Edit ModuleEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Restaurant Review: Soba

With a touch of Zen, creative Pan-Asian cuisine and a dedicated staff, this East End dining destination continues to build on its success.



This pork dish is served at Soba.

For many of us, Soba is like an old friend. We can rely on this restaurant to be there for us when we want to celebrate a special occasion, meet friends for drinks after work or just have a nice night out. Moreover, who can resist a restaurant self-described like this?: “A dark and sexy Zen garden with sleek acolytes silently attending to its guests, Soba offers a distillation of Asian daydreams grounded in the hearty Earth.” And let’s not forget the food—its Pan-Asian cuisine remains consistently grounded and innovative.

A fixture in the East End for 13 years, Soba continues not only to survive, but also to thrive, despite the ups and downs of the economy.

So what has been the secret of Soba’s success through the years (besides the Zen and daydreams)?

As for the present and future, one promising portent was the appointment of Danielle Cain to executive chef in May. Soba, as you likely know, is part of the locally based big Burrito restaurant group, which has brought us the celebrated restaurants Casbah, Eleven, Kaya, Mad Mex and Umi. As a large restaurant group, big Burrito has the luxury of being able to hire, train and rotate staff between restaurants, nurturing talent into leadership positions.

Cain truly is a product of this system. After finishing culinary school here in Pittsburgh at Pennsylvania Culinary Institute (now Le Cordon Bleu), she did her apprenticeship and was a line cook at Casbah before she was promoted to sous chef. Then she moved to Soba as sous chef. And she spent one year as executive chef at Kaya before returning to Soba in her present role.

Cain talks about a terrific camaraderie among the big Burrito chefs, who dine at each other’s restaurants and share ideas. She has a special affection for Soba because she feels it’s very “communal” in terms of fine dining: Soba customers like to share their dishes and pass them around; the lively bar scene is its own community within the restaurant; and the staff, which includes sous chefs Andrew “Red” Jacobson and Dustin Gardner and pastry chef Shelby Gibson, enjoys a genuine esprit de corps that makes working there fun. All the positive energy in the kitchen, Cain contends, leads to “happy food.”

Asked to comment on how she addresses the need to produce consistent food, Cain is confident in her managerial methods of hiring and maintaining a strong staff, making sure everyone in the kitchen has trained at every station and could trade jobs in a pinch, procuring quality ingredients that are interesting and insisting on the importance of the kitchen staff tasting the food before it is delivered to the customer. Soba’s interior is sleek and dramatic with its two-story waterfall, tiered dining spaces and second-floor deck.

The menu has many old favorites and some new dishes designed by Chef Cain and comprises “Small Plates,” “Soup and Salad,” “Entrees,” “Noodles,” “Sides” and “Wine Features.” There’s also a dessert menu.

For many people, myself included, the “Small Plates” are the best part of the restaurant. Highlights include the Blue Bay mussels ($9)—a dozen or more complemented by a white-wine garlic broth with chunks of spicy Thai sausage and doused with homemade aioli. Other notables are the crispy tofu ($7), which features a large helping of sweet, spicy and crispy cubed tofu tossed with cashews and lemongrass sauce and the fried and salty calamari ($9), which is seasoned with chilies, toasted garlic and an uni emulsion drizzle. Less impressive are the fried pork dumplings ($7), lobster maki ($11) and crab cakes ($11). All of these can be somewhat bland either in flavor or texture.

Among the soups, Thai corn chowder ($7) with crabmeat is always a winner. Although it has varied in texture, cream and spice levels through the years, my most recent tasting amounted to perfection—nicely pureed, a small but ample amount of crab and not too much cream.

An unexpected treat under “Sides” was the house-made pickled vegetables ($3). It turns out that sous chef “Red” Jacobson loves to pickle. The pickled vegetables—beans, cucumbers, cauliflower and carrots—were fresh and crunchy, each with a slightly different accent provided by garlic, orange or onion. Look out for his new batch of kim chi, made in November and currently pickling for release this May.

The chopped salad ($8) is a refreshing mix of papaya, mango, daikon, coconut tempura, cucumber, avocado, iceberg lettuce, mint, basil and cashews with a spicy miso dressing. It’s more like a palate-cleanser than a salad and can be a great intermezzo between courses.

Among the entrees, the beef short ribs ($26) are dreamy—savory and spicy with the meat falling off the bone. Sea scallops ($26) are wok-seared on the outside and soft on the inside with a limey broth; they’re served with seasonal mushrooms, fresh wasabi ponzu, root spinach and udon noodles. The popular seared rare tuna ($27) is a colorful delight. The dish begins with a single large slice of tuna with a bright-pink center and is finished with a sesame crust topped with a generous dose of Korean barbecue sauce. It’s served with a light cucumber and red-onion salad, ginger fried rice and a side of kim chi.

The “Whole boneless crispy bronzini” ($26) came through as promised: fried whole, complete with head and tail, with plenty of fresh white meat. Unfortunately the dish was diminished by a butternut-squash and potato-hash filling that was more mush than hash and did not complement the fish. A boneless pork chop ($22), although attractive, was so salty that I couldn’t eat more than one bite.

