Edit ModuleEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Restaurant Review: Casbah Still is Rocking

More than 20 years into its run, Casbah remains one of Pittsburgh’s most relevant restaurants.




photos by laura petrilla

 

Casbah was the first restaurant I went to in Pittsburgh.

It was 2010, and I was considering moving here from California. A new friend aiming to sell me on the city took me to the Shadyside restaurant, which opened in 1995 and specializes in Mediterranean cuisine. It didn’t necessarily wow me in the way that some restaurants do, but I left feeling happy and satisfied. I knew there would be at least one worthwhile place to eat in Pittsburgh.

Over the years, I’ve heard similar stories from other transplants as well as countless quips from lifelong Pittsburghers about how Casbah is their steady, their go-to — their spot for an easy, inexpensive lunch, a casual Tuesday night meal and a destination restaurant when trying to please a group of friends that includes both food fanatics and picky eaters.

That’s because, by design, there’s something for everyone at Casbah.



Nearly 20 years ago, one of my predecessors, Ann Haigh, first reviewed Casbah for Pittsburgh Magazine. The second sentence of her review read, “Even as a newborn, it’s better than 95 percent of Pittsburgh eateries.” As a mature restaurant operating in a significantly deeper playing field, it still ranks in the top tier of Pittsburgh eateries.

I’d even take it a step further: Casbah today is, in many ways, Pittsburgh’s most vital restaurant.

Casbah’s kitchen alumni is an honor roll of influencers in Pittsburgh: Justin Severino (Cure, Morcilla), Derek Stevens (Union Standard), Eli Wahl (Eleven), Henry Dewey (Penn Avenue Fish Company) and Chris Bonfili (Avenue B) currently run or recently have helmed Pittsburgh Magazine Best Restaurant kitchens. The list continues from there.

Bill Fuller, Pittsburgh Magazine’s 2017 Chef of the Year, was Casbah’s opening chef. He now is the corporate chef of big Burrito Restaurant Group (which also includes Eleven, Soba, Umi, Kaya and Mad Mex) and remains hands-on in the general operations of his first restaurant, including overseeing the establishment’s big-picture menu planning. Executive Chef Dustin Gardner started running the day-to-day in early 2016; he’s the 10th person to hold the restaurant’s executive chef position.



Gardner started working for big Burrito in 2008. Most of his experience with the company is in the Casbah kitchen, except from 2014 to 2015, when he was the executive chef of Soba (he also had a brief run as that restaurant’s sous chef in 2009). Nearly two years into his run as Casbah’s top chef, it feels as if he’s comfortable in his stride while he deliberately is pushing himself forward.

Even if you haven’t yet dined at Casbah, you’ll quickly pick up on what’s in store: generous portions, not a lot of boundary-pushing and food prepared by somebody cooking with heart — it’s what you want from both your favorite neighborhood restaurant and from a “let’s go out for dinner somewhere nice” restaurant.

Yet Casbah isn’t a relic or a throwback. Fuller, Gardner and the rest of the team care as much about contemporary foodways and trends as any other top chef in Pittsburgh, they just tend to do it a little more quietly. While other restaurants tout dubious farm-to-table supply chains because they top dishes with locally sourced microgreens, the Casbah kitchen flips the script; you wouldn’t know it, but local farms often have trouble keeping up with the restaurant’s demands.



The menu at Casbah features many staples — such as the light and refreshing roasted beet salad with whipped ricotta, spicy salad greens, French green lentil vinaigrette and Marcona almonds — that quickly will become favorites. A longstanding pasta dish, ricotta cavatelli with fennel sausage, spinach and ricotta, easily is one of my top five comfort food dishes in Pittsburgh.

Other dishes feature a consistent primary protein, such as salmon, served with supporting actor sets that switch through the seasons. Wild Alaskan halibut appeared in October with beets, apples, autumn greens, compressed Brussels sprouts, Meyer lemon, smoked paprika aioli and pistachio; not only was it delicious, but it also is an example of how Gardner can craft dishes that are chef-forward but still keep it squarely in the comfort zone.

Gardner and his team nearly always are ship-shape in their execution of the dishes — though an occasional lapse in attention-to-detail, such as a lunch service that felt as if they’d swapped the regular kitchen staff for one on a cruise ship, and a few over-salted dishes on another visit, means there still is room to tighten up.

That lunch visit also included a rare misstep in service (at one point our server blindly poured water onto the floor while she was taking our order) from an ordinarily exemplary front-of-house staff. Service is seamless and coordinated, a benefit of the strong systems organized by front-of-house management that is just as engaged in the restaurant as the kitchen staff.



