Grit & Grace

This past week, my wife and I checked out a new restaurant in Pittsburgh called Grit & Grace. It’s located on Liberty Avenue, steps from the Theater District and PNC Park. The chef is Brian Pekarcik (from Spoon). The stated goal is to “push opposites to the extreme to bring a unique and balanced dining experience”, hence the name Grit & Grace. The food has an Asian background, and sharing between everyone at the table is encouraged, especially at dinner time.

The restaurant has only been opened a couple of weeks, but already the place is buzzing with action. We went there for lunch on a Friday afternoon and would not have gotten a table had we not made reservations. The place is immediately welcoming and has a nice feel to it. It reminded me of a bistro, but with a modern vibrant, Asian style.

The staff was very friendly and had us at our table quickly. The lunch menu consists of salads and sandwiches, such as the spicy prawn salad with green papaya, kaykon, carrot, mint, cilantro, basil, garlic, ginger and cashews. There are also noodle dishes such as braised beef short ribs with flat rice noodles, bean sprouts, broccolini, mushrooms, onion and garlic. These dishes range from $6-15 for lunch, and up to $20 for dinner. Not to be forgotten, is a variety of Dim Sum which the staff carries around the restaurant with an option to sample anytime during your meal, for $5 a piece. There is a small, but good, selection of wine (by the bottle or glass), beer, and cocktails.

We first tried a Dim Sum – the Pork Belly bite with orange, chili, garlic and ginger to start our meal. Pork belly might not be healthy with all that fat, but who cares – the pork was perfectly cooked, and every bite a wonderful treat.

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Next we went for the crispy tempura eggplant with vegan mayo, smashed chickpea spread, arugula, and smoked cipollini onions. It came on a wonderful toasted foccacia that had my wife’s mouth watering. The flavors of the eggplant with the chickpea spread, mayo, and smoked onions was flavorful. Her only criticism was that the thick bread overpowered the eggplant. She felt that there needed to be more of the other ingredients between the buns to balance the sandwich.

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We also had the smoked brisket with kohlrabi kraut, thousand island sabayon, pickled red onions, corned beef tongue, and horseradish cream on a baguette. Simply put, it was delicious. The baguette was toasted perfectly and there was just the right balance between all the ingredients in every bite for a very satisfying sandwich.

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We weren’t planning to go for dessert, but when our waiter described the first one, we had to try it. I do not recall what he called it exactly, but it consisted of several chocolate truffles layered on ginger flavored Mochi (a Japanese rice cake) sitting on a bath of crème Anglaise and crunched fruity pebble cereal. Let me tell you, this was a perfect way to end the meal. It’s not uncommon for me to have a wonderful meal at a restaurant ruined by a poorly conceived dessert, but this was not the case as it was one of the best dessert I’ve had at a restaurant in a long time. The ginger, combined with the chocolate truffle, the crème, and the crunch of the pebbles was amazing. The only negative was that we had opted to share it between the both of us – big mistake, and next time we’re each getting our own.

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Grit and Grace is a wonderful addition to the Pittsburgh restaurant scene. Chef Pekarcik has created an innovative menu that takes common food out of the box. Everything is made with fresh ingredients and is well prepared. It’s a perfect place to meet colleagues and friends for lunch, after work or for dinner. I highly recommend it. Reservations are a must (opentable.com). To check out their menu, go to http://www.gritandgracepgh.com

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Liege Waffles anyone?

One thing people know about me is that I love waffles. My nickname in college was the “American Belgian Waffle” This obsession about waffle probably stems from being born in Liège, where the gaufre de Liège was created. It’s a staple of the city (and Belgium) and everywhere one can see people eating these things while walking down city streets.

Liege

Liege

What’s a Gaufre de Liège you ask? Apparently Liège waffles were invented in the 18th century by the chef to the prince-bishop of Liège. They are square, thick, heavy waffle made of brioche-based dough and pearl sugar. The beauty of these waffles is that the sugar caramelizes when cooked, resulting in a delightful treat. The Liège waffle differs from the Gaufres de Bruxelles and the Flemish waffles which are supposed to be rectangular, light, crispy, and contain very little sugar.

Place Saint Lambert ...birth place of the Liege waffle?

Place Saint Lambert …birth place of the Liege waffle?

Lucky for me, I found a place in Pittsburgh that makes authentic Liège waffles. It’s called Waffallonia, and it’s located in Squirrel Hills. It’s a tiny place on the corner of Murray and Forbes avenue, and I can attest that these are quite good – very close to the real thing. You can get them “plain” or with various toppings such as strawberries / whipped cream, or Nutella. It’s a perfect place to go for an afternoon treat or a dessert on the way back from dining out in Pittsburgh. I highly recommend them!

Waffallonia menu

Waffallonia menu

Waffle with Nutella.   Yum!

Waffle with Nutella. Yum!

