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Cafe Zinho in Shadyside full of inspiration

BACKGROUND

From our indoor table at Cafe Zinho in Shadyside, we watch an older gentleman in black-rimmed glasses escort a woman with short salt and pepper hair across the street toward us. They pass in front of the large glass doors, perfectly framed for a moment by swags of tasseled drapes, before continuing past thickets of black-eyed Susans and garden sculptures to the restaurant's entrance.

Once inside, the woman immediately walks back to the kitchen to chirp a heavily accented hello to the kitchen staff. A moment later, executive chef Toni Pais whisks out to help her and her companion with their white wine and engage them in a quiet but earnest conversation.

Pais cuts a memorable image. His kind eyes, shrouded beneath a baseball cap, and modest demeanor contrast his childlike zeal when explaining his cooking inspirations. Tonight, he's excited to show delicate zucchini sprouts, which he scientifically identifies as female.

The Portuguese native opened Cafe Zinho with his wife, Becky, 10 years ago and his energy shows no signs of flagging. Despite having ACL surgery, he fills his days with rushing between Cafe Zinho and Cafe Zao, the Paises' other venture in the Cultural District, while mentoring students from the Pittsburgh Culinary Institute. Two of them, Brian White and Theodore Livingstine, help him create Cafe Zinho's dishes.

Toni Pais' three life passions, food, history and soccer, took root in his homeland. Days of soccer playing were peppered with cooking by age 13, managing a discotheque at age 19, and the Portuguese/Carnation Revolution of 1974, which brought democracy to a country formerly under dictatorship. He came to Pittsburgh in 1978, staying for good after he met his pixieish wisp of a wife while playing racquetball in 1986.

The two seem to bounce energy off each other. Complementary aesthetics led them to a successful run and loyal following with the now-closed Baum Vivant. In Cafe Zinho, Becky lovingly created an eclectic haven for Toni to unleash his artistic impulses, which come at odd times.

"He wakes up in the middle of the night saying 'I have to make this!'" she says with a laugh.

Atmosphere

Cafe Zinho is an old garage turned Sip Cafe. When the cafe's owner decided to move to Florida, he hand-picked his friend Toni to take over the space.

"He was vegan ... and only wanted to leave the restaurant to me," says Toni, who cooks meat.

Becky painted the dining room a dark gray-green, covered the ceiling with old garage doors and plucked well-worn treasures from all over to garnish the room with personality. Tables and chairs, some bamboo, some worn dark wood and some slip-covered in earthy stripes, make the place feel like dinner at home -- the kind where extra guests show up and furniture is scavenged from other rooms in the house to accommodate them.

Circus-bright chandeliers of amber, red, green and blue crystals flash bright orange, causing us to instinctively swivel back toward the kitchen. A fire ball, visible from behind swinging saloon doors, whooshes up.

A stroll down a hallway reveals a crystal doorknob coat rack and a private room filled with heavy curtains. Here a "Mona Lisa" print mingles with a black and white photo of stockinged mannequin legs. An amber lamp highlights a worn Victorian silk pillow in one of the dining chairs. Two parts grandma's parlor, one part bohemian opium den, the room is undeniably a place to lose track of time while enjoying one of Toni's dishes.

MENU

One of Toni's friends, a doctor, arrives amused and puzzled with a pheasant, a gift from a patient. Toni becomes a culinary MacGyver, freestyling a recipe for him that results in braising the bird and combining it with cooked peaches.

Actual menu offerings are just as rife with ingenuity.

The Goat Cheese Puff Pastry ($6.95) appetizer arrives in a pretty sunnyside-up, egg-shaped puff with crinkled edges. It swirls in a thick bed of creamy Asian pear pistachio sauce, building layers of tangy and sweet.

The Sopa Do Dia (Soup of the Day) is Minestrone ($5.50), laced with a colorful mix of in-season vegetables.

Other appetizers that stand out are: Escargot ($6.50) with vermouth-roasted garlic butter sauce and Stuffed Piquillo Peppers ($6.95), bursting with rice, spinach, pine nuts and feta cheese with roasted tomato sauce.

For dinner, my husband selects a beautiful French-boned cut of Veal ($24) in a fresh peach and apricot brandy sauce. Two small potatoes, zucchini, asparagus and a crinkle of red pepper rest on the side. The cut is very sweet and pure -- all natural juice and peach nectar.

I have a hard time choosing, with my eyes resting on Roasted Duck ($23) in a Grand Marnier Sauce and Crab Meat Cakes ($19.95) in a mushroom-dijon sauce. Seafood Linguini ($19.95) with shrimp, mussels, scallops and artichoke hearts wins me over in the end. In a nod to Portugal and Spain, the pasta arrives more like a paella than a traditional Italian Alfredo dish. A lacy slip of red pepper tops yellow squash and asparagus. Linguini and large artichoke hearts smothered in cream gradually blend into a pile of golden scallops, shrimp and mussels on the half shell.

Dessert is a moist Tre Leches ($5.50), or three-milk sponge cake. The large slice arrives with thin vines of chocolate sauce. It's perfect for sharing, and much lighter than it looks -- more like a fluffy angelfood sopping with sweet milk. A thin vanilla frosting and airy whipped cream top it off.

After a successful decade, it would be easy for Toni to stick with mainstays, but he humbly says, "I change the menu as often as I can."

Additional Information:

Cafe Zinho

Cuisine: Eclectic International

Hours: 5:30-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 5:30-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5-9 p.m. Sundays

Entree price range: $15.50-$24

Notes: Cash only. BYOB. Outdoor dining. Catering available.

Address: 238 Spahr St., Shadyside

Details: 412-363-1500

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