Edit ModuleEdit ModuleShow Tags
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Restaurant Review: The Café Carnegie

The restaurant, run by Dinette’s Sonja J. Finn, boosts the dining experience at the Carnegie museums in Oakland.




photos by laura petrilla

 

The modernist dining room of The Café Carnegie in Oakland is arrayed with sturdy, square and circular wood tables and Eames chairs on easel legs. It’s divided by a small forest of lamps with branches capped by globes of soft-light bulbs. The bright and breezy space is perfect for conversations serious or silly.

Eating a hearty salad chèvre chaud lifted my spirits on a grim afternoon. Al dente lentils flavored with hints of vinegar and sherry made up the body of the salad, which also included carrots, soft mixed lettuces and endive. The salad was topped with warm, creamy Goat Rodeo “Chickabiddy” chèvre capping a slice of toasted, housemade baguette.

A year ago, visitors looking to refuel while viewing legendary artwork and groundbreaking discoveries at the Carnegie Museums of Art and Natural History wouldn’t have been so lucky. They were limited to assembly-line food, reheated and served on a plastic lunch tray as bland as the setting. Nobody in Pittsburgh was making a deliberate trip to the museums to eat those institutional dregs.

That changed when The Café Carnegie, the linchpin of a catering contract with Texas-based foodservice firm Culinaire, opened in December. Culinare made a smart choice in hiring one of Pittsburgh’s most esteemed chefs, Dinette owner Sonja J. Finn, as the restaurant’s executive chef. Becca Hegarty, a talented chef/baker who was a 2017 James Beard Foundation “Rising Star Chef” award semifinalist, served as chef de cuisine until early May and was instrumental in executing the restaurant’s opening menu.
 


The Café Carnegie primarily is a lunch/brunch restaurant, though it does offer a limited dinner service on Thursday when the museums stay open late. It’s a reliable spot for a casual business meeting, afternoon date or a feel-good lunch.

Hospitality is breezy and friendly. Aside from one meal during which the mains came out before we’d finished our soup and salads, servers do a strong job of reading tables. They know when diners need to power through before their lunch hour is over (doable if you’re in the neighborhood) or if they’re planning to linger for a longer lunch.

It’s a leap forward for Pittsburgh to have a restaurant where the most satisfying dishes leave you feeling more energetic for eating them; Finn proves that one indeed can win friends (and loyal diners) with salad. It also is nice to have a restaurant where vegetarians have nearly as many options as omnivores. 
 


Pulled chicken salad, a nod to Finn’s early career stint as a chef at Zuni Cafe in San Francisco, hits all of the right notes with its mix of roasted chicken, soft lettuces, pine nuts (which should be toasted to better evenness) and currants.

Winter farro salad, a rainbowed bowl of green, ruby red, cream, blue and brown, began with a base of toothsome farro. It was mixed with lettuces, roasted pecans, pomegranate seeds and Clover Creek “Pirate Blue” cheese. Its summer-menu counterpart features spelt, grilled corn, chickpeas, radish, red onion, feta, lettuces and cumin-Aleppo vinaigrette back-noted with earthy olive oil. Both were executed perfectly. 

The cafe’s winter-menu sandwiches didn’t hold a candle to the salads. In one of them, shaved ribbons of roasted Jamison Farm lamb were overshadowed by bracingly bitter escarole and lumpy chickpea puree, begging to its maker for a bit of acidity to cut through the richness. 

Grilled egg sandwich, served on some of the best sourdough I’ve had in Pittsburgh, started out promising with a runny egg but washed out with an overabundance of hard-to-eat raab, its bitterness once again throwing off the balance of the dish. I was grateful for the vivid side salad enhanced with nuanced touches of tarragon and chive. Indeed, the star of all of the sandwiches was the bread program developed by Hegarty — I hope the café can keep up the quality now that she has departed to run a small farm and work at Dinette.
 


There are a handful of larger-plate options on the summer menu, most of which are quite good. Grilled eggplant parmesan is a solid place to start. Eggplant rounds have some char and bitterness on the skin but a velvety flesh, with sauce, basil and cheese just as they should be. I wish the accompanying croutons had more oil, garlic and Parmesan.

Lamb-and-rice stuffed grape leaves is another good choice from the current menu. Firm yet airy pyramids of ground lamb and rice (which could use a pinch of salt, a running theme among the large plates) are wrapped in flavorful grape leaves. If the fried chickpeas underneath had a bit more crunch, this dish would be a hit.