Kaya at the Strip District

This past month’s issue of Pittsburgh magazine was about the best restaurants in the area. Just looking at the pictures, I started salivating. I thus decided that my goal for the year would be try out all the restaurants on the list. This weekend, I went to Kaya. This restaurant is part of the Big Burrito chain, and is located in the Strip District. The menu is inspired by the flavors of the Caribbean Islands, South America, and the Pacific islands, and as you can imagine consists of mostly seafood (there are a few meat dishes as well).
They have some tables outside, right off a quiet street, and this turned out to be a pleasant place to sit as we found the inside to be too noisy and cold for us. Our order was taken quickly by a friendly waiter. My wife ordered the Jerked Mahi Mahi and I asked for the Lake Ontario Walleye.

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Lake Ontario Walleye

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Jerked Mahi Mahi

We both enjoyed our dishes. Each of us had a perfectly cooked fish and the meals flavor full. I really enjoyed the broth, vegetables and clams that came with the Walleye, but I was surprised that my dish did not come with a starch. A few small potatoes would have been a nice addition I think. The coconut rice went very well with the Mahi Mahi and the accompanying garnish, but the rice was not very warm and I think this was because they put the food on a cold plate instead of using a pre-heated one.

While were were quickly welcomed by our waiter upon arrival at the restaurant, once our dinner arrived, he disappeared. He did not come back to ask us how our meal was, and it took a good 20 minutes after we were finished eating that he returned. By this time, we had decided to skip out on dessert and just asked for the check. This wasn’t his fault however, as he was obviously overworked with too many tables to serve.

All in all, we enjoyed our meal at Kaya. There aren’t many restaurants in Pittsburgh that offer good fish, but we think that Kaya is a good one. The dishes offer some interesting flavors and we look forward to returning again to try several other dishes that looked appetizing.

Vincent’s Pizza Park

I’m always looking for a good pizza. I’ve been told by a number of people that Vincent’s pizza is good, so I decided to give it a go this weekend.

I was told it can get pretty busy, so I went there with the family at 5 PM. The “Home of the Vinnie Pie” was easy to find with a large sign on the roof as it was still daylight, but I noticed that the sign isn’t light up and thus it could be hard to find when it’s dark. The restaurant takes cash only. There’s an ATM inside.

Initial impressions: Good. The place reminded me of a 1980’s pizza joint, and had a comfortable feel to it, for a pizza joint. We were greeted promptly and told to choose our own table which was easy as the place was only 1/2 full. We chose a large booth in the back of the restaurant which fit our party of 7 very comfortably.

SERVICE: poor. Once at our table, 15 minutes passed before someone came to the table to take care of us. Luckily we already had menus on hand so we ordered immediately. Once the order was placed, it took roughly another 15 minutes to get our drinks, and 45 minutes to get our food. We had ordered 2 pizza, the mushroom/onion/sausage pizza came after 45 minutes and the cheese pizza came after 55 minutes. It took the waitress 10 minutes to bring our bill after we asked for it. Mind you, this terrible service occured when the restaurant was 1/2 empty. I can’t imagine what it’d be if we had come later in the evening. On the plus side, the waitress was very friendly.

FOOD: above average. Vincent’s pizza has a thick crust on the edges, which thins out towards the middle. You can taste the freshly made dough, it’s delicious. Vincent also passed my 3 quality assessment test for pizza places: Do they use canned or fresh mushrooms, is the sausage “rabbit droppings” or the real stuff, and do they use real cheese? I’m happy to say that Vincent’s passes on all accounts (fresh mushrooms, real sausage, real cheese) – and that translates into a great tasting pizza. I’d been told their pizza were very greasy, but the two that we had definitely were not in that category. Also, the pizza did not taste too salty (Minio’s, in Squirrel Hill, is quite greasy and salty by comparison).    Another plus:  they have several beers on tap.  We had Samuel Adam’s spring beer which was fantastic.

Vincent's Pizza

PRICES:  reasonable.   A large cheese pizza, which will feed at least 4 people cost $14.    A large 3 topping pizza tops $30 but it’ll probably feed 5 or 6 people.

CLEANLINESS: The dining area was clean. The men’s bathroom was disgusting with the urinal overflowing onto the floor.

CONCLUSION:  Vincent’s pizza makes a great pizza – fresh ingredients, great crust, not too greasy or salty. I put it above Mineo’s pizza for sure. I’d love to have a pizza place close to home which I could frequent on a regular basis, and I had hoped this would be it (I don’t like take out very much, as the pizza never seems to taste as good at home compared to fresh out of the oven) but I don’t think this place will do.   Service was terrible and frankly, it makes me pause as to whether I’d return there. I probably will go back eventually, because the pizza really is quite tasty – but it won’t be anytime soon. When I do go back, I’ll make sure to go early, be in no rush, not starving, and have an empty bladder.

What’s your favorite pizza place?