Tag Archives: East Liberty

Whitfield at Ace Hotel – East Liberty Neighborhood

As I get older, the title of Earl Sweatshirt’s solid sophomore album describes my life’s mantra more and more – “I Don’t Like Sh*t, I Don’t Go Outside.” I rarely get the opportunity to dine somewhere out of the south hills suburbs, and usually when I do, I just complain about how long it takes to drive into the city and how it’s ludicrous that a place can charge $16 for a hamburger when you can get a good one for half as much at Red Robin…along with bottomless fries.

Combine all that with the fact that a night on the town for my wife and I also necessitates a fifty dollar expenditure for babysitting, and you can see why I’ve become so dismissive of Pittsburgh’s surfeit of “cool” restaurants that seem to be nothing but a clichéd pastiche of Edison lights, exposed ductwork and seasonalocalartisanal comfort food.

Would a recent trip to the uber-trendy Ace Hotel’s tavern The Whitfield break my streak of underwhelment? Read ahead as I discuss my experience with my blogger-buddy HGB, who’s one of Pittsburgh’s most popular and discerning restaurant critics. Bon appetit!

AJF: Let me just start this off by patting myself on the back for making it to The Whitfield (120 S. Whitfield Street, 15206) before you. I mean, it was only by about sixteen hours, but it still counts. Now, upon first entry to the establishment, I was really surprised to find it to be so understated. I was expecting something vibrant like The Commoner at Hotel Monaco since it’s a similar endeavor, but The Whitfield stayed almost too-true to its roots as a former YMCA.

HGB: I was so concerned that I wasn’t going to be hip enough upon entering. I did wear my sunglasses that I got from the lost and found, which is hip and all pseudo-nonchalant, right? But yes, you beat me there and you are right in that it’s very much a former YMCA. After getting my bearings, I remember that I really liked the layout of The Whitfield and how it casually spilled into the hotel lobby. Also, since I went for brunch, the natural lighting was a striking feature of the interior.

AJF: I was there in the evening and also noticed how striking the lighting was, albeit it wasn’t natural since it was dark outside obvi. The bright bulbs and stark white walls just made it feel too glaringly chilling for my liking. As my age tiptoes further away from thirty and towards the big four-oh, I now greatly prefer dimly-lit spaces. That way I can use the shadows to maintain some semblance of a youthful appearance. I’m sure by the time I hit fifty, I’ll only leave my house at night like Dracula. In conclusion, I thought that the overall aesthetic was nice and trendy enough, though a little too white and austere in tone for my tastes… basically the same way I feel about Ed Sheeran music.

HGB: I have no coherent thoughts here as I am laughing about Ed Sheeran and wondering who came up with the term “strawberry blonde,” because he is that right?

AJF: I’m not sure about that, but I am sure that if we don’t start talking about the menu soon, our readers are just gonna head over to Yelp for their restaurant recommendation needs!

HGB: As much as I love Rachel (and all of her awesome Yelp parties), I highly doubt that people would leave us to go over there. Folks are invested in this post already. You and I are the Captain and Tennille of Pittsburgh bloggers (well, the ones who actually blog anyway). But go ahead. Tell us what you drank, since drinks are really an appetizer.

AJF: My group showed up right on time for our 7:30 p.m. reservations, and were seated right away so unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to hang out at the bar. After a quick glance of the impressive drink menu, I went straight to ordering a never-disappointing Fat Gary (English Brown Ale, 3.6% ABV) since I regrettably gave up hard liquor for Lent.

HGB: I didn’t give up anything for Lent. But anyway, because we were there for brunch, we were not drinking beer. We ordered Whitfield Bloody Marys, Mimosas, Almond Margaritas, and something with gin that was amazing but I cannot remember the name to save my soul. Two of the drinks were part of the brunch prix fixe menu, a concept of which I happened to enjoy very much. I know it’s a first world problem, but I sometimes struggle at brunch when trying to choose between breakfast-centric or lunch-centric items. A prix fixe menu eliminates that, especially one that includes a drink. All of our drinks were quite pleasing and refreshing; thus, all were an excellent precursor to our meal.