Thus far, Finn has managed to strike a balance between pleasing museum guests simply looking for a quick, quality fuel-up and diners on the hunt for a classy, feel-good lunch. If she continues to push forward as the restaurant matures — and her strong track record at Dinette indicates that she will — The Café Carnegie will become a draw, much like the building that houses it.  

4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland; 412/622-3225, thecafecarnegie.com



 

Sonja J. Finn
Executive Chef | The Café Carnegie

What are the benefits of starting a new restaurant with a food service company instead of on your own?

It’s very different to be a restaurant owner and chef rather than simply the chef. At Dinette, I’m as much small business owner as I am a chef. My day-to-day is about keeping the business running. So I’m putting together the menus and the recipes, guiding the cooks and working the line, but I’m also paying the bills and switching light bulbs. Here, I have the ability to focus on the kitchen. The agreement with Culinare was that this was going to be my food, and the ingredients were going to be sourced that way I wanted them to be sourced. This was an opportunity to be part of a museum that I love and focus on the food.

What’s the difference between creating a menu for a museum space as opposed to a standalone restaurant such as Dinette?
The major difference is that this is a set menu. So I need to figure out what can be sourced throughout the season. [Menu planning at] Dinette is really simple. It’s “what’s there today that’s good?” and that’s what goes on the menu. Here we have to make sure we can ensure quality for the entire season of that menu. Menu-writing isn’t hard; ensuring quality is. I don’t have a set menu at Dinette. So, when farmers ask, “What do you want me to grow for you?” I don’t know what I want to run for an entire season. Here, because there is a set menu, we can work like that. But, generally [at Dinette], I like farmers to tell me, “I have this” because that means it’s growing well this year. I’d rather work like that than try to force something. 

One of the things that I like best about eating here is that I can eat something, feel satisfied and also more energetic.
Food is supposed to nourish you. That gets lost a lot. I’m putting together items where the flavors will all go well together, but it also will be a complete meal. I cook the way I eat. I expect the plate in front of me is going to nourish me and give me energy. Food should give you energy. You shouldn’t have to feel like you need to take a nap after a meal. That doesn’t make sense. You’re getting energy from this food because it’s all real food. It’s minimally processed. When your body is eating real food, you’re going to feel better for eating it.
 

Edit ModuleShow Tags
Edit Module

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

The Latest

Casey Renee is the Sweet Dream Maker

Salt, technique and high-quality ingredients help the Whitfield at Ace Hotel pastry chef craft ridiculously craveable desserts.

Perspectives: The Big Pittsburgh Lie

Writer Damon Young says the Steel city is masquerading as a paragon of inclusion.

MultiStories: The Violent Beginning of Union Station

Pittsburgh's Union Station –– built after its predecessor was destroyed in a deadly labor dispute –– nearly succumbed to the wrecking ball in 1966.

Too Hot for School? Science Supports Heat Dismissals

In Pittsburgh, early school dismissals are usually for snowstorms.

A Day in the Life of Andrew Stump

What's a typical work day like for the co-owner of Madeline Bakery & Bistro?

Can Brown Rebound? Steelers Had Better Hope So

Antonio Brown's tweets, threats and tantrums wouldn’t seem to matter nearly as much if he'd caught more than 18 passes for a relatively measly 160 yards through the first two games.

Gallery Crawl Sneaks Into Downtown Alleyways

This Friday, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust will help kick off the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts with “Art in the Alley.”

The 400-Word Review: The House With a Clock in its Walls

Jack Black stars in a family-friendly horror flick that isn't afraid to scare its young viewers.

Ghost of the Tight Man: What Happened to Sam Davis

Sam Davis once was the glue that held the super Steelers together. But a promising career after football was cut short by an unexplained fall that robbed him of the life he knew.

‘Sometimes I'm Happy’ – The Life of Singer Jill Corey

Born in a tiny Westmoreland County town, Jill Corey became a star for Columbia Records in the 1950s. But after a series of hits, a love affair with Frank Sinatra and marriage to famed Pirate third baseman Don Hoak, her life took an unexpected twist.

Restaurant Review: Spork

Despite an inconsistent start, Christian Frangiadis' restaurant now is worth visiting.

Knights of the Flat Screen – Pittsburgh's Video Game Champs

Founded by a pair of Pittsburgh natives, the Knights are a professional esports franchise whose players participate in video game competitions in front of millions of fans in person and online.