A creative dessert menu brings together Asian and American themes. Among four desserts I tried—huckleberry crème brûlée ($7), Soba banana split ($8), chocolate caramel bombe ($8) and a chocolate maki ($6)—the maki was my favorite to look at, and the banana split was my favorite to eat. The maki offers lovely sushi rolls made of chocolate-pistachio crêpes filled with dark-chocolate mousse; they are accompanied by pistachio cream, shaved melon and chocolate sauce—stand-ins for wasabi, ginger and soy sauce, respectively. The banana split comprises three scoops of house-made ice cream—dark chocolate, huckleberry jasmine and black rice—sitting on a fluffy banana cake with a side of brûléed bananas.

When talking about Soba’s success, the bar must be mentioned as an essential component. The dark slate walls and crackling fireplace make it a cozy spot, perfect for chatting and people-watching. (Yes, it’s somewhat light-challenged, but just ask the bar server for a tiny big Burrito flashlight if you need one!)Pacific Rim: Absolut Vanilla, blue curacao, grenadine and pineapple juice. Bangkok Tea: Green-tea infused with Absolut, fresh sours and honey-ginger syrup.

The bar menu—an impressive 16-pages long—includes a full page each of martinis and cocktails ($8-$12), wines by the glass ($8-$16), sakés ($9 carafe to $150 bottle), bottled beer ($4-$17), an extensive menu of wines by the bottle and after-dinner drinks. Looking at the “Small Plates” again as bar food, a nice selection of flavors, textures and temperatures—sweet, fried, spicy, hot—complements whichever beverage you choose.

The kitchen and bar staffs work together to infuse mixed drinks with interesting house-made ingredients—including pickle juice, a delightful component in Red’s Dirty Martini ($10), which, thanks to a recommendation by a server, I decided to try. I discovered a light, dry martini made of cucumber-infused vodka and the pickle juice. What’s more, there’s even a house-made pickle slice floating where you might typically find an olive or twist. Its subtle, vinegary edge was an especially welcome contrast to the richer appetizers. Bangkok Tea ($9.50)—green-tea-infused Absolut, fresh sours mix and homemade honey-ginger syrup, all served in a tall glass over ice—was lightly sweet and refreshing.

You can take it for granted that the service at Soba will be good. The servers here, some of whom have been with big Burrito for years, are competent, well-trained and knowledgeable about the food and drinks. In fact, another factor in this restaurant’s success can be attributed to the emphasis Soba places on the customer. As Ryan Burke, general manager since 2005, explains, the Soba team knows regular customers by name and remembers exactly what and how they like to eat. (No wonder it’s best to make a reservation. You can expect a good turnout any night of the week.)

Although the décor has remained mostly the same through the years, the environment at Soba is still inviting with the sensual water wall, zebra-wood accents, Asian-influenced artwork and more intimate upper floors as well as a second-floor deck, a harbinger of warmer weather ahead.

 


Soba

5847 Ellsworth Ave., Shadyside; 412/362-5656, bigburrito.com/soba
Dinner: Sun.-Thurs., 5-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m.
Small Plates: $7-$11
Entrees: $16-$36
Desserts: $6-$8
Full bar, major credit cards, reservations suggested, parking lot next door and off of Fisk Street, wheelchair-accessible, no smoking.

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit ModuleShow TagsEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

The Latest

Electric Scooter Rideshare Launching in Pittsburgh

Scoobi will offer an eco-friendly alternative to cars and a speedier alternative to bikes beginning in June

Is Kennywood's Phantom’s Revenge Best Coaster in USA?

The fastest amusement park ride in Pennsylvania is currently in the running for best roller coaster — and it’s gained plenty of speed.

Director and “Mr. McFeely” Discuss “Won't You Be My Neighbor?”

The director of the forthcoming Mr. Rogers documentary sits down with the longtime Mr. McFeely and Pittsburgh Magazine.

Pittsburgh Teen Chess Phenom to Host Her First-Ever Tourney

Chess enthusiast Ashley Lynn Priore hopes to enrich the Steel City’s involvement in one of the most classic and challenging of board games.

Hungry for Something Good, Pittsburgh? Where We're Eating in June

We're obsessed with Greekfreez vegan frozen treats, taking a first look at the new menu at Independent Brewing Company and traveling to The Tavern on the Square. Plus, we talk to Poulet Bleu pastry chef James D. Wroblewski II.

Working in a Steel Mill Turns Fantastical in 'The Glass Lung'

Pittsburgher Anjali Sachdeva’s first book blends the normal with fantasy in nine short stories.

Top 10 Things to Do in Pittsburgh in June

This month's best bets in the ’Burgh.

Pittsburgh Flicks and Nightlife in June

PM Nightlife Editor Sean Collier explores the popularity of Coughlin's Law on Mt. Washington and the future of Jump Cut Theater.