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AJF: Much like the revelers at Pittsburgh’s internationally renowned dance party Hot Mass, I showed up to The Whitfield with the singular goal of consuming as much meat as possible. I started off with the Butcher’s Plate ($18), which was comprised of a nice mix of charcuterie, patés and seductively sweet bacon jam. I followed that up with the hanger steak entrée (creatively titled “The Steak”, $21), which came along with fries and béarnaise sauce. Though I would have liked to seen a larger piece of meat (that’s what he said) than its 8 ounces, everything on my plate was delicious and met my high level of culinary expectations.

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HGB: I too, showed up with the goal of eating well. At age thirty-six, it’s one of the few joys that I have left in life. My group was a threesome (in numerical terms only); two of us ordered from the two course prix fixe menu for $26, including the aforementioned drinks. Our first course was Beef Tartare (grilled bread, romaine, capers, parmesan reggiano) and Bruléed Grapefruit (pomegranate), our second course was Frisee & Roasted Rapini (fried poached egg, lardons, duck fat hollandaise, pickled beets) and Ham & Jam (cranberry, egg, powdered sugar, and mixed greens).

The Beef Tartare was chilled, salty, and went well with the grilled bread and capers; the Bruléed Grapefruit is now the benchmark for how I want my grapefruit prepared for the rest of my life with it’s hardened, candy-like shell and tart, juicy core.

The Frisee & Roasted Rapini is a great option for those who want an egg, but not an omelet. The Ham & Jam is thick-cut ham sandwiched between two large pieces of french toast, with the cranberry and mixed greens providing some balance to the dominating overall sweetness; ideal for sharing, this option is worthy of being revisited on my next trip to The Whitfield for brunch.

The third person in our party went rogue and order the Three Egg Omelet ($11, smoked pepper, caramelized onion, cheddar, mixed greens); it turns out that it’s a great option for folks who want a traditional brunch dish with a hipster influence. I mean, don’t we all want a little hipster influence in our lives?

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AJF: First with the Captain and Tennille reference, now an admittance of your actual age?!?! I thought that we’re supposed to use the internet to lie about ourselves and pretend to be younger?!?! I mean, is it still alright if I falsely portray myself as a Millennial Asian Lumberjack?

HGB: (staring at the computer incredulously)

AJF: I got the Wigle Whiskey Bread Pudding ($8, candied pecans, vanilla ice cream) for dessert, and it was sublimely delicious.

HGB: We also ordered dessert because our favorite color is #YOLO; we chose the Lemon Mousse ($8, shortbread, toasted meringue). We’d order it again and again as it seemingly went along with our brunch theme of being refreshed in good company and in a good space.

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AJF: In conclusion, I’d say that The Whitfield is a fine addition to Pittsburgh’s nationally-lauded restaurant scene and a great place to check out even if you’re not a Millennial Asian Lumberjack.

HGB: Like I tell my students, AJF… using “In conclusion, is cliché!” However, The Whitfield is not.

Whitfield Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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Union Pig and Chicken – East Liberty

I used to get jealous and angry whenever I watched a show on the Food Network that profiled one of the many famous barbeque places in Kansas or Missouri. Watching all those overweight southerners chow down on deliciously smoked meat just served to remind me that my city lacked an establishment that could offer up a similar gastronomic experience*. I must have not been the only one pining for slow-cooked pork since the much-heralded Kevin Sousa opened a new BBQ joint named Union Pig & Chicken to much aplomb last year in East Liberty. 

I was very excited to visit UP&C because not only did it advertise the southern delicacies I craved, but it also offered up the hipster atmosphere I’m required to love to maintain my membership in the Pretentious Food Blogger Club. Double win for me! My wife and I ventured there for lunch and were fortunate to find a parking spot directly in front of the restaurant. Though the East Liberty neighborhood has enjoyed quite a renaissance over the past few years, the area is still tuck-yo-chain territory and I try not to wander too far from Penn Circle.

