Drinking Sake Bombs at Tan Izakaya and Eating Crickets at Scratch
Our dining critic has a first look at Tan Izakaya in Shadyside and an insect-forward menu at Scratch Food & Beverage in Troy Hill.
photos by hal b. klein
First Look: Tan Izakaya
Is Japanese pub grub about to become a thing in Pittsburgh? Last Sunday, Tan Izakaya in Shadyside became the second izakaya to open here in 2016; Umami Izakaya opened in Lawrenceville in April. Tan is the latest restaurant from legendary Pittsburgh restaurateur Mike Chen, who currently also operates Everyday Noodles in Squirrel Hill (a Pittsburgh Magazine 2016 Best Restaurant) and China Palace in Monroeville.
“The time is right for something like this in Pittsburgh. Before, everyone was into fusion, but not anymore. People in Pittsburgh want to eat authentic food. When I opened Everyday Noodles, I bought authentic Chinese cuisine, and now I want to bring Japanese culture, sake culture,” says Chen.
To that end, he’s partnered with Mike Lin (Plum Pan Asian Cuisine, Tai Pei), Tan Izakaya’s executive chef and co-owner. Lin has 30 years experience in the restaurant business, including working for 12 years in Japan. “He might be the best sushi chef in Pittsburgh right now,” Chen says.
I’ve visited Tan Izakaya twice since it opened on Sunday; once for a midday bowl of ramen and once for an evening of drinks and dishes. What I found is a fun space with a solid sake and beer list — on Tuesday night a group of international students was starting the new semester by enjoying a few festive rounds of sake bombs — and a menu that shows some promise.
“We’re not talking about fancy food, we’re talking everyday food that people are eating at home,” Chen says.
I was impressed with the temperature, texture and flavor of the sushi rice, but I wish that there were some higher-grade options of fish on the menu — what is offered is fresh, nicely sliced and sure to appeal to a broad audience — but perhaps there’s an opportunity for Chen and Lin to add some specials in the future. Better, so far, is the grilled Norway mackerel teishoku, an entree-sized portion served with soup, rice, a tasty egg custard and seasonal fruit, in this case, a great slice of watermelon. It’s one of six teishoku listed on the menu.
Then again, you also could make a meal out of the $2 yakitori menu; I’ve enjoyed the pork and green onion, bacon and quail egg, lamb and chicken wing. My bowl of ramen was good — happy there was a coddled egg that melted into the broth — but I’m still on the hunt for a bowl of ramen that satiates my noodle-soup cravings.
Expect the menu at Scratch Food & Beverage to get a little more earthy over the next few months as Executive Chef Matt Petruna adds some alternative proteins such as crickets and mealworms to the menu at one of Pittsburgh’s best new neighborhood bars.
“This came from a conversation that Don [Mahaney, Scratch owner] and I had been having about how to continue to move forward with our mission of sustainability. Crickets and mealworms are eaten in a lot of other parts of the world, so why not here? You don’t have to do it in a shocking, novelty way. You can make it as actual food,” said Petruna at an “Alternative Proteins” dinner at Scratch on Wednesday night.
“When you consider all the natural resources that are used for conventional meat consumption, crickets and other insects can provide an alternative that is much more environmentally friendly and also healthier in many ways,” said Sustainable Pittsburgh restaurant program manager Rebecca Bykoski, noting that crickets are an excellent source of protein, vitamin B12, calcium and iron.
Petruna’s first course was a summer vegetable tasting garnished with cricket peso, mealworm gremolata and eggplant romesco. The mealworm gremolata was nutty and earthy, though a little bit grainy. The general reaction to the cricket pesto was, “I would never have known there were crickets in there.”
The crew from Spice took course two: cricket tostada with chili mole, pickled melon rind, foraged chanterelle, black bean and sweet corn chorizo, and spicebush berry slaw. Guests reported a noticeable presence of cricket in the texture of the dish (“I could feel the legs,” one friend said) but, overall, this was a terrific plate, particularly the mole and the pickled melon rind. I’m planning on visiting Spice on my next trip to Cleveland.
“You could see the crickets. I had one alone; it was better with the dish, but I still liked it on its own. It tasted like a toasted nut with a little bit of crunch,” said Patrick Jordan, artistic director of Barebones Productions, following the second course.
Petruna was back at it for course three, where he mixed a meatloaf of cricket meal with ground Jamison Farm lamb and Blackberry Meadows Farm pork. (Incidentally, if you haven’t yet tried the Blackberry Meadows pork, you should make an effort to find them at a farmers market and get some; it’s A-plus stuff.) The consensus was that the cricket meal added a bit of graininess to the meatloaf, but it was mostly offset by the richness of the pork. Petruna’s black-garlic okonomi was a luscious, flavorful counterpoint to the meatloaf.
Casellula’s Keyser paired chocolate-covered crickets (spicy, crunchy, a little dry) with two slices of cheese and red-wine cherries for the final course. Here, the cheese was the star, particularly the combination of Point Reyes blue with the cherries.
The dinner was a strong initial experiment for what looks to be a forward-thinking, sustainable and tasty detour in Pittsburgh dining. “These exact dishes won’t be on the menu. We’re going to do a little more testing, and hope to roll out a few new dishes by the end of September,” Petruna said.