Pittsburgh's Can't Miss Concerts in June

The Pittsburgh music calendar is packed this month. Check out some of our suggestions for the best ways to spend those steamy summer nights.

June: Best of Culture in Pittsburgh

Check out some of the finest stage plays, dance performances and exhibits taking place this month in Pittsburgh.

Undercover: What We're Reading in June

Reviews of Smoketown: The Untold Story of the Other Great Black Renaissance by Mark Whitaker and Abandoned Pittsburgh: Steel and Shadows by Chuck Beard

Perspectives: How Cold Is Too Cold for Spiders to Live?

A former Marine and Pittsburgh firefighter comes face-to-face with his biggest fear.

Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh Faces Centennial Challenges

This year marks a milestone anniversary — and questions regarding the emerging digital economy — for the Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh.

Highmark Stadium Struggles To Accommodate Music Fans

The Station Square venue could be a good place to see a concert. It's not there yet.

CMU Launches America’s First Degree in Artificial Intelligence

Starting this fall, undergraduates at Carnegie Mellon will have the option to earn a degree in one of the world’s fastest growing fields.
Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags


Electric Scooter Rideshare Launching in Pittsburgh

Electric Scooter Rideshare Launching in Pittsburgh

Scoobi will offer an eco-friendly alternative to cars and a speedier alternative to bikes beginning in June

Comments

Is Kennywood's Phantom’s Revenge Best Coaster in USA?

Is Kennywood's Phantom’s Revenge Best Coaster in USA?

The fastest amusement park ride in Pennsylvania is currently in the running for best roller coaster — and it’s gained plenty of speed.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Lorelei Will Open in the Former Livermore/Pines Space

Lorelei Will Open in the Former Livermore/Pines Space

The owners of Independent Brewing Company and Hidden Harbor plan to bring a beer hall and cafe to East Liberty.

Comments

An Inclusive Community Breaks the Ramadan Fast at Salem's Market & Grill

An Inclusive Community Breaks the Ramadan Fast at Salem's Market & Grill

The Strip District restaurant draws a diverse community to its nightly ifṭār buffet.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Best Places to Introduce Children to the Performing Arts

Best Places to Introduce Children to the Performing Arts

When you see a show at one of these organizations, you may enjoy it as much as the children.

Comments

The 4 Best Sports to Try This Spring in Pittsburgh

The 4 Best Sports to Try This Spring in Pittsburgh

Looking to switch up your physical activity now that it finally feels like spring? We found four sports you can play locally that you may never have considered.

Comments


Highmark Stadium Struggles To Accommodate Music Fans

Highmark Stadium Struggles To Accommodate Music Fans

The Station Square venue could be a good place to see a concert. It's not there yet.

Comments

Take a Tricky Trip To Mars at Escape Room 51

Take a Tricky Trip To Mars at Escape Room 51

The new escape room in Pleasant Hills is a great game for newer players.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Here We Go? Steelers Have More Than a New England Issue This Time

Here We Go? Steelers Have More Than a New England Issue This Time

At this time last year the Steelers perceived themselves, and rightfully so, as a team that was a mere win over the Patriots away from returning to the Super Bowl. This year, the focus is elsewhere.

Comments

Surprising Pirates Proving to be an Acquired Taste This Season

Surprising Pirates Proving to be an Acquired Taste This Season

For the time being, at least, fans continue to send owner Bob Nutting a message wrapped in apathy.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
The 400-Word Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story

The 400-Word Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story

The Star Wars series experiments with telling an origin story, with mixed results.

Comments

The 400-Word Review: Pope Francis: A Man of His Word

The 400-Word Review: Pope Francis: A Man of His Word

The careful documentary is a valuable document of the pontiff's philosophy. As a film, there are issues.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Wine Classes Keep the Pre-Wedding Celebration Classy

Wine Classes Keep the Pre-Wedding Celebration Classy

Palate Partners School of Wine & Spirits offers a chance for brides- and grooms-to-be to explore libations before (or instead of) a night on the town.

Comments

He Recovers from Stroke to Officiate Granddaughter's Wedding

He Recovers from Stroke to Officiate Granddaughter's Wedding

It was always Ashley Watkins’ dream to have her grandfather perform her wedding ceremony — but a serious illness almost got in the way.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
From Milan to Pittsburgh: These are the Kitchen Concepts of the Future

From Milan to Pittsburgh: These are the Kitchen Concepts of the Future

Local interior designer Lauren Levant traveled to Italy for the influential Salon del Mobile show featuring the latest innovations in the furniture and design industry. With an emphasis on quality over quantity, these are the kitchen concepts she says will be making their way stateside.

Comments

Get Creative: Pittsburgh Podcast Inspires 'Girl Bosses'

Get Creative: Pittsburgh Podcast Inspires 'Girl Bosses'

Thinking about starting a creative business but don't know where to start? From photography to interior design, Gamechangers, the new podcast from local textile designer Savannah Hayes, gives a behind-the-scenes look at the design industry from the female perspective.

Comments