The first thing that grabbed my attention when entering the establishment was the warm, open floor plan. Much like its sister restaurant Salt of the Earth, UP&C employs a communal dining layout that encourages causal socialization over privacy. Couple this concept with the fact that the restaurant doesn’t take reservations and I think that it would be nearly impossible to arrive with a large group and expect to dine together. Thankfully that wasn’t an issue that I had to deal with since it was just me and my boo. We were instantly seated at one of the long tables nearest the door. 

The décor was minimalist, with rustic charm provided in spades by the distressed wood walls and old-fashioned Edison lights dangling from the ceiling. The large storefront window not only allowed in some daylight to help brighten the otherwise dim space, but also provided a breathtaking view of the First Niagara ATM across the street (#sarcasm). The only flash of color in the mise-en-scène came from a huge swatch of red gingham along one of the walls. Overall, the environment hit all of the current notes of restaurant design – simplistic, elegant, clean and the perfect balance of casual and upscale. One thing I’ll also mention is that the bathroom was really modern and cool. A little dark maybe, but thankfully I don’t have to clean it so good aim wasn’t that high of a priority.

I got comfortable on the wide wooden bench and perused the menu. Wafts of smoky goodness from the kitchen window started to cloud my mind with animal hunger and I found myself having a hard time making a selection. Our waitress was short on small talk and grew impatient with my indecision so I ended up hastily blurting out a bunch of items. I ended up with the brisket sandwich and a surfeit of sides to split with my wife. The plates of food were soon delivered on metal cafeteria trays adorned with matching gingham place mats. I sized up the options and decided to start with the least-toothsome looking option – the greens!

I shoveled a heaping fork-full of collard greens into my mouth and was immediately met by a vinegary slap in the face. I admirably finished them despite the fact that they were more alkaline than appetizing. I’ve never had true southern greens before so UP&C’s version could have been spot-on, but I found them to be a nearly inedible mushy mess. Thankfully my eating adventure got back on the upswing with a bite of the mac and cheese. It eschewed the elaborate toppings or fanciful cheeses that many other restaurants are incorporating into this comfort food staple and was just straightforward deliciousness. 

After I had eaten my allotted 50% of the mac and cheese, I finally moved on to tackle the brisket sandwich**. There was a trio of BBQ sauces on the table – traditional, vinegar and habanero I believe – and I indiscriminately doused my brisket with all three. They combined to add a layer of heat-and-sweet to the most tender brisket I’ve ever had in my life. It truly melted in my mouth and assured me that I could never-ever become a vegetarian no matter how many times I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals”. The sandwich was huge, but I finished every morsel of it with gluttonous glee. My wife felt even more strongly about her plate of fried chicken and stated that she would have licked the wax paper it came on if we weren’t dining in public. #classy

Final Call: My pig and my wife’s chicken were both the best we’ve ever had. The picnic table layout suited us just fine, but I’d imagine the place could be quite cramped and cacophonous when full. Regardless, I’m elated that Pittsburgh now has an upscale BBQ destination that not only offers amazing food, but also has the aloof hipster ambiance that pretentious foodies like me demand. Highly recommended!

* Sure, I heard great things about Mr. Ribbs in the Hill District, but there’s no way my suburban-bred wife would accompany me there unless we were outfitted in Kevlar and accompanied by Batman. 

** The part of my brain that controls’ eating is wired in series, which means that once I get started on something, I don’t move onto the next part of the meal until that one is finished. My wife is a parallel eater and gallivants all over her plate tasting everything. I’m psychologically unable to do that. Because of our differences, I always end up eating way more than her since to complete my meal circuit, I’ve got to eat everything or it doesn’t count. Thanks for nothing Kirchoff!

