Restaurant Review: 40 North At Alphabet City
Will the third restaurant to occupy the North Side space be the one that sticks?
40 North at Alphabet City has the vibe of an old-school Greenwich Village, North Beach or London’s Shoreditch arts cafe. It’s the kind of place where a spur-of-the-moment, simple dinner turns into a festive occasion — because you and your pals decide another round and dessert is what your Wednesday night needs — and it’s a new destination for those of us who love to sit at the bar with a great novel as a companion for a light dinner.
Start your evening with something energizing, such as spicy greens salad — a layered, balanced plate of peppy leaves such as mustard and mizuna, pickled onions, hazelnuts, pepitas and sheep’s milk feta. For an opening snack, look for something seasonal such as late July’s chanterelle toast. That dish, a slab of crunchy bread painted with a dark mortar of black trumpet mushroom butter, chanterelles bursting with the flavor of a summer forest floor cascading off of and in front of it, was a celebration of peak Pennsylvania mushroom season. Pair your first dishes with a sour-sweet fruit shrub spiked with gin (or don’t spike it; the shrub and soda is fabulous on its own, too) or a refreshingly bracing martini softened with a touch of Apricot Eau de Vie.
Executive chef Bethany Zozula and front-of-house managers Josh Bondi (who since has left 40 North for another position) and Sam Suter (also the restaurant’s beverage director) developed an experience that, from menu to music selection, fuses seemingly opposing relaxing and energizing, sophisticated and casual energies into a singular feel-good experience. All three (and a good number of the staff) are alumni of the hospitality program at the former Ace Hotel, where Zozula was executive chef of the hotel’s restaurant, Whitfield. The legacy shows; service at 40 North lands the hard-to-find sweet spot between personable and formal.
40 North occupies approximately one-third of the ground floor of Alphabet City, which is operated by City of Asylum, a nonprofit arts organization that houses writers exiled from their home countries as a result of their artistic expression. The restaurant shares the space with a terrific bookstore — unfortunately for those of us who love to browse and buy, its operating hours don’t extend into dinner service — and a small performance venue.
Each time I visited 40 North, I liked the dining space even more. That had a lot to do with management moving seating deeper and deeper into the (still inactive during my visits) performance area in the center of the building. Doing so broke the fourth wall and fully embraced the site as a whole entity, something that the two previous restaurants to occupy the facility failed to do. Be sure to check City of Asylum’s schedule prior to making your reservation, as occasional performances have since returned and could impact your dining experience.
Zozula and the restaurant’s staff are working with City of Asylum and treating the (typically) two-hour performance window as a special event that includes augmenting the menu and even adding a small (optional) tasting menu; no shaken cocktails will be served from the bar, either. Anyone who makes a reservation on those evenings will be contacted to ensure guests know what’s happening.
40 North is an evolution for Zozula, one in which she’s speaking with an increasingly confident culinary voice. Her menu reaches deep into her past experiences, and it pulls from the eastern European culinary traditions that have a significant influence on our region’s immigrant foodways. All of that is built with a larder of ingredients from purveyors such as be.wild.er Farm, Fet Fisk (its farm and prepared foods), Weatherbury Farm and Goat Rodeo Farm & Dairy — all of whom embrace Western Pennsylvania’s seasonality and agricultural quirks.
Something that sets 40 North apart from other restaurants in Pittsburgh is Zozula’s focus on lamb from Western Pennsylvania, arguably the best lambing region in the United States. As of press time, Zozula is purchasing one or two lambs every week from Salem’s Halal Market & Grill in the Strip District; the owners of the butcher shop, international grocery store and its attached Pittsburgh Magazine’s Best Restaurant work with local ranchers to raise and slaughter lamb under halal guidelines. Zozula is bringing the lamb in whole, which means that in addition to a rotating selection of excellent renditions of more typical offerings such as braised lamb and grilled chops, you’ll find the bits and bobs often discarded or overlooked in the United States offered as specials on Thursdays and Fridays (sometimes Saturdays if there is any left).
I had lamb heart on my first visit to 40 North. Seared on the grill and elegantly sliced against the grain of the hard-working muscle, it was among the best heart dishes I’ve ever had. A few weeks later, my friends and I mumbled, “Wowohwowohwow!” as we devoured a lamb liver taco. The liver was coated in spices such as cumin and coriander and fried creamy-crisp. A good tomato, tender-crisp greens and tzatziki finished the dish, which tasted like the richest (and least vegetarian) falafel imaginable. Although the shell was more flatbread than flour tortilla, I’d order it again.
