Sunday, July 28, 2013

Legume: Taking the Industry Out of Food

So, here’s a lil’ secret for you.  I avoided dining at Legume for quite some time.  Why?  It’s simple really.  You see I am a carnivore at heart and the namesake of this eatery led me astray.  Silly little me assumed that a place named Legume (defined as the fruit or seed of plants…think beans for example) was a sole provider of vegetarian delights.  After stumbling upon their website, I realized I was wr…wr…wrong.  It turns out that Legume does plate up some tasty greens, but it’s also one of the best places in the ‘Burgh to savor just about anything. 

Legume is an upscale restaurant in the Oakland area that sources as many of its ingredients from local farms and artisans as possible.  Once those items are procured, the magic begins in their spacious kitchen.  Executive chef, Trevett Hooper, and his team take pride in preparing each dish by hand.  These folks are no strangers to butchering whole animals fresh from the farm or rolling out fresh pasta.  It’s commonplace to witness the grinding of grains to make polenta or to see all hands on deck when pitting bushels of sour cherries.  You can literally taste the time and the love that goes into every thoughtfully prepared dish.

On our latest visit to Legume, my in-laws (visiting from NY) were willing participants in trying one of my favorite dining spots.  As they perused the menu, they asked if we’d ever tried this (Blue Fish with Carolina Gold Rice and Chive Butter), that (Short Rib Ravioli), or the other thing (Lamb and Mashed Pototes).  The answer each time was, “Nope.”  That’s one the qualities I admire most about Legume.  The menu constantly changes because Chef Trevett only uses what’s fresh and in-season.  So if you’re the kind of person who orders the same dish each time you eat at a particular restaurant, you might be saddened by Legume…but only for a moment. Your frown will be turned upside-down because the daily menu (released each day by 5pm) is so masterfully constructed that you won’t be disappointed in trying the latest masterpieces.  (Okay, okay, one time I was looking pitiful because the Cherry Pie for Two they had earlier that week was all gone.)

Blue Fish with Carolina Gold Rice and Chive Butter
Lamb and Mashed Potatoes
Pork Three Ways (Crispy Pork Belly, Pork Loin, and Sausage)
Rhubarb Crisp with Vanilla Ice Cream 
Legume also serves up some delicious, craft cocktails as well.  Drinks are prepared next door at the Butterjoint.  If you don’t have reservations for Legume or you’d like a more relaxed atmosphere, the Butterjoint will not disappoint.  You can still order from Legume’s menu if you choose or you can eat some spectacular “bar food” like fresh ground burgers or house-made pierogies. 

Legume is downright special.  It’s no secret as to why they’re getting some much-deserved attention.  If you care about where your food comes from and you appreciate genius flavor combinations, that only skilled hands can create, then I’ll be seeing you at Legume soon. 

I give Legume: 5/5 forks
214 North Craig Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15213

Neighborhood: Oakland

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Monday, July 15, 2013

Café Kolache: Putting a Unique Spin on a Czech Tradition

If you’ve ever visited Burleson County, Texas you’ve probably eaten a Kolache.  For those of you who are scratching your heads, Kolache are a favorite dessert for those of Czech heritage. It’s basically a slightly sweetened dough with a tasty dollop of filling (poppyseed, cheese, or fruit is traditional) that nests in the center.  Texas is home to many with Czech roots due to immigration during the 1800s. If you can’t visit Texas any time soon, or Czechoslovakia for that matter, then it’s time to set your GPS for… Beaver, PA?  That’s correct!  Thanks to Kristi Harper, once a resident of Austin, Texas, we only need to take a leisure drive to enjoy sweet and savory treats at Café Kolache.

We arrived to downtown Beaver on a sunny, summer afternoon and were tickled to see such a charming strip of shops and eateries!  While there were several distractions on the way (antiques, jewelry, and shoes oh, my!), we were starving and decided to fill our bellies with Kolache first.  It was of the luncheon hour and Café Kolache was brimming with patrons. 

While anxiously awaiting our turn to order at the counter, we were able to see the offerings of the day in the glass case.  At first, my eyes were drawn to the traditional sweet-filled Kolache.  There were blueberry and cheese still left for the taking.  Next to those were the biggest, most scrumptious-looking cinnamon rolls.  The gentleman at the counter informed me that the cinnamon rolls were made out of Kolache dough as well.  Well, dessert was a no-brainer; we ordered one of each.

With my sweet tooth at bay, we moved onto some unique, savory Kolache.  This is the real reason we had made the trip.  At our arrival, they had Ham and Cheese, Chicken Fajita and Jalapeño, and Sundried Tomato and Artichoke.  They also had a few of their “Lunch Kolache of the Day” left: Balsamic Chicken and Mushroom.   We ended up filling our tray with three different choices to share.  We threw in two freshly brewed iced teas to quench our thirst (they also have an array of coffee choices roasted by Prestogeorge) and made our way outside to grab the last table.  Café Kolache also has a lovely indoor seating area if al fresco dining isn’t in the forecast.