Union Pig and Chicken on Urbanspoon

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BRGR – East Liberty

My wife and I plan the week’s nightly dinner menu every Sunday morning and typically do a really good job sticking to the script.  That is at least up to Wednesday evening. Come Thursday, if the scheduled meal isn’t particularly enticing it becomes extremely difficult for us not to give into our more gluttonous desires and head out on the town for something else.  On this particular Thursday evening a frozen bag of PF Chang’s stir-fry lost the battle to the idea of gourmet hamburgers.  The list of toothsome hamburger bistros continues to grow in the Pittsburgh region and we decided to partake in the charming hipster atmosphere of BRGR in East Liberty.  

We approached and found street parking at capacity and had to circle around the block three times until a nearby metered spot on Centre Avenue finally opened up. BRGR offers valet parking but the thought of the additional cost on top of the pricey hamburger I was about to eat was just too much for the parsimonious part of me to bear.  Being a weekday evening the restaurant was busy but not overcrowded and we were immediately seated near the front windows along the east wall.  Though not known as a sports bar, BRGR has a multitude of televisions hanging on the walls throughout the downstairs bar and restaurant areas that broadcast a mix of local and national games.  All these flat screens help diffuse the hipster affectation that is required by law in all East Liberty restaurants.  The rest of the décor was pleasantly modern but mostly nondescript with the greatest flourish being some distressed leather couches near the front entrance.

BRGR has an extensive seasonal draft beer list and I decided to try the Michigan Brewing Screamin’ Pumpkin Spiced Ale (6% ABV – Pumpkin Ale).  It was the most inspired version of a pumpkin libation I’ve ever had and tasted like a perfect combination between Magic Hat #9 and a Yankee Candle.  I hope Michigan Brewing takes that as a complement because it really was quite good.  As a starter we ordered the housemade chips with crack dip. The well-seasoned chips were suitably crisp and thick enough to stand scooping big hunks of dip.  Unfortunately this valuable feature was wasted due to my not liking the dip all that much.  It tasted like someone got stoned and decided to melt nacho cheese and black bean salsa together in the microwave.  This dip did have the surname of a lowly street drug so I probably shouldn’t have expected much elegance.  My wife really loved it so maybe I just don’t have that high of a predilection for crack.

My burger of choice this evening was the Kobe beef cooked to a medium rare.  It came delivered in-between a big bready brioche bun and was topped with blue cheese, roasted tomatoes, pickled red onion, and arugula (lettuces much fancier cousin). The burger was perfectly cooked and so juicy that eating it turned into a messy affair.  It was too big to fit into my mouth* so I cut it in half for dipping into the side of spicy aioli.  My wife and I also split an order of fries with the truffle cheese whiz to go with our burgers.  I was happy with the herb-dusted spuds but underwhelmed with the accompanying dipping sauce.  I’m not a big cheese whiz guy so this could just be my personal preference because once again my wife enjoyed it.

BRGR also specializes in alcoholic milkshakes but on this particular evening I decided against adding another eight hundred calories to my already unhealthy meal.  This is just one example of the many sacrifices I make to maintain my boyish figure and status as a trophy husband.

Final Call:  The ambience of BRGR was a little pretentious but fortunately the unassuming décor and televisions kept the place from becoming too uppity.  The burger was deliciously juicy and the accompanying buns were Kim Kardashian-esque in their size and butteriness.  The crack and truffle dips were unfortunately Khloé Kardashian-esque due to their comparative lack of refinement and general tediousness.  Regardless of these small missteps, BRGR is a vibrant trendy locale for a succulent gourmet burger served with hipster flare.

* That’s what she said.  Or that’s what he said.  I don’t discriminate.

BRGR on Urbanspoon

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Salt of the Earth – Garfield Neighborhood

Behind Mad Men, NBA basketball and America’s Next Top Model, cooking competitions are my favorite shows to watch.  My top three programs are Top Chef, Iron Chef and Chopped, with the last one being a ten o’clock staple of my nighttime viewing habits.  The food prepared on all of these shows is way beyond my typical simplistic gastronomical endeavors but they have helped embolden me to be brave when the opportunity presents itself to try something unusual.  Unfortunately these chances are few and far between since my wife does not possess the same daring pallet and normally shoots down my suggestions when the proposed restaurant’s menu lacks a straightforward steak, hamburger or pizza option.  

