Six Penn Kitchen

Downtown Six Appeal

Six Penn Kitchen
146 Sixth St., Downtown

Mon.-Thurs., 11 A.M.-11 P.M.; Fri., 11 A.M.-Midnight; Sat., 3 P.M.-Midnight
LUNCH $7-$12
DINNER starters $4.50-$12; entrees $11-$25; dessert $6; wine by the glass $6.50-$14
Nonsmoking throughout

We could be ourselves at Eat’n Park, and that’s what mattered. It was an extension of our family dinner table, where eating and mischief flourished equally. Sometimes my dad chased my little sister around the table to retrieve the novel he had been reading (an old family prank). Or, Dad would listen to ball games on his transistor radio. A laborious ordering ritual followed. Dad mulled over every entry on the immutable plastic menu as though something might have slipped past him in the last 40 years. One sure bet: You could depend on the menu to remain static. Then, just as the server was about to give up, Dad would order "his usual" with the predictability of dawn.

It’s another world now, we laughed, sipping pomegranate martinis, slouching comfortably on the barstools at Six Penn Kitchen – the model "upscale casual eatery" by Pittsburgh’s Eat’n Park Hospitality Group. We lost track of time imagining Dad’s reaction to Eat’n Park’s bold entrance into the 21st century.

Seated by the grand wall of windows facing Penn Avenue connected us to the external street flow. High ceilings, 20-foot brick pillars, huge cutaway Japanese lanterns and a thrilling staircase break up the internal space—a massive room, open, yet cozy. Little surprises pop up here and there. I’ll not ruin them for lovers of minutiae, but I will say I adore the ground-level bakery, a mini-Wonka factory with homemade pastries and a mélange of retro treats that look as good at 6:30 a.m. as they do at closing. A handful of stools faces the exhibition kitchen, reminiscent of Eat’n Park counters and a prime gathering spot for foodies who want to soak up technique.

I’ve seen people pout when led to the second floor of a restaurant, assuming it will probably not be as high-hearted as the first. Level two is an emancipating exception, diverting attention from the hustle of the street to romance, with another glittering bar, imaginative modern art and a roaring fire. All contribute a handful of spice to the mix. "I thought for sure there’d be a giant floating Smiley cookie lurking behind a curtain somewhere, shouting out orders like the grand Oz," teased my husband, Brad.

Chef Chris Jackson’s paper menu changes weekly, with the intention of igniting our sensory circuits with unexpected flavors, textures and heady scents. He passionately supports local farmers and the slow-food movement. Curing, brining and roasting can mean a meal that takes "three or four days to hit the plate," says Jackson, who describes the process of preparing the heartbreakingly tender cracklin’ pork shank like a mother fussing over a newborn. Tweaking tradition, Jackson makes buttermilk cornbread in the skillet and pays homage to his father’s American Indian roots when he puts together a succotash of peas, corn, thyme, dairy cream and house-smoked bacon.

Jackson is a "food romantic," and in this season of tomato lust and open-air markets, he is like a kid trying to catch a ball on opening day. He giggles when he says he’ll have the first soft-shell crabs around. Simple dinner decisions become complicated. Try to decide between roasted golden, red and Chioggia sugar beets with hand-julienned apple, apricot goat cheese and endive and pea tendrils, apricot gastrique tossed with fresh-squeezed oranges and champagne vinaigrette or savory noodle salad lavished with fresh vegetables and bean sprouts dressed with nuoc cham. On the side are four miniature spring rolls with Chinese cabbage, shiitake mushrooms, scallions and the meat that has fallen to the side of the pork shank. Hoisin lime sauce is awesome.

The list of what Six Penn preps from scratch is too long for a food review, but the gamut runs from homemade ketchup, mayonnaise and mozzarella to the maraschino cherry for your Manhattan.

We discern high notes piercing the base tones of Latin rhythm tracks as we copied Calvin Trillin’s little trick of inquiring what’s on his neighbor’s dish, leading us to a soulful, sweet crab cake with house-smoked tomato-papaya salsa on a very tasty, crisp flour tortilla; haystack onion rings served with homemade mango ketchup; twice-fried plantains with black beans, fresh lime and a heap of vinegary jícama, watercress and apple salad. And herein lies the essence of Six Penn Kitchen: uncompromising high-quality, carefully crafted all-American cuisine; a spot you can walk into and feel at home, whether you’re far from it or not, and yet still sense a progressiveness that will confound anyone who has ever called Pittsburgh "provincial."

I suggest lobster "mac ‘n cheese" as a category unto itself. The ultimate guilty pleasure, featuring fresh parmigiano-reggiano, gruyere, fontina and New York sharp cheddar, blanched English peas and a slab of rosy lobster, requires an almost superhuman effort to make it to dessert. "A neighborhood American bistro with a menu that’s innovative and playful," says the chef. "We want people to come in before a game and get a beer and a burger. We want them to stop before or after a show dressed to the nines. We want them to remember the pulled-pork sandwich, and in the same breath, think of it as the place to bring their date Saturday night."

By the way, Jackson is a fishmonger who, as a young man, got his feet wet shucking oysters in the back of Bill’s Seafood House in Yorktown, Va. He went on to work around America’s coastline: Maine, New Orleans and the famed Bix in San Francisco. Whether prepared in a wood-fired oven or over an open grill, the fish is "new, interesting, fun," says the chef. "One customer fell in love with the sturgeon, and any time we run it on the menu, he wants us to e-mail him, and we do." These spirited little touches make Six Penn the neighborhood entity it longs to be.

There’s nostalgia downtown, for sure, but on this night our conversations are infused with hope, fantasies of a new downtown where people live, work and eat; these images are not solely linked to wishful thinking but seem possible partly due to the emergent cache of restaurants opening in the central business district. After a French-press coffee, I was standing in the tiny bakery waiting for Brad to bring the car around. Someone was spinning pink cotton candy for the "Six Penn Circus" (cotton candy, Cracker Jacks, Mini-Whoopee pies, cinnamon doughnuts). "My husband is a cotton-candy freak," I cried, and before I said another word, a fluffy pink cloud on a paper cone was in my hand, like a giant stuffed animal won at the "Go Fish" tank.

Postscript: My parents used to joke about who would inherit the family table at Eat’n Park. But like most things in life, the issue was resolved by default. As it turns out, I am the only one of five who remains within driving distance of our childhood Eat’n Park. As de-facto custodian, I’ve decided to transfer some of the family-table rights to Six Penn Kitchen, a worthy place for a lifetime of memories, I tell my sisters, who may invoke their right to chase me around the table.

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.

Do you know of a restaurant you’d like to have reviewed? E-mail Deborah.

Categories: Restaurant Reviews