When cutting our savory Kolache into halves, I realized how much they resembled little calzones.  Taking my first bite of the Balsamic Chicken and Mushroom variety, however, I realized that Kolache dough vastly contrasts with pizza dough.  Rather than being dense and chewy, it was soft and delicate.  The pocket was loaded with big chunks of mushrooms and tender chicken, and it oozed a bit of the balsamic sauciness with each cut.  Next up was the Sundried Tomato and Artichoke.  The flavors of sweet and salty were nicely balanced, but the filling was sparse.  I was feeling a tad deflated after the first Kolache was so scrumptious. I was unsure of what to expect from the last of our trio.  Any feelings of doubt completely vanished when I took a bite of the Chicken Fajita and Jalapeño.  Once again tender chicken galore, but this time loaded with a spicy punch of flavor.  It was difficult to share this one! 

Balsamic Chicken and Mushroom
Sundried Tomato and Artichoke
Chicken Fajita and Jalapeño 
After getting a free refill of ice tea, I decided I had to at least try a bite of the cinnamon roll that was beckoning me from its “To-Go” bag.  As mentioned, I have a serious sweet tooth and this was not my first face-to-face encounter with yummy looking cinnamon rolls.  Yummy looking is the key here, though.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve bitten into a picturesque roll that was dry or sweetened beyond palatable judgment.  When peeling off the first layer (yes, I’m one of those people), I could see it was moist and had a nice dusting of cinnamon hidden inside.  But did it taste good?  I here by declare, Café Kolache to have the best cinnamon rolls I have tasted to date.  Not only was it fluffy and perfectly spiced, it had just the right amount of sweetness.  The glaze on top was an excellent decision as well.  I’ve always been a fan of the glaze over the 1-inch spread of frosting kinda girl. 

Cinnamon Roll
My husband ate most of the traditional sweet Kolache before I could snap a picture (sorry!).  I took a bite of each, and both were equally amazing.  The blueberry Kolache was filled with plump, juicy berries and the cheese Kolache was rich and velvety.  With these, the filling sits atop a square-cut of dough, rather than inside like the savory varieties.

Café Kolache is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.  If you’ve never been, it’s time for a day trip out of the ‘Burgh.  I’m positive you’ll be smitten with this little town and the friendly folks you’ll meet.  

I give Café Kolache: 4/5 forks
402 3rd St
Beaver, PA 15009

Cafe Kolache on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Everyday Noodles: Noodles with a “Show”

So, confession time… yes, it’s true…I have been to Benihana.  You know, one of those hibachi establishments where you pay a fortune to witness the “showmanship” of some guy throwing a few shrimps at your mouth.  Do yourself a favor; don’t go (even if they did send you a “Free Entrée for Your Birthday” coupon).  Instead, head over to Everyday Noodles in Squirrel Hill.  Here, you can be entertained and eat Taiwanese-style noodles gimmick-free. 

When you enter Everyday Noodles, the first thing you notice, besides the aroma of delicious eats, is the row of cooks/chefs stationed behind a large pane of glass.  While being escorted to your table, you’re very likely to witness (and be totally mesmerized) with a gentleman who is wielding an enormous stretch of dough.  He’ll continuously stretch and pull the dough, making you jump as he slaps it down to the counter from time to time. These cooks are masters at what they do.  Considering the owner, Mike Chen, personally selects cooks from Taipei to visit Pittsburgh to train his employees, it’s no shock to see such expertise.

Once seated, you’ll have to peel your eyes away from the men in the window, to take a gander at the menu.  Paper menus can be found on your table, complete with pencils to mark your dining choices.  You’ll notice that the menu ranges from appetizers to a variety of noodle categories.  For example, you can get your noodles in broth, aka soup, or dry. My favorite noodle soup is the Braised Beef.  The meat was a bit fatty, but it was very tender and flavorful.  I prefer the Noodles with Minced Pork Sauce when ordering from the dry noodle items.  You get the option of trying the thin or wide flour-based noodles (made in-house), or opting for rice noodles. 
Marinated Sliced Beef Shank (Appetizer)
Braised Beef Noodle Soup
Noodles with Minced Pork Sauce ("Dry" Noodles)

