736 Bellefonte St., Shadyside
Lunch: Tues.-Fri., 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sat., noon-4 p.m.; Sun. brunch, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; Dinner: Tues.-Thurs., 5-10 p.m., tapas until midnight; Fri.-Sat. until 11 p.m. (tapas until midnight); Sun., 5-9 p.m.; Salads: $6-$9; Tapas: $8-$11; Tapas Flights: $10-$19; Entrees: $17-$35; Dessert: $6; Full bar includes seven wine flights based on region and type of wine and 21 wines by the glass. Tapas served at the bar, reservations accepted, monthly wine dinner. Nonsmoking.
The dinner crowd was gathering and in no particular rush. We decided to work on our appetite, kick back and watch the rituals at the glowing bar in Pangea, a romantic little walk-down on Bellefonte Street, just 20 feet off Shadyside’s main drag of Walnut Street. The bar’s rheostat-controlled counter allows for quite a wide range for interpreting the color orange. The palette can be muted to seem like a setting sun or it might explode with color like spontaneous combustion. Someone adjusted it to "tranquil," and it looked as though my glass was sitting on the surface of an autumnal moon.
I love walk-downs, and the endorphins kick in as I begin the descent. An embroidered curtain in a lower window flaps a greeting in the woosh of a breeze. You can feel the energy in the room, catch bits of what everyone’s eating – it’s a lively, neighborly, yet intimate ambience. "Pangea" is derived from the Greek word pangaia, which means, "all the earth," and refers to the planet’s original super continent, which existed before it split up into present-day continents. "A childhood history lesson," intones executive chef and operating partner Ronald A. DeLuca Jr. "You weren’t listening in geography class if you have to get out the dictionary," he laughs.
Former owner and executive chef at Blue, DeLuca slackened his pace when he sold this McCandless Township restaurant three years ago and remained on as executive chef for two of those years. "For a working chef used to little down time, 60 hours a week was like a vacation," he says. DeLuca used the time to create his globally influenced menu, then settled on "Pangea" as a perfect tag for the cuisine he had in mind, an image that would sit apart from the fray, catch the eye and make a person want to return. After I’d finished my first seared sea scallop with asparagus cream and red-pepper coulis, I knew the dreamy little spot had the inherent character to banish former building inhabitants to the realm of history.
"I love the location, love the neighborhood, the foot traffic and the convenient parking," says DeLuca, excited to be part of this little patch of urbanity. "And I’m very keen on size. A place can be too big, and you lose something. This space is fitting for me." There is little here that is superfluous – after all, aren’t soft light, smart furniture, plenty of elbow room and an eclectic soundtrack what the new minimalism is all about?
The visuals here echo Pangea’s culinary focus: DeLuca likes simplicity, textures, flavors that stand out. His mission is the menu. Rather than routinely roaming the dining room, he prefers not to turn his back on the kitchen. Young protégé sous chef Paul Village mans the kitchen with DeLuca, and with general manager Thom Naylor (recently of Acanthus) at the front of the house, DeLuca is covered. Naylor has a way with people, energetic without overdoing the fuss, freeing the chef to cook his heart and soul out six days a week, lunch and dinner. More than a few times, Pangea’s food didn’t simply amaze me; it moved me.
I had a mini love affair with warm brie and strawberry salad atop field greens with cucumbers, toasted almonds and pomegranate vinaigrette. A scoop of tabouleh, unlike any I’ve had before, mostly bulghur with a splash of parsley instead of the reverse, is brightened by a salad of heirloom tomato and red onion.
Among the singular tapas, wild-caught crispy shrimp with fried leeks and sweet chili garlic glaze make this fresh shellfish exciting again. I liked the crab risotto, served in a tiny casserole, which was toasty with wild mushrooms and roasted red pepper. Also notable was surf-and-turf: Wild salmon was served crusted with fresh jalapeño, and a strawberry-braised short rib was complemented by mixed-berry coulis. Fresh Prince Edward Island Thai mussels combine a touch of curry, yuzu, soba noodles, sesame seeds and coconut milk. Oh, how I loved the lettuce wraps, which concealed light, tangy strips of Mongolian beef made "à la minute" with a sweet-and-sour touch, fried cellophane noodles and pickled onion meant to be rolled up in buttery Bibb lettuce.