That extends to the bar, which has one of Pittsburgh’s better wine programs, and (although it might not be the first thing you think of when you think of Casbah) cocktail lists. The restaurant is a stellar spot for high-end versions of classics such as a cognac-based Sazerac or a perfectly crisp Negroni, and Casbah’s Calvados Old Fashioned is a subtle spin on an old favorite.

Start your meal with a series of Mediterranean spreads (skip the heavy chickpea flatbread). Casbah’s baba ganoush is silky and smoky, ranking among the better permutations of the eggplant puree in Pittsburgh. Eggplants appear again in ajvar, a Serbian pepper spread piquant with vinegar. But the real star of the show is hummus za’atar, a creamy and nicely spiced chickpea and tahini puree topped with crispy and pleasantly gamey lamb belly.



Move on to shared appetizers. A healthy, smart choice is to order scallops. Fresh, with beautiful crisp char on the outside and a slightly creamy interior and, on my visit served with shaved Brussels sprouts and microgreen salad, it was a light primer for Casbah’s heartier pasta and entree courses.

Pasta has always been a draw at Casbah, and it’s easy to see why. Casbah’s chefs make the pasta in-house, and, as a general rule, a pasta dish should be part of nearly every meal you have here. Nearly every pasta dish I’ve tried has been a success, except for one. Orecchiette (the only pasta not made in-house) dressed with grilled chicken, sage cream, cranberries and Riverview Farms goat cheese feels as if it’s seen better days; it was a gloppy, sweet and overly sauced mess on a recent lunch visit. Fuller once tried to remove that dish from the menu, but, when you have a restaurant that draws from a loyal customer base, some of whom order this dish week in and week out, it’s hard to let it go. But maybe it’s time. In the meantime, diners ought to look to other dishes, such as gnocchi with duck confit, Brussels sprouts, rapini leaf, cherry tomatoes, forest mushrooms, pesto, rosemary and burrata.



Casbah’s interior is lovely and modern but feels a tad too dark, particularly when dining on a nice day. But that presents a dilemma because its enclosed, all-season patio badly is in need of a refresh. “I feel like I’m in a cheap Kazakh beach resort hotel,” a friend said.

Most other places that opened in the pre-restaurant-boom era either have closed or become stagnant. Casbah is an outlier, always working forward on an upward angle — nothing radically or abruptly shifts, yet it always is relevant. It’s never faddish, but it doesn’t feel like an artifact of another era, either. If it’s on your list of go-to restaurants, you already know this. If it’s not, now is the time to visit. 

[229 S. Highland Ave., Shadyside; 412/661-5656, casbahpgh.com]
 

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

Edit Module Edit ModuleShow TagsEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module Edit ModuleShow Tags

The Latest

You Try It, Being a Meteorologist In Pittsburgh Isn't Easy

Aside from a Steelers loss, nothing seems to fire up Pittsburghers more than a blown weather forecast.

Our 50 Years: Why I Hate Nostalgia

Enjoying memories is fun – but a far cry from pining for the past.

Perspectives: Finding Grace in #MomLife

A Pittsburgh television reporter learns to embrace the imperfection that comes with being a working mom.

The 400-Word Review: Pledge

IFC Midnight's collegiate terror tale is mostly for genre fans, but it lands a few decent punches.

Capel’s Basketball Resurrection Has the Zoo Rocking Again

Head coach Jeff Capel is restoring respectability and re-establishing the relationship between Pitt’s students and Pitt’s student athletes.

Why Did No One Tell Me Cirque du Soleil is Awesome

A skeptical novice takes in the troupe's "Corteo" production and is stunned at his own delight.

Three Rivers Champion: Julius Boatwright

Boatwright works to connect everyone who needs it with mental health support.

Turkey Devonshire: Reviving a Classic Pittsburgh Sandwich

The once-famous sandwich originated here but now is largely forgotten. We dive into its history and argue that it's time for a revival.

Navigating the Future of Public Transit in Pittsburgh

Six Pittsburghers share their struggles and hopes for the region’s public transit system.

Why Jamison Farm Is a “A Napa Valley for Sheep”

How a former coal miner and his wife use the resources atop rolling Westmoreland County hills to produce the best lamb in the United States.

Pittsburgh Restaurant Review: Fish nor Fowl

The sixth standalone concept from the Richard DeShantz Restaurant Group, is DeShantz’s most exciting restaurant yet.