There’s no denying that the noodle dishes are amazing, but I have a serious obsession with their dumplings. The steamed pork soup dumplings are what foodies’ dreams are made of: little purses of dough filled with the perfect union of a tender, pork meatball and velvety broth.  Be forewarned though, these lil’ dumplings are equally adorable and dangerous!  If eaten incorrectly, you will scald your tongue and make a mess of yourself… causing those patrons around you to giggle at your tomfoolery. 
Steamed Pork Soup Dumplings
When eating a soup dumpling, you have a couple of choices. 1.) After the dumplings have cooled a bit, dip your dumpling in a mix of soy sauce and vinegar (make sure you get some of the ginger they bring you as well) and then place the whole dumpling in your mouth. 2.) If have no will power to let them cool down, put a dumpling in the spoon they provide you (after you dip it in the sauce).  Then you can hold the dumpling close to your mouth while you bite the top of the dumpling off.  (Some people even suck the broth out at this point.)  Once the steam escapes, eat the rest in one bite.

The potstickers are also a treat for the palate.  We often order the Pork and Vegetable.  When people ask me what potstickers are, I describe it as an Asian pierogie of sorts.  It’s a thin fold of dough filled with meat and vegetables and has a crust on one side where it “stuck to the pot”…get it…potstickers. 
Pork and Vegetable Potstickers
One gripe some folks may have, is that the majority of menu items feature pork or beef.  If you’re a chicken lover, this isn’t the best place for you.  Also, when it’s busy, drink refills are sometimes hard to come by.  Overall, however, Everyday Noodles is anything but “every day”.  On the contrary, dining here is a fun event.  For a reasonable price, you get expertly prepared food and a “show”. 

I give Everyday Noodles: 4/5 forks
Will I return? Absolutely
5875 Forbes Ave.
Pittsburgh, PA 15217

Everyday Noodles on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Mercurio’s: Authentic Neapolitan Pizza and Artisanal Gelato

While visiting family and friends this weekend in upstate NY, my husband and I were sharing our infatuation for Mercurio’s pizza.  Our declaration of love for this charming little pizza and gelato eatery came after dining on a sad pie from the local “pizza shop."  Let it be said now, Mercurio’s is not your average pizza shop.  It’s more like a mini vacation to Italy.

Mercurio’s is operated by Anna and Michael Mercurio (siblings).  It’s obvious that this family run business cares about quality ingredients and the tradition of making food from one’s heritage.  Michael is the head chef and is certified by the Italian government to make Neapolitan pizza.  Neapolitan pizza is distinct from other pizzas because Michael must follow certain rules.  I learned, after reading up on the guidelines on Mercurio's site, that the foundation of most pizzas is simple, fresh ingredients like San Marzano tomatoes for the sauce and mozzarella cheese.  The dough consists of wheat flour, yeast, salt, and water.  Michael is not allowed to use a rolling pin while ensuring that his dough is no more than 3mm thick.  He then bakes the pizza 60–90 seconds in a 485 °C (905 °F) stone oven with an oak-wood fire.  The flavors and textures you get from this specialty oven are incredible.

The toppings are also mind-blowingly fresh and healthy.  Sorry, folks, if you want a grease-laden mountain of processed meats you’re in the wrong spot.  Rather, most pizzas are topped with items such as arugula, artichokes, Prosciutto di Parma, grape tomatoes, basil, and so on.  No napkin blotting or guilty feelings required when dining on this pie. 

Pizza Della Casa (prosciutto, grape tomatoes, arugula, and shaved parmigiano reggiano)
Salsiccia (Italian Sausage, basil, and mozzarella)
Pizza Roberto (basil, grape tomatoes, house-made burrata, and extra virgin olive oil)
If you’re not in the pizza mood, you can choose from a variety of grilled Panini, salads, or munch on an antipasti plate.  My favorite salad is the Insalate Rustica.  It’s big enough to share and consists of spring mix, Prosciutto di Parma, artichokes, Gaeta olives, grape tomatoes, and is tossed in a perfect union of extra virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar.  Often times, we order this salad and a pizza to share. 

Insalate Rustica
You would have to be mad, or lactose intolerant, to pass up on Mercurio’s homemade gelato.  The toughest part is choosing from the day’s 30 or so flavors. (They rotate their flavors fairly often as they have 200+ recipes in their arsenal.)  One tidbit to mull over is that although gelato may seem more fattening than ice cream due to its creamy texture; it’s actually lower in fat.  The texture is due to the fact that is has a little air pumped into it, unlike American ice cream which has 50-100% air injected prior to freezing.  The best part is that it is sold by the ounce ($.70/oz) so you can mix and match and get as little or as much as you’d like. 

It’s time to taste what authentic, fresh ingredients can create.  Throw away that Pizza Hut delivery menu and take a trip to Italy…or Shadyside… and give Mercurio’s a try!

I give Mercurio’s: 5/5 forks

Will I return? Absolutely

5523 Walnut Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15232

Mercurio's on Urbanspoon