711 Washington Road
HOURS: Mon.-Thurs., 11A.M.-10 P.M.; Fri.-Sat., Until 11 P.M.; Sun. Brunch Until 2:30 P.M.
Full-Service Bar, Handicapped-Accessible, No Smoking.
They are sitting at the edge of their chairs. He leans forward, taking her hand, savoring her touch. She returns his gaze with undivided interest, both content to accumulate these moments of timeless suspension. I wonder if they perceive the world in the same hues as the rest of us – a gloomy, gray sky behind a neighborhood full of shade trees and pretty lawns; little kids staring into plate-glass windows annoying shoppers; people scurrying home from work. The longer their fingers interlock, the more distant and glazed their trance becomes.
"To a cynic, they look like they just brokered a mega-million-dollar merger," jests my husband, Brad, after his first sip of Frog’s Leap chardonnay. The dreamy couple smooching center stage looks as if an artful lighting crew had splashed spotlights on them, projecting their silhouettes above the rest of us as we toast a good friend, taste one another’s Chilean sea bass or debate office and geo-political machinations. An arbiter of reality, the 7 o’clock news, muted on a television above the bar, perfunctorily marks the passing of time.
Tonight, Bistro 19 is jammed. Regulars are pouring in, and they are greeted by name. "I believe in fate," declares owner Josephine DeFrancis, better known as "B." After years of heading to Shadyside and downtown for adventurous spots to eat, she and partner Richard Fuchs found the restaurant for sale in their backyard – both are Baldwin Township residents – and knew "this was it."
"I feel very comfortable here," says DeFrancis of this little American bistro, which seems a bit New York-y. "We tried to keep chic and stylish without being intimidating." Bistro 19, with its sophistication and individuality, also adds another option for fine dining in the South Hills, with its abundance of mall food courts and fast-food restaurants. Especially considering it’s a whole new century, and locals like being able to stroll down the street to dine, have a cocktail or a rendition of bananas Foster that will transport one to the old Park Schenley restaurant in Oakland, if not heaven.
If a room could be a philosopher, Bistro 19 just took off its glasses for a moment of introspection. There is little that is superfluous, not because the owners haven’t spent hours poring over details. From the thick mahogany front door with its handsome iron handle to the gorgeous custom-built wine wall from Penn Interiors, it is a holistic environment that succeeds in subliminally imparting warmth and relaxation as opposed to "Ooh, look at those… ."
The antique tin ceiling and original wooden floor – the building was home to an Italian restaurant called Caffe Giovanni in another life – offer a bit of old soul to the clean, linear space. "Consider it our artwork," says B when I quiz her about an unorthodox back wall, snowy white plaster ribbed in a way that, if I were taking a Rorschach inkblot test, I’d say resembled rolling waves. No, it is not for acoustical purposes (I asked), but it makes a coquettish conversation piece. Backless barstools prevent "view pollution" and enable one to spin around with the ease of a kid well-versed in soda-fountain ergonomics.
Executive chef Jessica Gibson is young, briskly efficient and adventurous without being trend-obsessed. Her goal is to take classics and give them her own twist – that is, she knows the rules but is not afraid to tinker. Start with something light if you want to try that bananas Foster later – this is not the time to think about tomorrow.
May I suggest the hummus sampler and its three variations (traditional, roasted red pepper and fresh herb) with homemade pita chips; a lump crab cake served with whole-grain mustard aioli; a vegetable stack that sneaks in fresh mozzarella. I thought the shrimp cocktail quite nice albeit one-dimensional; however, by the next visit, it had been replaced with a gourmet cheese plate sporting dried cranberries and walnuts. You can almost visualize Gibson’s thought process as she perfects her menu.
Chilean sea bass, though obviously not swimming or spawning anywhere near the Sixth Street Bridge, is currently the house’s signature dish, a brilliant recipe. To keep noble my trademark quest for dining satori, I gave it the old Girl Scout try. I found it to be a piece of fish that could move you, a must-order if you relate to fish the way one relates to art or music. Neither too heavy nor too wispy, the crust of fresh breadcrumbs with just a zing of horseradish melts away with each forkful, while a thick marinade of oyster sauce, rice-wine vinegar and wasabi seals in the juices. Each moist flake falls as pristine as its predecessor. To the sea bass, stack a tangle of basmati rice with madacamia nuts and napa slaw and you have yourself a dreamy preparation. "This woman can cook," was Brad’s imprimatur as he speared a taste, uttering a phrase usually reserved for only the hottest of musicians, "cooking" through a performance.
I give equally high marks to first-rate sushi-grade ahi tuna lightly spread with wasabi paste then wrapped in nori seaweed sheets and breaded with Japanese panko breadcrumbs, sliced down and drizzled lightly with soy/citrus ponzu (soy-based sauce). Gibson’s version adds oranges, lemons, limes, scallions and ginger. Ask for some on the side.
Let’s face it, fat packs flavor, and Maple Leaf Farm’s duck breast – crisp, crackling skin brushed with sweet peach-cranberry chutney – is a feast. So are a hearty 14-ounce double-cut pork chop, richly flavored with whole-grain mustard cream and cornbread chorizo, and a tender veal scaloppine, which perfectly takes on the fragrance of prosciutto and roasted red peppers. A center-cut filet with a gorgonzola crust and wild-mushroom compote in a port wine demi-glace is also startingly flavorful. The onus is on you, the diner, if you’re antsy about your options: Work with the menu the way you would a tour guide; talk to your server. He or she will oblige.
And, of course, finish off your tour with bananas Foster for dessert.
All evening, the clamor of glasses and conversation filled the air. Customers were still steadily streaming through the door and clinking cosmopolitans as we returned to our comfort zone in the city. Heading out into an almost scripted mist, we brushed past the amorous couple, which had migrated to the bar.
Crossing the Monongahela, we laughed at ourselves as we pleaded guilty to our own region-centricity, as if Mount Lebanon were the hinterlands and we were stranded without snowshoes, even though, truth be known, it was along this same stretch where my parents bought me my first Buster Browns and my first Schwinn bicycle.
Each month, Deborah McDonald jump-starts appetites with lively restaurant reviews that scrutinize who’s cooking what and where. She works anonymously, visiting each restaurant at least twice before writing her column.
Do you know of a restaurant you’d like to have reviewed? E-mail Deborah.