Best Restaurants – Special Awards

Best New Restaurant

Toast! Kitchen & Wine Bar
Co-owners Paul Tebbets and Chet Garland
5102 Baum Blvd., Shadyside
412/224-2579, toastkitchen-winebar.com

Ask Paul Tebbets, who co-owns Toast! with chef Chet Garland, why they earned our award this year and his answer is simple: "We didn’t have to answer to anyone else’s concept of a restaurant." It’s lucky for the rest of us that this talented duo shared a vision from the start. Says Tebbets, "We wanted to create the kind of place we like to eat, where the food is fresh and simple but still a little experimental, the wine selections are fun, and most importantly, a place that’s affordable and not just for special occasions."

At Toast!, Tebbets, most recently wine director at Eleven, and Garland, previously at downtown’s Nine on Nine, have delivered on these goals. Garland’s fresh, unpretentious approach in the kitchen yields contemporary American dishes based on great ingredients that offer just enough intrigue. Tebbets’ list of about 130 bottles from wine regions around the world is great reading and changes frequently; about two-thirds are priced at $40 or less. Order wine by the glass from the list of at least 30 choices, and you’ll receive a generous 8-ounce pour in a decanter: The easy-share concept and the fair pricing are Tebbets’ way of helping people find wines that they love.

The pervasively friendly yet upscale personality of Toast! makes it the holy grail of restaurants – a place that works equally well whether you want to impress out-of-town guests or have a casual night out with friends. This versatility stems partly from the distinct dining areas. Downstairs has a laid-back tavern feel, with a cozy bar, inviting leather sofas, dark-wood tables and walls painted California Poppy red. Upstairs, three intimate dining rooms with linens, fireplaces and French doors offer comfortable elegance.

There are only about 60 seats, so you’ll definitely want to make reservations – sometimes a month ahead for weekend prime time. Whether you opt for the multicourse chef’s-choice tasting (on "Tasting Tuesdays," it costs just $35, with wine pairing for an additional $15) or share a few small plates at the bar, you’ll discover that the happy vision that Tebbets and Garland have made a reality is worthy of a heartfelt toast. – Kate Chynoweth

Chef of the Year

Trevett Hooper
Executive Chef and Owner
Legume
1113 S. Braddock Ave., Regent Square
412/371-1815, legumebistro.com, BYOB

When Trevett Hooper returned to Pittsburgh and opened an intimate 14-table restaurant in 2007, food lovers noticed immediately. His unique spin on bistro fare is a labor of love – from the unusual appetizers of marrowbone or lamb kidney to the house-made preserves and charcuterie that add freshness to every plate.

As Hooper has settled in over time, his kitchen has become even more ambitious and successful, and we are proud to honor these efforts by naming him "Chef of the Year." Hooper’s touch is everywhere in his kitchen, even in the sweets. This former pastry chef’s memorable desserts include sublime chocolate-truffle cakes and delicious crisps oozing with summer fruit.

No ingredient is too small to capture Hooper’s imagination. "For me, the transformational aspect of cooking keeps it exciting," he says. "Using local produce to make preserves like brandied peaches, plum catsup, pickled cherries and beets, or mulberry jelly in the summer can make a dish exceptional even in the middle of winter." The restaurant’s succinct one-page menu – usually four to eight appetizers, four to five main courses and a couple of side dishes – changes constantly and reflects what’s freshest.

Local meats include Heilman’s Hogwash pork, Jamison Farm lamb and chickens from Kennedy Meat Stand (the delicious Chicken Under a Skillet dish is one of the menu’s few mainstays). Gorgeous produce comes from Grow Pittsburgh, Kistaco Farms, Hi-View Garden near Somerset and other regional growers such as Mildred’s Daughters farm. Yet Hooper likes to point out that "local" is just a buzzword – one that many chefs misuse.

That notion inspires his thoughtful newsletter, "Notes from the Kitchen", where he writes about the fascinating process behind creating dishes and sourcing ingredients. (Sign up for the newsletter via the restaurant’s excellent Web site.) "I talk about all that goes into our food, and hopefully help people understand all the invisible levels involved," says Hooper. The notes reveal processes that might otherwise go unnoticed, from making ricotta cheese to barrel-aging apple-cider vinegar. One thing is certain: Reading is not required to fall in love with Hooper’s food. – Kate Chynoweth

Rising Star Chef

Chet Garland
Chef and Co-Owner
Toast! Kitchen & Wine Bar
5102 Baum Blvd., Shadyside
412/224-2579, toastkitchen-winebar.com

For Chet Garland, creating Toast! Kitchen & Wine Bar with co-owner Paul Tebbets has meant coming home in more ways than one. After attending Johnson & Wales Culinary School in Rhode Island, the Zelienople native spent eight years working in and around Virginia and North Carolina, where he fell in love with the flavor and simplicity of Low-Country cooking (Garland’s delicious shrimp-and-grits appetizer is one of the menu’s mainstays).

