Pittsburgh Restaurant Review: Fig & Ash is a New Classic
At Fig & Ash on the North Side, you’ll find leveled-up comfort food and wood-fired dishes prepared and served with grace and hospitality.
I‘m smitten with the double-cut pork chop at Fig & Ash. It’s soaked in a brine spiked with apple cider vinegar, paprika, thyme, cinnamon, garlic and cloves prior to being cooked in the North Side restaurant’s wood-fired hearth. By the time the chop is pulled from the grill, it’s encased in a smoke-kissed crust. An iteration I had in July was dressed with a sweet and tangy pineapple-habanero sauce exuding a gentle heat that matched harmoniously with the luscious fat melting from the succulent pork. It’s become a signature dish of the restaurant, which is one of the best in Pittsburgh right now.
Pork chops are part of Fig & Ash’s origin story, too. Executive chef and co-owner Cory Hughes used to host weekly Sunday dinners with his family. They had an open-door policy, with neighbors, family friends and anyone else who happened to show up on a given evening guaranteed a tasty meal and good company. One such night, Hughes, then running culinary operations at Google’s Pittsburgh headquarters, was grilling chops and burgers in his backyard when he had an “aha” moment. He’d been brainstorming restaurant concepts with his wife, Kate, and his brother-in-law, Alex Feltovich, but they hadn’t quite honed in on what their focus would be. He turned to Feltovich (now a co-owner and the operations manager of the restaurant) and said, “Let’s do this. Sunday dinner at our house.”
It took a few years to get there — construction challenges and the COVID-19 pandemic caused significant delays — but Hughes’ vision of a Sunday dinner now is running full-steam on East Ohio Street. What makes the establishment worth visiting (and frequently at that) is that the Fig & Ash version of Sunday dinner turns weekend comfort classics such as meatloaf into destination dining. Even on a hot summer night, I was reaching for extra forkfuls of the flavorful blend of short rib and pork belly dressed with a peppy horseradish crème fraîche that cut through the richness of the meatloaf. Tender, buttery carrots, toothsome farro pilaf and grassy pea purée each added strong notes to the plate, too. Even for those of us who love to cook at home, it sure is nice to visit a place where someone else is doing the work for you, particularly when they are paying attention to fine details and layering of flavors. And that’s precisely what’s happening at Fig & Ash.
Hughes worked hard to get here — prior to his gig at Google, he was executive chef of Six Penn Kitchen and sous chef in restaurants such as Eleven Contemporary Kitchen and Spoon, as well as working for STARR Restaurant Group in Philadelphia. You’ll see the former U.S. Marine Corps cook’s exuberance for feeding people front-and-center as he pops out from the glass-enclosed kitchen to work the dining room. You’ll experience his strength in team-building with the full-spectrum, consistent cookery coming from the kitchen he’s running with chef de cuisine Chris Shuplock.
A shining example is Elysian Fields Moroccan lamb shoulder with Israeli couscous, spinach, almond and mint labneh. Lamb shoulder is often cast aside in favor of racks, chops or boneless legs, but a few bites of the caramelized yet meltaway meat at Fig & Ash is a demonstration of why the often-underutilized cut should be featured more often. It’s even more of a treat here because the lamb is from Waynesburg’s Elysian Fields Pure Bred Lamb, one of the very best producers in the country. The accompanying raab was cooked tender-crisp and finished with a nice char on the grill, and it’s not often I find couscous in Pittsburgh that’s appropriately cooked so that it feels and tastes like the pasta it is while still eating airy like a grain.
Meals are delivered by a gracious group of front-of-house professionals; from a lively seat at the bar to one on the comfortable, four-seasons patio, hospitality is at the forefront at Fig & Ash. The North Side restaurant is barely a year old — it opened last September in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic — but it already vibrates like a lived-in, favorite destination where you’ll feel like (and want to be) a regular if you come a few times. The restaurant also serves as an excellent spot for a romantic evening out or a place to take someone visiting from out of town.
You wouldn’t know there is a citywide staffing shortage, either; service consistently felt lean-forward. Credit general manager Rachel Sinagra, who developed a highly thought-out process of hospitality that doesn’t show its work. What that means for you is a meal with orchestrated service that feels effortless and is full of lovely small touches, such as holding the leftovers at the host stand until you are ready to depart. I’m also happy to report that share plates are a proper size here.
The dining room is comfortable, too, professionally done but not overly designed. There are a plethora of houseplants throughout, and all the nooks and crannies are filled with quirky art. The only drawback are the bathrooms, which transport you to a Pier 1 Imports showroom or the home decor aisle of a Target store.
Some items on the menu, such as heirloom carrots, have become a mainstay at Fig & Ash. They are roasted in the restaurant’s hearth (the source of many star dishes) and served with whipped ricotta, honey, roasted Marcona almonds and sage brown-butter. The carrots’ smoky sweetness is amplified by each element, balanced with the triple-threat blend of fat from the ricotta, butter and almonds. I don’t know if it always needs to be on the menu — it’s one of just a few dishes that have been served as-is since the restaurant’s opening — but I don’t mind, either, especially as they serve as a barometer for how the kitchen keeps honing in on small details.
Most of the plate sets reflect the season, but I also think there is some room for improvement around the edges when it comes to seasonality.
One July night, I had a strip steak served with roasted Yukon potato, asparagus and roasted cipollini demi-glace. “Oh, now this is a steak!” a friend and I both exclaimed as our knives glided through a salt-crusted caramelized crust into a cartoon illustration of what a medium-rare steak should look like. And those potatoes were pretty perfect, too. But why asparagus in July? Why not take this American steakhouse classic and lean into the season with a vegetable such as kohlrabi?
I wondered the same thing about seasonality eating a bowl of ooh-and-ahh, technically perfect gnocchi, served with guanciale, Calabrian chili, San Marzano tomatoes and Parmesan. But, as tasty as the sauce was with those canned tomatoes, I’d rather have seen the offered version in winter and enjoyed a celebration of cherry tomatoes, just hitting the summer stride, when I had it. On a subsequent visit, pasta verde with spring vegetables — the only dish I had at any meal that I felt just meh about — had me questioning why I was eating a dish that belonged in mid-May on a hot July night.
Otherwise, I loved the small pasta selection at Fig & Ash, especially as it allows guests the option to order half-portions. A friend and I tacked on a half of gemelli with Fun-gal farms mushrooms, and it proved to be one of my favorite dishes at the restaurant. Local mushroom grower Holly Scott’s mushrooms are paired with shiitake cream, bacon, poached egg and just the right amount of thyme to accent the seemingly simple yet very nuanced dish which made for a wowzer course.
There tend to be around five bespoke cocktails at Fig & Ash, and most I’ve tried were tasty, balanced and have clever names. Drunk Off Uranus, a tasty tiki spin with gin, passion fruit cordial, falernum, orgeat and lime, works well as a before- or after-dinner drink. It’s The Fennel Countdown (fennel syrup, orgeat syrup, five-spice, lemon, soda) is an easy-sipping spirits-free drink for those looking for something fizzy but choose not to imbibe. And the wine list is on-theme for the restaurant rooted in a classic canon yet not sitting on its heels in the execution of how to build its dishes. “They’ve done a nice job of having the classics but throwing us wine people a few bones, too,” a friend said.
If the teamwork and energy continue to develop in the way they have been, with a slowly tilting, upwardly elegant arc, Fig & Ash could become one of Pittsburgh’s mainstay restaurants for years to come. And, as the weather cools and we head into peak comfort food season, I’m looking forward to the next steps in that ascent.
Fig & Ash
North Side: 514 E. Ohio St.