Luckily for me, we have friends that are also courageous enough to take a bite out of entrees containing uncommon ingredients such as octopus and salmon roe and we recently corralled my wife into going to the innovative restaurant Salt.  I’ve wanted to dine at Salt for quite awhile since it’s one of the few local kitchens that has offerings reminiscent of something served on Iron Chef.  Our fiends live close-by so we usually carpool and on this evening it was their turn to drive.  They picked us up and we headed towards the city, but since none of us had been to Salt before we only had a general sense of the restaurants location.  Consequently our trip took a convoluted path through the Strip District, then Bloomfield, before curling back around East Liberty to Penn Avenue in Garfield.  This neighborhood was quite sketchy when I was a kid but just like nearby East Liberty it is in the midst of a revival and the haute cuisine of Salt serves as further evidence.

We arrived at 7:30 and without a reservation we were directed to a small table near the front windows to wait for a spot to open.  The dining area at Salt has an open floor plan with additional mezzanine seating on the far end above the bar.  The left side of the restaurant is the open kitchen area lined with countertop seating.  The right wall is covered by a huge chalkboard which is where the dynamic drink and dining menus are kept current.  Salt specializes in craft cocktails and my wife was brave enough to try their bourbon concoction*.  I was less adventurous and perused the draft list before deciding on an East End’s Fat Gary’s Nut Brown Ale (3.6% ABV – English Brown Ale).  It had a nice roasted nut and malted flavor, but the hoppy aftertaste left a slightly bitter feel that I didn’t love.  

I got halfway through my beer before we were seated at one of the long, narrow tables in the middle of the restaurant.  The lacquered natural wood gave a rustic yet modern motif to the space although the lack of support provided by the backless seats eventually became rather uncomfortable**.  The crowd consisted of a mix of young and old and black and white.  The East Pittsburgh hipsters were well represented among the patrons, as well as a grandmother keeping it real in a red Christmas sweater worn unironically over a white turtleneck.

I decided to let my culinary curiously run wild and ordered the snail appetizer.  I had never tried escargot before and found the umami savoriness reminiscent of mushrooms.  The snails came along with fried sweetbreads, watercress and fennel. I was a sweetbread virgin*** as well and tentative with my first bite but soon found them to be enjoyable.  Even with my taste buds nodding with approval, the back of my mind was still a bit wary since I know that sweetbreads are a hodgepodge of animal glands.  I don’t think I could ever chow down on them like a box of Chick-fil-A nuggets, but a few every now and then should be fine.

The dinner selections weren’t as eccentric as the appetizer options and I passed up the fish and steak for pork.  The thick slices were prepared to a tender medium and served atop an earthy mixture of farro, mushrooms and cranberries that provided a good balance of course textures to the soft pork.  The dish overall was okay but failed to make much of an impression.  This is probably not as much a condemnation of the food but more due to the transcendent snail starter being a tough act to follow. We still had room for dessert and finished our night with a platter that was an updated take on S’mores.  Quite often the end course served by foo-foo restaurants disappoints but Salt was able to serve a dish that was as refined as it was decadent.   

Final Call: Salt (NaCl) combines a trendy locale and progressive seasonal menu with hip cocktails and adroit service to create a unique experience for the gastronomically adventurous.  They also have enough safe options for those who prefer not to dine on fried calf pancreas.

* My wife’s cocktail was quite ambrosial and easy to drink despite being mostly hard liquor.  I was a little turned off by its high price of ten dollars, but at least its extravagance reminded me of Vincent Vega’s famous quote:

That’s a pretty f*cking good milkshake. I don’t know if it’s worth five dollars, but it’s pretty f*cking good.

** I have a herniated disk in my back that fortunately rarely causes me any issues but sitting in Salt’s unsupportive chair for a few hours aggravated it greatly.  It’s also possible that my discomfort could stem from the fact that I’m a big whiner.

*** “Sweetbread Virgin” sounds like the title of a Jane Green book.

Salt of the Earth on Urbanspoon

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