The new East Liberty restaurant Spoon dishes out “refined comfort food” with the accent on local in a comfortable atmosphere.
This refreshing new restaurant offers flavorful, beautifully plated food made with farm-fresh ingredients served in a thoughtfully designed environment.
You’ll find Spoon on the hottest corner in the East End, where Penn Circle South intersects with South Highland Avenue, in the space formerly occupied by Red Room. Those who dined at Red Room will remember the dramatic red-velvet curtains and moody dark space. That look has been changed—refreshed and lightened by independent designer Jen Bee, who has created an environment that is calm, casual and cool.
However, one important element has been retained: The building’s original, earth-tone tile floor, which was the focal point of the redesign. New additions include the contemporary, hand-blown glass wall sconces that emit a glowing light onto the tan walls.
This restaurant is the brainchild of co-owners Rick Stern, who’s part owner of Willow in the North Hills, and Brian Pekarcik, a widely traveled chef with a noteworthy background. After growing up in Murrysville, Pekarcik earned a degree in psychology with a business minor in 1997 from John Carroll University in Cleveland, and he found both disciplines to be very useful in the restaurant business. After college, he moved to the West Coast, where he worked with esteemed chefs Gary Danko (at San Francisco’s Restaurant Gary Danko), George Morrone (at San Francisco’s Fifth Floor) and Bradley Ogden (at San Diego’s Arterra).
You’ll find the Californian influence apparent in the fresh flavors, bright colors and simple but elegant plating of Spoon’s dishes. And it was at Arterra that Pekarcik became especially interested in the farm-to-table cooking evidenced in Spoon’s menu and on it: “We are proud to support western Pennsylvania’s farmers and artisanal purveyors,” the menu states. That declaration is followed by a list of approximately 12 sources, ranging from La Prima Espresso to entrepreneur Randy “The Mushroom Man” Danielson.
Together, Stern and Pekarcik have created a menu of modern American food that they call “refined comfort food.” Their goal is to find the perfect balance between food that is contemporary and interesting but still familiar.
The pair also designed a menu that offers a wide range of price points to accommodate a variety of diners for everyday dining and special occasions alike.
While perusing the menu, servers will present you with a lovely basket containing three types of breads: corn-dill muffins, cream cheese green onion biscuits and French baguette. They’ll also offer an interesting assortment of mixed drinks. I highly recommend the bourbon thyme lemonade; even with a $10 price tag, it’s worth every penny. In addition to the specialty drinks, Spoon offers a full bar, an extensive wine list and after-dinner drinks.
The menu, which consistently changes based on what’s available, comprises two main parts: Hot and Cold Appetizers and Entrées. An additional small area is devoted to à la carte side dishes like the garlic-roasted baby potatoes ($4).
Duo of milk-fed veal: Marinated loin, bacon-wrapped and chipotle-glazed veal meatloaf with braised Napa cabbage and forest mushrooms.
Photo by Laura Petrilla
One worthy appetizer is the dish of poblano chili rellenos ($8), featuring poblano peppers stuffed with creamy polenta, shrimp and pepper-jack cheese—a splendid balance of spicy, sweet and creamy that’s served alongside avocado, cilantro crème fraîche and charred tomato vinaigrette. Another starter on the menu is the butternut squash soup ($4, cup; $6, bowl). If you’re a cholesterol-lover, go for the bacon and eggs ($6): a five-minute poached egg and chunks of Cunningham Farms’ crispy pork belly complemented by asparagus and hollandaise; it’s a very rich dish but hits the spot if you arrive hungry.
On the lighter side is the local-heirloom-tomato tasting ($10, seasonal), a delightfully simple assortment of tomatoes, cucumbers and fresh burratta cheese drizzled with honey and white balsamic vinaigrette. The B.L.T. salad ($7) incorporates iceberg lettuce, applewood bacon crisps, oven-roasted tomatoes, avocado, Gorgonzola, blue cheese and a green-goddess dressing; it sounds great, but somehow, the components don’t mesh to create a satisfying whole.
Entrées range widely in price from a $9 hamburger to the $34 filet and short-rib duo. Once discovered, the burger will surely rank among the top in the region. Its lures include 8 ounces of Angus chuck topped with melted white Cheddar cheese on a light, fresh onion-poppy seed bun. What’s more, it’s accompanied by a parchment cone filled with crispy, salty french fries and truffle aïoli (how could that be bad?).
One entrée I recommend is the delicate horseradish and crab-crusted salmon ($22, seasonal), served with crispy fried gnocchi, a crab cake and haricot verts (or green beans) with béarnaise sauce. It’s a piece of fish that’s coated in a mildly spicy sauce and cooked to medium. Also delicious is the grilled filet and braised-beef short ribs—tender and well-prepared when I sampled—with the meat done two ways and served on a rectangular plate. White-cheddar creamed corn and roasted baby vegetables took center stage in the middle.
Another meat duo comes in the form of Kennedy’s Farm chicken two ways ($19), featuring a seared breast with wilted spinach and forest mushrooms alongside a stuffed leg. The breast was tasty, but the leg was dry.
One truly disappointing item that I tried was the Gorgonzola blue-cheese soufflé appetizer ($9), which tasted as if it had been prepared in advance and lacked the fluffiness typical in a fresh-out-of-the-oven soufflé.
Pastry chef Krista Owens, who creates Spoon’s desserts, moved to Pittsburgh from Tucson, Ariz., for Spoon. The desserts are so consistent in style with the rest of Spoon’s food that the transition from entrées to desserts is flawless. Like the entrées, the desserts benefit from a variety of fresh ingredients, including plenty of fruit, and are delicately and tastefully plated.
Having said that, I was underwhelmed by the actual taste and textures of the desserts. Knowing me to be a chocoholic, a number of people told me to try the chocolate three ways ($8): a chocolate-truffle beignet, milk-chocolate milk and a dark-chocolate mousse with pistachio granola. Unfortunately, the beignet and mousse flavors were pedestrian while the simpler milk stood above.
The citrus and vanilla-infused pound cake ($6), served with fig sorbet and port-wine syrup, was not buttery or tender enough to be swoon-worthy, although the sorbet was very good. The angel-food cake ($6), served with a poached apricot, almond brittle, and honey and vanilla whipped cream, also was not a standout.
Soon, I predict, Spoon will feel as if it’s always been there. The restaurant seems destined to become one of those places we visit over and over, not only for its “refined comfort food” but also because it makes us feel comfortable.
134 S. Highland Ave., East Liberty. Info: 412/362-6001, spoonpgh.com. Mon.-Thurs., 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m.; Sun., 5-9 p.m. Hot and Cold Appetizers: $4-$16; Entrées: $9-$34; Desserts: $6-$8. Full bar, specialty drinks, wine list, major credit cards accepted, wheelchair-accessible, valet ($3), no smoking, reservations accepted, street parking, hosts private events, takeout available at select times, will prepare gluten-friendly dishes upon request, outdoor seating, offers vegetarian entrées and will seat past 10:30 p.m.