Restaurant Review: Casbah Still is Rocking
More than 20 years into its run, Casbah remains one of Pittsburgh’s most relevant restaurants.
photos by laura petrilla
Casbah was the first restaurant I went to in Pittsburgh.
It was 2010, and I was considering moving here from California. A new friend aiming to sell me on the city took me to the Shadyside restaurant, which opened in 1995 and specializes in Mediterranean cuisine. It didn’t necessarily wow me in the way that some restaurants do, but I left feeling happy and satisfied. I knew there would be at least one worthwhile place to eat in Pittsburgh.
Over the years, I’ve heard similar stories from other transplants as well as countless quips from lifelong Pittsburghers about how Casbah is their steady, their go-to — their spot for an easy, inexpensive lunch, a casual Tuesday night meal and a destination restaurant when trying to please a group of friends that includes both food fanatics and picky eaters.
That’s because, by design, there’s something for everyone at Casbah.
Nearly 20 years ago, one of my predecessors, Ann Haigh, first reviewed Casbah for Pittsburgh Magazine. The second sentence of her review read, “Even as a newborn, it’s better than 95 percent of Pittsburgh eateries.” As a mature restaurant operating in a significantly deeper playing field, it still ranks in the top tier of Pittsburgh eateries.
I’d even take it a step further: Casbah today is, in many ways, Pittsburgh’s most vital restaurant.
Casbah’s kitchen alumni is an honor roll of influencers in Pittsburgh: Justin Severino (Cure, Morcilla), Derek Stevens (Union Standard), Eli Wahl (Eleven), Henry Dewey (Penn Avenue Fish Company) and Chris Bonfili (Avenue B) currently run or recently have helmed Pittsburgh Magazine Best Restaurant kitchens. The list continues from there.
Bill Fuller, Pittsburgh Magazine’s 2017 Chef of the Year, was Casbah’s opening chef. He now is the corporate chef of big Burrito Restaurant Group (which also includes Eleven, Soba, Umi, Kaya and Mad Mex) and remains hands-on in the general operations of his first restaurant, including overseeing the establishment’s big-picture menu planning. Executive Chef Dustin Gardner started running the day-to-day in early 2016; he’s the 10th person to hold the restaurant’s executive chef position.
Gardner started working for big Burrito in 2008. Most of his experience with the company is in the Casbah kitchen, except from 2014 to 2015, when he was the executive chef of Soba (he also had a brief run as that restaurant’s sous chef in 2009). Nearly two years into his run as Casbah’s top chef, it feels as if he’s comfortable in his stride while he deliberately is pushing himself forward.
Even if you haven’t yet dined at Casbah, you’ll quickly pick up on what’s in store: generous portions, not a lot of boundary-pushing and food prepared by somebody cooking with heart — it’s what you want from both your favorite neighborhood restaurant and from a “let’s go out for dinner somewhere nice” restaurant.
Yet Casbah isn’t a relic or a throwback. Fuller, Gardner and the rest of the team care as much about contemporary foodways and trends as any other top chef in Pittsburgh, they just tend to do it a little more quietly. While other restaurants tout dubious farm-to-table supply chains because they top dishes with locally sourced microgreens, the Casbah kitchen flips the script; you wouldn’t know it, but local farms often have trouble keeping up with the restaurant’s demands.
The menu at Casbah features many staples — such as the light and refreshing roasted beet salad with whipped ricotta, spicy salad greens, French green lentil vinaigrette and Marcona almonds — that quickly will become favorites. A longstanding pasta dish, ricotta cavatelli with fennel sausage, spinach and ricotta, easily is one of my top five comfort food dishes in Pittsburgh.
Other dishes feature a consistent primary protein, such as salmon, served with supporting actor sets that switch through the seasons. Wild Alaskan halibut appeared in October with beets, apples, autumn greens, compressed Brussels sprouts, Meyer lemon, smoked paprika aioli and pistachio; not only was it delicious, but it also is an example of how Gardner can craft dishes that are chef-forward but still keep it squarely in the comfort zone.
Gardner and his team nearly always are ship-shape in their execution of the dishes — though an occasional lapse in attention-to-detail, such as a lunch service that felt as if they’d swapped the regular kitchen staff for one on a cruise ship, and a few over-salted dishes on another visit, means there still is room to tighten up.
That lunch visit also included a rare misstep in service (at one point our server blindly poured water onto the floor while she was taking our order) from an ordinarily exemplary front-of-house staff. Service is seamless and coordinated, a benefit of the strong systems organized by front-of-house management that is just as engaged in the restaurant as the kitchen staff.
That extends to the bar, which has one of Pittsburgh’s better wine programs, and (although it might not be the first thing you think of when you think of Casbah) cocktail lists. The restaurant is a stellar spot for high-end versions of classics such as a cognac-based Sazerac or a perfectly crisp Negroni, and Casbah’s Calvados Old Fashioned is a subtle spin on an old favorite.
Start your meal with a series of Mediterranean spreads (skip the heavy chickpea flatbread). Casbah’s baba ganoush is silky and smoky, ranking among the better permutations of the eggplant puree in Pittsburgh. Eggplants appear again in ajvar, a Serbian pepper spread piquant with vinegar. But the real star of the show is hummus za’atar, a creamy and nicely spiced chickpea and tahini puree topped with crispy and pleasantly gamey lamb belly.
Move on to shared appetizers. A healthy, smart choice is to order scallops. Fresh, with beautiful crisp char on the outside and a slightly creamy interior and, on my visit served with shaved Brussels sprouts and microgreen salad, it was a light primer for Casbah’s heartier pasta and entree courses.
Pasta has always been a draw at Casbah, and it’s easy to see why. Casbah’s chefs make the pasta in-house, and, as a general rule, a pasta dish should be part of nearly every meal you have here. Nearly every pasta dish I’ve tried has been a success, except for one. Orecchiette (the only pasta not made in-house) dressed with grilled chicken, sage cream, cranberries and Riverview Farms goat cheese feels as if it’s seen better days; it was a gloppy, sweet and overly sauced mess on a recent lunch visit. Fuller once tried to remove that dish from the menu, but, when you have a restaurant that draws from a loyal customer base, some of whom order this dish week in and week out, it’s hard to let it go. But maybe it’s time. In the meantime, diners ought to look to other dishes, such as gnocchi with duck confit, Brussels sprouts, rapini leaf, cherry tomatoes, forest mushrooms, pesto, rosemary and burrata.
Casbah’s interior is lovely and modern but feels a tad too dark, particularly when dining on a nice day. But that presents a dilemma because its enclosed, all-season patio badly is in need of a refresh. “I feel like I’m in a cheap Kazakh beach resort hotel,” a friend said.
Most other places that opened in the pre-restaurant-boom era either have closed or become stagnant. Casbah is an outlier, always working forward on an upward angle — nothing radically or abruptly shifts, yet it always is relevant. It’s never faddish, but it doesn’t feel like an artifact of another era, either. If it’s on your list of go-to restaurants, you already know this. If it’s not, now is the time to visit.