Soba – Shadyside Neighborhood

We’re always running late. Most of the time it’s due to my wife. It’s not so much that it takes her a long time to get ready; it’s just that she doesn’t actually start the “getting ready” process until way later than necessary to make our planned departure. Thankfully, I can usually make up most of the time by speedily navigating the Pittsburgh streets like Batman in The Dark Knight Rises. However, whenever we run into one of those all-too-frequent occasions of congested ‘Burgh traffic, we fail miserably at making our scheduled dinner reservations and show up late, hungry and cranky. This is not a recommended way to start an evening.

All of the above issues plagued us on the Saturday night of my most recent birthday weekend*. We made reservations at Soba for 8:15, and per usual we left much later than we should. This required me to battle with one of the worst four-lane roads in Pittsburgh – West Liberty Avenue. Surprisingly, after some frantic Frogger-like lane changing and racing through two yellow-nearly-red lights, it was looking like we were still going to make dinner on time. At least that’s what I thought until we got close to the Liberty Tunnels. As soon as they came into sight, all the cars in front of us stopped moving.

I was perplexed at the traffic jam since there weren’t any sporting events or concerts going on that particular evening. I then noticed a preponderance of cops in the area, then looked up to see a guy sitting on the old Norfolk and Western Railway bridge above the sprawling intersection. Apparently he was having much bigger problems than being late for dinner and was threatening to jump to his demise. We were diverted onto Pioneer Avenue and took a serpentine path cutting southwest through the city to Shadyside. I was never able to find any information about the incident on the local news websites so I’m assuming the suicidal gentlemen realized that no matter how hard things get, there are still plenty of good reasons to not give up on life. My personal top three are: boobs, fantasy football and new episodes of House Hunters International.

With a renewed lust for life, we arrived in Shadyside and found a parking spot only (“only” is meant sarcastically) five bocks away from Ellsworth Avenue. The restaurant was pretty packed so it turned out to be very smart of us to call ahead and push back our reservations when we first got diverted by the po-po. We were seated straightaway on the second level with an excellent view of the cascading waterfall installation. The surrounding Asian- décor elegantly promoted a Zen-like serenity without being too kitschy or ostentatious. Though the layout was fairly open, our table felt very intimate and set the perfect mood for a romantic evening that I was hoping would end with me in my birthday suit.

I usually start imbibing with the most appealing micro-brew draft on the menu when I dine out, but I was feeling especially special since it was my birthday and ordered a Maker’s Mark Manhattan on the rocks. It packed a much stronger kick than what I’m used to, but the drink was well balanced enough to not just be tolerable, but rather enjoyable. My wife and I began our culinary experience by splitting the rock shrimp tempura, which came with a yuzu aioli and crispy lemons. I have no idea what yuzu is, and for that matter I’m not really certain what aioli is, but the sauce was delicious despite my gastronomical ignorance. I’m not sure if the crispy lemons were meant as a garnish or not, but I ate them regardless and they tasted great.

The waitress recommended the seared Ahi tuna, which also happens to be one of my most favorite dishes so I excitedly ordered it. Though a relatively simple dish, I have learned through multiple failed attempts at home that the proper execution of seared Ahi tuna is easier said than done. If cooked too little, the briny rawness of the fish overwhelms the palate. If cooked too much, the fish takes on the flavor profile of an old shoe. Thankfully, Soba’s cooks are much more adept than I and delivered a perfect dish. The sesame crust added the perfect amount of crunch, and the crimson hue of the tuna steak looked as beautiful as it tasted. The Korean barbeque sauce and spicy kimchee accoutrements were a pleasant addition and served to further highlight the impeccable richness of the fish. The pickled cucumber-red onion salad and ginger fried rice were a little on the tepid side, but were still good palate cleansers between bites of the tuna.

One final glowing comment about the tuna steak – it was huge! I’m always bothered when you go to a fancy restaurant and leave hungry due to their restrained portions. I realize that not every restaurant is pushing unlimited breadsticks or French fries (though I wouldn’t mind if they did), but when you pay a lot for a meal at a restaurant, you want to leave satisfied. Soba’s entree took care of my super-sized hunger, though I did somehow find room to split the delicious chocolate pretzel stack dessert with my wife. The ingredients were nuanced enough to be interesting (wonton pretzel chips/miso caramel), but decadent enough to be fulfilling (malted milk ice cream).

Final Call: Soba was quite nondescript on the outside. However, this humdrum façade belied an interior that was sleek, stylish and – dare I say – sexy. The spirits and food delivered an experience commensurate with the swanky atmosphere and haughty prices, and the service was as pleasantly helpful as it was unintrusive. Soba is the perfect spot for a romantic outing and would undoubtedly assist in getting you to at least third base** by the end of the night.

* My birthday fell on a Tuesday this year, which by rule mandates that the actual celebration begin on the previous Friday.

** If I recall correctly, first base is French kissing, second base is touching boobs, and third base is…well…touching you-know-what. I’m really not sure if those definitions still hold today. With the way our society has been progressing (or regressing), it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that a BDSM-threesome is now considered second base instead of plain ole’ booby touching. A home run now probably involves ghosts, banjos, Carl Palideno, a stuck up kitten who won’t sign autographs, and furckles.

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