25 Best Restaurants: 2012
From culinary heavyweights to neighborhood mainstays, these places keep us coming back.
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SPOON / Day boat scallops and grilled prawns: spring risotto, local ramps, fava beans, asparagus and lemon buerre blanc
Winner of our Chef of the Year honor, Brian Pekarcik’s menu at Spoon is an interesting reflection of his California cooking experience mixed with his western Pennsylvania roots. The list of dishes changes often, responding to seasonal products, such as specialty mushrooms and ramps. Although some dishes are decadent, like the “bacon and eggs” appetizer with crispy pork belly, there’s always a sense of freshness to the food at Spoon. Entrées often feature an ingredient in more than one preparation method (such as the duo of lamb, veal two ways and chicken two ways), showcasing Spoon’s finesse with meats. The seafood, too, is always a solid option. Most dishes are plated with a number of accents and colorful oils, making them decorative and fanciful. Desserts continue in the same spirit, featuring fresh flavors like lemon and berries — actually, the sweets are so sublime that New York Magazine’s food blog Grub Street’s called attention to one in its list of “101 Most Crazy-Awesome Desserts.” The dessert of choice was the Spoon Bar, comprising Bailey’s Irish Cream coco bar, chocolate cake, cheesecake and milk chocolate “nougat” semifreddo atop semisweet chocolate pudding.
• Executive Chef Brian Pekarcik
• 134 S. Highland Ave., East Liberty
• 412/362-6001, spoonpgh.com
Stagioni started out as a tiny neighborhood restaurant in Bloomfield, offering perfect homemade Italian food. Earlier this year, Stagioni’s team took a big step up by moving into the South Side spot formerly occupied by Le Pommier; the restaurant now has a space that’s more worthy of its cuisine. Stagioni’s fans will wax rhapsodic about the made-to-order Mozzarella, served with a drizzle of balsamic reduction, and the marvelous homemade pastas and gnocchi. Here, the cuisine is simple but comprises all the right ingredients: prosciutto, sage, rapini and fig balsamic. It’s sophisticated Italian food that’s not the least bit snobby. The small menu changes daily, normally reflecting seasonal ingredients.
• Chef/Co-Owner Stephen Felder
• 2104 East Carson St., South Side
• 412-586-4738, stagionipgh.com
In Argentina, the word “tamari” means “to do everything with passion.” Tamari is a restaurant that is passionate about making its food and atmosphere exciting and engaging. Having an open kitchen with sushi bar, full liquor bar and seating on two levels, Tamari is always a hopping scene. The food boldly brings together flavors from Asian and Latin cuisines, such as the lobster tempura maki with avocado, cucumber with sriracha (hot chili) aïoli or the lamb lollipop (skewered lamb with wild mushrooms, sweet potato-jalapeno croquette, mint yuzu and radish). This restaurant is exciting for your eyes and your palate. The sleek, urbane environment features dramatically lit stainless steel and black surfaces — and is the perfect place to show off your hippest look. Tamari’s success resulted in the opening of a second location in Warrendale earlier this year.
• Executive Chef Roger Li
• 3519 Butler St., Lawrenceville
• 412/325-3435, tamaripgh.com
Toast! manages to be high-end and low-key at the same time in a comfortably dark environment. A favorite feature is the wine pours (available in 2-, 4- and 8-ounce servings), allowing you to taste a variety of wines and/or make your own pairings. The friendliness of the bartenders is well-known. While there are some very rich choices on the menu, portions are controlled, making it a place where you can treat yourself without feeling too guilty. Always tasty are the shrimp and grits with habanero cheddar. Among entrées, the Gerber’s farm chicken and the wild striped bass are nice options — actually, though, there aren’t any bad meals here, since the food quality remains consistent from dish to dish. Can’t get enough? Stop in for the Toast! Tasting Tuesday, featuring a four-course chef’s menu with optional wine pairing.
• Owners Chef Chet Garland and Wine Director Paul Tebbets
• 5102 Baum Blvd., Shadyside
• 412/224-2579, toastpittsburgh.com
Mr. Shu is a Pittsburgh celebrity, a quiet presence with the magical ability to produce sushi and sashimi of sublime delicacy — plus, sauces that are intriguingly complex. With fish flown in daily from around the world, Umi is the place you can take your visiting New York sushi snob and be proud. The go-to option is the Omakase, wherein Mr. Shu creates a series of dishes to please your palate; choose a minimum of seven courses and get ready to go to the moon (per the menu, just “trust Mr. Shu”). If you don’t choose the Omakase, opt for maki, sushi or sashimi, starring wonderful fish like red snapper and yellowtail. Among hot dishes, the black cod with miso is sublime, featuring a tender piece of fish in a tangy, slightly sweet sauce. The restrained environment features interior paintings by local artist Lauri Mancuso that pay homage to Japanese artists. Indecisive diners will have to choose from one of three seating options: the very small sushi bar, where you can watch the master prepare foods; regular tables; and low tables, where you sit on the floor and eat. The servers are extremely capable, with excellent advice and thorough knowledge of the food.
• Executive Chef Mr. Shu
• 5849 Ellsworth Ave., Shadyside
• 412/362-6198, bigburrito.com/umi
• $$$$ (Omakase starts at $85 per person)