth on Urbanspoon

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CSA #1: It’s Easy Being Green

As I have mentioned before, me and my partner have signed up for a season’s CSA subscription to Garfield Community Farm, a volunteer-run, non-profit farm in the upper reaches of Garfield, just a hop, skip, and long jump away from James’s place in Friendship.

One of the reasons the CSA membership to GCF caught my eye is that while other CSA organizations offered more options on subscription length, type of goods, and pick up points, Garfield Community Farm seemed so direct, not just local but super local. Signing up for the subscription meant going to the farm to pick up the produce, walking the very land that was going to grow our consumable goods.

CSA subscribers are also asked to donate some of their time to the farm itself. On pick up days, starting around 6:00 pm, volunteers handle a variety of tasks and chores, all of which benefit the farm and the overall organization. After a few summers of half-heartedly growing a few herbs in my kitchen and on my porch, I’m looking forward to lending a hand… and getting that hand dirty.

But enough with the ramble. On to the veggies!


On the left, a pound bag of mixed greens. On the right, pea shoots.


Radishes!


Kale (L) and spinach (R). Mmm…


Fresh tarragon (L), a cup of brown rice (center), and field garlic.

I am envisioning a weekend of beans and greens. If anyone has a good idea of what to do with the field garlic, let me know.

Food Bloggers Meetup at Paris 66

Though I have dabbled in numerous forms of writing, I have really fallen in love with blogging. Some of this is the nature of the form – I’m an instant gratification junkie, so the quick efficiency of writing and posting blog entries holds great appeal – but what has really gotten me falling head over heels is the blogging community. Among a terrain not exactly known for its restrained, distinguished discourse, specific blogging communities remain calm, welcoming places of exchange ideas and opinions, experiences and photographs.

I have been accused of being a bit of a social curmudgeon because I’m not on sites like Facebook or Twitter. While I admit to some moderate prejudice against social networking sites, the real reason I’m not on any of them at the moment is that my time online is already maxed out. On a daily basis I’ve got a few dozen links to check on, and were I to sacrifice some of the time I dedicate to those sites for say, “poking” friends-of-friends or harvesting wheat in my virtual farm, I would be losing a significant percentage of time that I use to keep up my preferred social networking: Reading other people’s blogs.

Until recently, reading and commenting on other blogs was about as far as I had gotten into actual socialization with food bloggers. I learned how much of a shame this truly was when I finally made it to a Food Bloggers Meetup, this time at Paris 66 in East Liberty.

When you write about food, you want to talk about food. You want to talk about it a lot. And while I am lucky to have friends that are more than willing to humor my seemingly endless interest in the topic, there’s something very reassuring about being among members of the same tribe. When the food is served and my camera was only one of many pulled out, I got a warm and fuzzy feeling in my stomach – and not just because I had drunk half of my very potent French martini.

In attendance:
– Mike of Foodburgh
– Luke (organizer and former Paris 66 employee)
– Lauren of Burghilicious
– Erin (and Kevin) of Community Cucina
– Clara of Food Collage
– Roddy of Rodzilla Reviews
– Janelle of VegOut Pittsburgh
– Nicole (and her lovely spouse) of Yum Yum
– Laurie of Tuesdays with Dorie
– Me and the lovely Kait Wittig, friend and eating partner-in-crime


In addition to meeting these bloggers in person for the first time, I was also making my first visit to Paris 66. I’m a bit of a sucker for romantic little enclaves of atmosphere and expensive dining, and Paris 66 has all the best traps: Softly lit, furnished in polished wood and tables complete with laminated-antique postcard covers,  back patio seating, and, of course, a small, concise menu of French specialties, including crepes, steak frites, duck, and some very foreign- and tempting- sounding hors d’œuvres. Billed as “everyday French cuisine” the menu still finds plenty of room for the mildly exotic.

Paris 66 on Urbanspoon
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Brgr


I don’t really eat red meat anymore. Not as a rule, necessarily, but I just began to realize how little I a) desired it, b) needed it, and c) missed it when I didn’t have it. While I sometimes find myself craving crunchy, slightly spicy fried chicken or a big greasy strip of bacon (especially if that strip of bacon is on a BLT), I never crave beef. I never think of all-beef hot dogs longingly. I never see a big juicy steak and think, “Mmm, I could go for that right now.” I don’t even crave burgers.

It wasn’t always that way, at least not with burgers. I used to love burgers. For a long time, my favorite thing to eat was a burger. A cheeseburger with pickles, lettuce, mustard, and ketchup. Maybe barbecue sauce if I was feeling adventurous. Later I embraced the tomato and onion, and my burger world blew wide open. I wanted the most lavish of burgers and the most minimalist. I made my own and experimented with what I could put on top and within the patty. When someone suggested fried egg, I said why not with hot sauce?

But oh, times change. Tastes develop, evolve, and alter. I enjoyed meat less and less and took to more veggies. I found myself desiring veggie burgers over the regular beef burgers, and then I started to stop craving burgers altogether. Grilled cheese sandwiches, every which way and variation, began to supplant the mighty burger.

What really finished off my burger cravings was a rare break in my red meat abstinence, brought on by the necessity of a long road trip. Stopping at a roadside rest stop, the options for food were meat, salt, meat, salt, salty meats, salted stuff cooked in animal-originated source, etc. Fast food. What’s a girl to do when road-weary, hungry, and faced with limited options?

NOT order a Mushroom Swiss Burger from a fast food stand, that’s for sure. I ordered somewhat foolishly, but only realized my mistake upon sinking my teeth into a soggy, horrible bun. I tasted…. gravy. Canned gravy. Everything was damp. Everything was flavorless, yet greasy. I ate half then tossed the rest in the closest garbage can I could find. To this day, I can’t believe I made it that far in. I must have been really, really tired.

Anyway, that was kind of the gross nail in the burger coffin. But I haven’t turned my back on burgers completely. I just… moved on. But when my friend, Kait, suggested Brgr in East Liberty, my curiosity at the hype surrounding the place was too great to resist. Reassured by a positive review from the veggie-friendly Foodburgh, I was ready to eat.

Brgr on Urbanspoon

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Square Cafe


For such a small business district, South Braddock Avenue is a culinary powerhouse. Upscale options like Legume commingle with delectable down-to-earth favorites like D’s Six Pax and Dogz. Laying somewhere in the middle is a little cafe catering to both breakfast and lunch diners and commuting visitors just stopping in for a cup of coffee to go: The Square Cafe.

My pals (and previous dining companions) Maureen and Brandon had sampled Square Cafe while looking for a place to hold the rehearsal dinner before their wedding. They were thoroughly charmed not just by the food and decor but by the friendliness and attentiveness of the staff. But what really won me over and convinced me that a visit was necessary was their high praise of the vegetarian and vegan options on the menu, including tofu scrambles and soy chorizo. When they offered to take me with them on their next visit, I jumped at the chance.
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