What I Learned on the Road about Pittsburgh's Restaurants
Thanks to chefs willing to travel and taste out-of-town dishes, our food culture continues to flourish.
PHOTOS BY HAL B. KLEIN
I just returned from Toronto. It’s a world-class food city, both cutting-edge and traditional, with a vibrant mix of immigrant cuisine.
Whenever I come home from a trip, I’m reminded of how exciting it is to experience the already-familiar with the open eyes of a traveler. When I do that, I can celebrate the truly wonderful things that are happening in town right now.
I had the saddest little bombolini at a bakery that was supposed to be very good. It made me want to run back to Bread and Salt Bakery and get one of Rick Easton’s masterpieces. That place has become a mainstay when I’m craving something sweet and fried. Toronto certainly holds its own with cocktails such as the Gun Runner (Los Arcos amontillado, Flor de Cana, absinthe, orange and lime juice, Deathwish syrup, Peychaud’s bitters, orange oil and zest) I had at Bar Isabel, but there’s just as much to love about what’s happening at Pittsburgh’s bars. Plus, our bartenders are a lot more hospitable.
One of my favorite meals in Toronto was a late-night dinner at Black Hoof, the meat-centric eatery that pushes boundaries by serving horse tartare, seal salami and chicken carpaccio, and the place is celebrated by esteemed travel eaters such as Anthony Bourdain. The food and service are fantastic; it’s worth taking a trip to Toronto just to eat and drink here. My friends and I shared a bunch of plates — if you go, get the bison heat and black walnut terrine — including the renowned charcuterie platter. As impressed as I was with the charcuterie, Cure’s salumi program stands shoulder-to-shoulder.
Justin Severino’s new salumi di mare (fish charcuterie, pictured above) menu, something that didn’t work at Black Hoof’s now-closed sister space Hoof Raw Bar, is, I think, one of the more exceptional things happening in North American restaurants right now.
However, traveling also helps to tone down hometown boosterism because you’re going to eat things in other cities that are better than what's going on in Pittsburgh. We have a particular habit here of declaring that everything is “great” and “the best” when really it’s really simply “good.” On this trip, I had ramen, pho and roti that are impossible to find in Pittsburgh. There is no great ramen (or pho or roti) in Pittsburgh or anything even close to great. And you can get a much better sandwich at 2 a.m. in Toronto than you can get in Pittsburgh.
It’s no coincidence that the most interesting Pittsburgh restaurants are run by chefs — like the ones mentioned above — who have spent a good amount of time on the road in the last few years. Head downtown to the spaces run by Rick DeShantz and Tolga Sevdik and you’ll find lively, of-the-moment establishments that are a reflection of their time spent experiencing other cities.
It’s easier than it’s ever been to dive into a virtual food culture. A skilled chef with a decent sense of flavor profiles can fairly reliably mimic a recipe that they found online from an Iranian scholar or a Mexican grandmother. But flavor is so sensory and collective, and that’s something impossible to experience without actually experiencing it. Go eat a Korean hot pot bubbling violently with silken tofu, clams and fire spices like the one I had at Tofu Village in Toronto’s Koreatown and tell me there’s anything like it in Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh is located in the perfect spot for a quick getaway. Toronto, Washington D.C., Columbus, Ann Arbor, Philadelphia, Cleveland and Detroit all are less than six-hour drives, so consider taking a trip this summer.