Our 50 Years: When We Tried to Predict the Future

25 years ago, we predicted what the Pittsburgh of 2019 would look like. We were ... close?

Help Pay Tribute to a Pittsburgh Jazz Legend

Mary Lou Williams began as a teenage piano prodigy in the Hill District and made it to Carnegie Hall and beyond. This month, you can discover her musical legacy.

Their's was a Starry-Eyed Pittsburgh Romance

John Brashear dedicated his life to science — and his wife, Phoebe.

She Became Pittsburgh Radio Royalty by Making Music Matter

Rosemary Welsch, longtime DJ and senior producer at WQEP-FM, has shepherded the station from startup to institution.
Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags


You Try It, Being a Meteorologist In Pittsburgh Isn't Easy

You Try It, Being a Meteorologist In Pittsburgh Isn't Easy

Aside from a Steelers loss, nothing seems to fire up Pittsburghers more than a blown weather forecast.

Comments

Our 50 Years: Why I Hate Nostalgia

Our 50 Years: Why I Hate Nostalgia

Enjoying memories is fun – but a far cry from pining for the past.

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
Fresh Fest Beerfest Is Set to Return to Pittsburgh

Fresh Fest Beerfest Is Set to Return to Pittsburgh

The country's first black brewfest looks to double in size this year.

Comments

Pittsburgh Chef Moves: Csilla Thackray Headed to Legume Bistro

Pittsburgh Chef Moves: Csilla Thackray Headed to Legume Bistro

Thackray's departure from The Vandal will result in a new menu at that Lawrenceville restaurant.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
Fitness: Five Great Trails to Run in the Fall in Pittsburgh

Fitness: Five Great Trails to Run in the Fall in Pittsburgh

Don’t resign yourself to the gym treadmills just yet – fall is one of the best times of the year to get outside and pound the pavement, surrounded by falling leaves and the possibility of grabbing a hot latte on the way home.

Comments

Love Sourdough? Find the Best There Is at These Five Bake Shops

Love Sourdough? Find the Best There Is at These Five Bake Shops

We dove into the local artisan bread scene to find the best places that bake naturally leavened bread in Pittsburgh.

Comments


Why Did No One Tell Me Cirque du Soleil is Awesome

Why Did No One Tell Me Cirque du Soleil is Awesome

A skeptical novice takes in the troupe's "Corteo" production and is stunned at his own delight.

Comments

My New Neighborhood Bar is The Birmingham Bridge Tavern

My New Neighborhood Bar is The Birmingham Bridge Tavern

After settling into a new neighborhood, PM nightlife editor Sean Collier sings the praises of his go-to corner bar.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Capel’s Basketball Resurrection Has the Zoo Rocking Again

Capel’s Basketball Resurrection Has the Zoo Rocking Again

Head coach Jeff Capel is restoring respectability and re-establishing the relationship between Pitt’s students and Pitt’s student athletes.

Comments

Steelers' Organization Shares Blame for Brown Debacle

Steelers' Organization Shares Blame for Brown Debacle

For years now, the Steelers have been working around Brown’s maladaptive tendencies from Monday through Saturday and throwing him the ball on Sunday and hoping for the best.

Comments


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

The 400-Word Review: Pledge

IFC Midnight's collegiate terror tale is mostly for genre fans, but it lands a few decent punches.

Comments

The 400-Word Review: Glass

The 400-Word Review: Glass

M. Night Shyamalan's crossover film lands with a splat, as the filmmaker once again can't resist his worst impulses.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
Pop Culture Touches Made These Weddings Extra Special

Pop Culture Touches Made These Weddings Extra Special

Whether you love all things Disney, “Game of Thrones” or “Star Wars,” there are lots of ways to add some personal — and fun — details into your wedding day.

Comments

It’s a Hockey Wedding in Pittsburgh

It’s a Hockey Wedding in Pittsburgh

This Pittsburgh couple was brought together by their love of hockey — and what better way to celebrate their New Year’s Eve wedding than with an outdoor game?

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
Up for Auction: Luxury 200-Acre Ligonier Estate Owned by Former EDMC Exec

Up for Auction: Luxury 200-Acre Ligonier Estate Owned by Former EDMC Exec

Woodmere is one of four high-end properties owned by Robert Knutson scheduled to hit the auction block this week.

Comments

The Top Five HOME Stories of 2018

The Top Five HOME Stories of 2018

Take a look back at the biggest stories to come out of Pittsburgh’s home and design industry.

Comments