How to Enjoy a Haunted House

Don't get to Halloween attractions much anymore? You might be doing it wrong.

Get Wild With Food This Weekend

For more than 50 years, a West Virginia group has promoted the virtues of foraged food.

Meet Kim Fox, the Artisan Making Tin Quilts

The Mt. Lebanon resident uses salvaged wood, tin and nails to create her pieces. Her work is now being showcased at Contemporary Craft in the Strip District.
Edit Module
Edit ModuleShow Tags


Too Hot for School? Science Supports Heat Dismissals

Too Hot for School? Science Supports Heat Dismissals

In Pittsburgh, early school dismissals are usually for snowstorms.

Comments

Gallery Crawl Sneaks Into Downtown Alleyways

Gallery Crawl Sneaks Into Downtown Alleyways

This Friday, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust will help kick off the Pittsburgh International Festival of Firsts with “Art in the Alley.”

Comments


All the foodie news that's fit to blog
A Day in the Life of Andrew Stump

A Day in the Life of Andrew Stump

What's a typical work day like for the co-owner of Madeline Bakery & Bistro?

Comments

Get Wild With Food This Weekend

Get Wild With Food This Weekend

For more than 50 years, a West Virginia group has promoted the virtues of foraged food.

Comments


Not just good stuff. Great stuff.
The 5 Best Places to Shop If You Have a Green Thumb

The 5 Best Places to Shop If You Have a Green Thumb

Hone your gardening skills at these top Pittsburgh-area nurseries, garden centers and shops.

Comments

The 5 Best Movie Theaters in Pittsburgh

The 5 Best Movie Theaters in Pittsburgh

A movie-going experience is about more than just the movie. PM Film Critic Sean Collier takes a break from movie reviews and shares the best spots for cocktails, classics and comfort.

Comments


How to Enjoy a Haunted House

How to Enjoy a Haunted House

Don't get to Halloween attractions much anymore? You might be doing it wrong.

Comments

The Best Bars in Pittsburgh (If You are a Coach for the Steelers)

The Best Bars in Pittsburgh (If You are a Coach for the Steelers)

After the past few years, we need to issue some guidelines for Steelers coaches out on the town.

Comments


Mike Prisuta's Sports Section

A weekly look at the games people are playing and the people who are playing them.
Can Brown Rebound? Steelers Had Better Hope So

Can Brown Rebound? Steelers Had Better Hope So

Antonio Brown's tweets, threats and tantrums wouldn’t seem to matter nearly as much if he'd caught more than 18 passes for a relatively measly 160 yards through the first two games.

Comments

Chiefs are a Better Barometer for Steelers than Browns

Chiefs are a Better Barometer for Steelers than Browns

There is evidence to suggest Pittsburgh can be better against Kansas City.

Comments


The movies that are playing in Pittsburgh –– and, more importantly, whether or not they're worth your time.
The 400-Word Review: The House With a Clock in its Walls

The 400-Word Review: The House With a Clock in its Walls

Jack Black stars in a family-friendly horror flick that isn't afraid to scare its young viewers.

Comments

The 400-Word Review: The Predator

The 400-Word Review: The Predator

The latest visit to the action franchise is a noble try, but ultimately a bit of a mess.

Comments


Everything you need to know about getting married in Pittsburgh today.
These Couples Have Officially Won the Game of Love

These Couples Have Officially Won the Game of Love

There is no formula for finding love, but for these couples, there is one common factor: sports.

Comments

Put Away Your Veil and Try This on for Size

Put Away Your Veil and Try This on for Size

These Pittsburgh brides found their perfect final touch to their bridal looks in the form of a headpiece — all at the same shop.

Comments


Weekly inspiration for your home from the editors of Pittsburgh Magazine
Meet Kim Fox, the Artisan Making Tin Quilts

Meet Kim Fox, the Artisan Making Tin Quilts

The Mt. Lebanon resident uses salvaged wood, tin and nails to create her pieces. Her work is now being showcased at Contemporary Craft in the Strip District.

Comments

Oakmont Nonprofit Blesses Families in Need with Furniture — and Love

Oakmont Nonprofit Blesses Families in Need with Furniture — and Love

Since its inception in 2009, The Blessing Board has helped thousands of families obtain furniture and has grown to include the successful Vintage Market.

Comments