“Bitter!” might not be the first thing you’d say if I asked you to shout your top flavor descriptors, but Zozula shows a flair for how a dish could be tastier with the sharpness dial turned up a hair. I remember being a little disappointed when I was presented a khachapuri that resembled wrapped flatbread with soft cheese — an early mentor taught her this variation on the Georgian dish, which typically resembles a bread canoe filled with cheese and egg — the first time I tried it. I became a convert to Zozula’s permutation on a later visit; this time, it was aggressively charred on the outside, giving it a delicious bracing bitterness that served as the perfect foil for the sour cheese. In August, I was beguiled by a seasonal salad that featured a mix of grilled peak-summer peaches, marinated and charred radicchio and bittersweet pomegranate molasses. It was a study in how various permutations of bitterness could magnify the fruit and vegetables’ sweeter qualities, particularly as a creamy tang of chevre served to smooth things over.
Most of the main courses — there typically are six — captivated me, too. Of those, a pan-roasted Jubilee Hilltop Ranch ribeye with a salty, mahogany exterior and textbook medium-rare interior stood out as exceptional. The accompanying sauces — a zing from the horseradish and herbaceous pow-wow from the chimichurri — served to enhance the dish further. There are quite a few vegetarian options throughout the menu, and the falafel, intensely crisp on the outside but still nice and fluffy on the inside, is worth seeking out.
Each main course comes with two sides from a menu of six to eight options. Smashed and fried potatoes demonstrated the universal appeal of potatoes. The ping-pong-sized spuds had some tug in the skin, which gave way to a soft and buttery interior, with textures from velvet to shatter-crisp on the edges of the smashed parts. Cauliflower was a crispy and beautiful highlighting of the brassica, cut into neat florets so you can appreciate the texture of each bite. The only absolute failure was the eggplants. Gummy with the consistency of spackle or wallpaper glue, they weren’t cooked in a way that highlighted the eggplant’s lushness or its capacity for playing well in various oils.
Two dishes, both from the small “Sandwiches and Wraps” section of the menu, didn’t wow me, either. 40 North’s spicy fried chicken could have been way crunchier and the thighs were a little squishy. It wasn’t by any means a lousy sandwich; instead, more of a general example of how it’s a good time to pause the “here’s our version of a fried chicken sandwich” trend. And while a hamburger only feels sort of out of place on the menu, the current version needs some straightening out. The Alphabet City double smashburger (Colby, pepper jam, caramelized onions) didn’t present smashburger as advertised — it was more like two thin-ish bar-burger patties and, worse, it was overwhelmed with a gigantic tavern-burger style bun that washed out any beefy enjoyment.
Indeed, the whole four-item “Sandwiches and Wraps” section of the menu reads as a leftover concept from when a lunch menu was in the works; it’s even plopped in at the bottom even though having it prior to the mains would read more logically. 40 North introduced Sunday brunch after I reported for this review (lunch service likely will launch in the forthcoming months, too), and the sandwiches, wraps and burgers are on that menu. I think that’s where they belong — there’s just too much happening at dinner service (even if you are stopping in for a quick bite at the bar) to justify the inclusion of these departures from the overall philosophy of the menu. I’d much rather see an expanded starters section of delicious and affordable nibbles to nosh on.
Be sure to finish your meal with dessert. All I tried were outstanding; coeur a la creme, a light and lovely, heart-shaped, no-bake, crustless cheesecake upon which Zozula paints a canvass of seasonal berries and flowers and adorns it with roasted nuts, is a gem. Another terrific option is warm peach pie, which has a buttery crust filled with not-too-sweet, delicately spiced peaches that retain some of their texture, topped with cinnamon-oat streusel and vanilla ice cream.
Casellula and Brugge on North, the two restaurants that previously occupied this space, closed before they were two years old. I’m almost positive 40 North will have a different fate. The food, beverage menu, design and overall vibe of the space are the first I’ve experienced that feel connected to the building as a whole rather than offering weirdly disorienting neutrality or even trying to ignore the fact that the entire floor shares energy. Zozula’s menu perspective and her celebration of the region’s agriculture make this a destination rather than simply somewhere to go for dinner. The front-of-house staff curate the same situation on an experiential level. It all combines to make one excellent restaurant.
40 W. North Ave., North Side; 412/435-1111, 40northpgh.com