Coming back to this region has been a welcome return to the place where he grew up and where his family still lives. While settling in, he worked with Tebbets to open Halo on the South Side (the building is now home to dueling piano bar Charlie Murdoch’s) and then spent two years in the kitchen at downtown’s Nine on Nine. But it wasn’t until Garland and Tebbets decided to open their own place – both were passionate about starting an upscale-casual restaurant with sophisticated yet affordable food and wine – that Garland’s homecoming was complete.

Now, as the creative force behind Toast’s contemporary-American menu, which changes every day, Garland has free rein to showcase the ingredients and techniques he loves best. "I like to pick an ingredient, whether it’s wild striped bass or fava beans, and base a dish around it," he says. "It comes down to what’s fresh, local and new." On the menu, his efforts may translate into a salad of just-picked baby greens with orange vinaigrette and Manchego cheese or wild salmon with in-season asparagus and lemon oil.

Garland credits what he calls the "Southern mentality of keeping things simple and humble" for his love of uncomplicated food. "I never want to mask the flavors of a great product so I aim for no more than five ingredients on the plate," he says. Luckily for Pittsburgh diners, this helps Garland keep down costs – a source of pride for the restaurant and one of the co-owners’ original goals. "We want the kind of place you come back to every week," Garland says. With food this delicious coming out of the kitchen, there’s little doubt that diners will want to do just that. – Kate Chynoweth

Delicious Design

Dinette
5996 Penn Circle South, East Liberty
412/362-0202, dinette-pgh.com

The interior design of Dinette in East Liberty will not "wow" you with opulent detail, dazzle you with spectacular lighting or impress you with rare, luxurious materials. And that’s exactly why it works so well. Dinette is the winner of this year’s "Delicious Design" award because of its casual simplicity, offering a minimal interior that serves as a second-story stage where diners can gaze out on the surrounding architectural drama through wall-sized windows. It’s a space so light and airy it seems to float.

This revitalized East Liberty neighborhood is dotted with landmark buildings within steps from Dinette. Diners see the Gothic East Liberty Presbyterian Church, the friezes of the Highland Building and the sun setting over the glass-and-steel dome of historic Motor Square Garden.

The location captured the imagination of owner and chef Sonja Finn as soon as she saw it. Finn, a 1997 graduate of Taylor Allderdice High School in Squirrel Hill, returned to Pittsburgh when she decided to open her first restaurant. A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., Finn was a chef in San Francisco before opening Dinette, which specializes in fine thin-crust pizzas and wine, last October.

Inside, Dinette is bright, modern and minimal. It’s small, seating only 36, but feels open, not cramped. "With a small space, functionality is as important as the aesthetics," Finn says. "The functionality drives the design." The bright-orange plastic Jasper Morrison Air-Chairs are stackable, easily cleaned and surprisingly comfortable. Each of the steel tables seats two, allowing maximum flexibility in bringing tables together for parties of varying sizes – "like a Tetris game," Finn says.

The large, corner storage wall unit, in a matching orange, is the largest statement of color in the restaurant. And the metro shelving for cookware and other storage is "pedestrian, but chic," Finn says. Even Dinette’s sole decorative art, its large "Dinette" sign in white neon, provides a pleasant evening glow and doubles as extra lighting.

An open kitchen and bar provide impromptu entertainment for Dinette’s patrons, and, as Finn notes, also make a big difference for the cooks. "It makes a much more pleasant work environment for the cooks when they can see that the customers are enjoying what they’re creating. It’s exciting." Jen Bee, an architect from Edge Studio who helped Finn with the design, says, "Sonja really wanted to showcase the wine and the preparation of the food. So it made sense to keep the design simple. Plus, the approach worked really well with her budget."

One of the most important aspects of each of Finn’s decisions for Dinette was her commitment to sustainability. The bar counter is "plyboo" (a plywood bamboo); energy-efficient lighting is used throughout, and even a tankless on-demand water heater was chosen. Perhaps Dinette’s most customer-pleasing design statement, though, is the fresh bouquets – of Finn’s signature thin breadsticks served standing in glass tumblers. – Jonathan Wander
 

Categories: Eat + Drink Features