Pangea adheres to the modern mantra that food should be seasonal, local and the result of sustainable agriculture. In addition to being a proponent for eco-consciousness, DeLuca grasps the finite nature of precious commodities; that is, he shuns waste. After 20 years in the business, he cringes at the thought of what he’s seen go into restaurant garbage cans. "I want our town to get away from the norms. Taste and quality, not quantity, are imperative for an exceptional dining experience," he insists.
The menu develops the tapas attitude with the concept of "flights." These offer a three-way portal to the global cuisine with small interpretations of the same item rather than just one way of tasting the same food. So, there are zero boxes or foil swans to take home. It’s fun, and a satisfying approach to eating. Browse the menu the way you’d browse the Internet; then, strategize a meal that reflects what you and your companions are in the mood for.
It is easy to be smitten. Try the trio of soulful seafood cakes: lump crab with flourishes of Hudson Valley micro-greens for texture and a swoosh of mustard cream; wild-caught king salmon with grilled asparagus and fresh dill crème fraîche; and champagne-poached lobster and Gulf-shrimp cakes set atop a small bed of mango-jalapeño relish. Or, taste the char-grilled, open-faced burgers, a current house favorite. One variation starts with a foundation of crostini topped with house-ground Elysian Fields lamb enhanced with coriander and fennel with mango-chili sambal and raita (yogurt sauce), a cooling agent to counteract the sambal’s spice. Other standout burgers include: peppered turkey (larded with a little bacon fat) with black-bean jalapeño puree and a touch of Monterey jack cheese; and house-ground filet mignon with Boursin cheese and heirloom-tomato confit.
Flaky phyllo tartlets, good for sharing, piqued rather than quashed our appetites served with fresh-fruit compote, peppered olives and a smoky ratatouille.
Experience leads to the conclusion that the chef here loves to work with scallops. The scallop trio is next to perfect. One element is a seviche with mango, jalapeño and red onion; a second is a seared scallop with ratatouille and rosemary-champagne vinaigrette; that’s flanked by a lightly battered tempura scallop, which is soft and sensual on green-tea soba noodles and aromatic Japanese yuzu ("not to be confused with ‘yinz’s-u").
There ARE entrees on the menu, but, I am thankful they are never lost under draperies of cheese or sauce. The concept of brightening and enhancing flavors persists, from mustard- and apricot-brushed chicken brilliantly coaxed on with caramelized apricot and jalapeño relish to Maple Leaf Farms duck au poivre with red-rhubarb conserve, finished with a Meyer lemon gastrique. Wild-caught Alaskan halibut’s natural attributes shine through a light artichoke-and-fennel crust. An opulent bowl of cioppino, the San Franciscan mulligan stew, with clams, Gulf shrimp and the day’s firm-fleshed bounty, is hearty in an understated way. It is never too much, so that when the server comes around at meal’s end saying, "I know dessert was mentioned, but that was many moons ago," no one is squealing, "I just can’t, can’t…"
I suggest moving to the fire pit for coffee and dessert. We nibbled truffle en chocolat, two dense chocolate-cake triangles with berries and crème anglaise, as well as a tall slice of chiffon layer cake with strawberries, Grand Marnier-marinated puree and whipped cream. Note to sweet tooths: Pastry chef Jim Lewis always has a special for regulars. Before you wince at another crème brûlée – and I plead guilty myself – consider this: This confection’s sugar crust, as thick as a mid-winter ice pond, quickly dispensed any preconceived notions of tired dessert clichés. I practically chiseled to get through to the quivering substrate glistening beneath. Adding to the experience were the giant wild blackberries with which it was festooned, providing intense flavor and perfect pitch. It was terrific!
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.
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