Avenue B in Shadyside a foodie's delight
Chef Chris Bonfili, a Pittsburgh native, left his hometown more than a decade ago to hone his craft in the Rockies. After six years in Colorado and a couple more in Park City Utah, he was ready to return to his roots. He gained a local following as chef at the Red Room. But it wasn't long before he and wife, Jennifer, began looking for a place to open their own restaurant.
"We thought Pittsburgh could use something a little more scaled-back, more bistro, but with great food at a great price point," Jennifer Bonfili says.
When the Istanbul Grille vacated the corner storefront at 5501 Centre Ave., the Shadyside couple knew they'd found their home. They gutted the building and through a friend of a friend found Berry Green, the talented artist who replaced the graffiti-covered street side wall with a colorful mural that hints at the cornucopia of fresh food inside Avenue B.
They opened in late November for dinner only and have since added a lunch menu.
With seating for only 45, Avenue B is casual and intimate. The Bonfilis managed to create a contemporary, rustic space when they gutted the interior of the building and removed the suspended ceilings, leaving exposed brick walls and soaring ceilings, studded with simple single-bulb light fixtures suspended over the tables. Light brown paper torn from a roll covers sophisticated dark brown tablecloths. Specials are posted daily on a pair of large chalkboards on either side of the bistro.
For those seated facing the street, the corner bus stop emphasizes the fact that this is indeed an urban space.
Although Avenue B is intimate, there's a price to pay for that: The small space tends to get a bit noisy as the bistro fills up with diners. On the other hand, exclamations from nearby diners serve as great references for future visits.
You won't find your favorite wine here. But the BYOB feature ($5 for corkage) means you can bring a bottle from home and keep the tab a bit lower. Our server was quick with a corkscrew when she saw the bottle on our table.
The seasonal menu consists of three appetizers, three main courses and a pair of desserts, hand crafted by pastry chef Lisa Young, another Red Room alumn. If the seasonal menu doesn't work, there's always the daily specials that go up around 3 p.m. every day after Bonfili has had a chance to shop and craft his offerings around his finds. Our server was more than current on the day's best.
After sampling one of the daily specials -- the Pork Belly Ravioli ($10) appetizer -- at her recommendation, we knew she was trustworthy. Pork belly may sound like it belongs on the floor of the Chicago Mercantile, but Bonfili's slow-cooked, maple-marinated slices of juicy pork belly sandwiched around a butter-nut squash ravioli with a hint of bechamel sauce, is a foodie's dream and a dieter's nightmare. Mushroom Risotto ($9), a creamy bowl of perfection, popping with shitake and tree oyster mushrooms, would probably work better as a side dish than an appetizer.
The seasonal appetizers, or Beginnings as Avenue B calls them, included a salad ($6) we'd like to sample on a warm afternoon. The array of tender greens, caramelized cippolini onions, grape tomatoes, crispy sweet potatoes with sherry vinaigrette sounds enticing. Piquillo Pepper Lasagna ($9) with arugula pesto and orange pine nut gremolata, likewise could prove an interesting way to start a meal.
The menu offerings labeled Main Events evidence someone's sense of whimsy. Wild-caught Fish and Chips ($22) is like nothing you've ever sampled in a greasy newspaper cone. We opted to try to lovely stone bass pan-seared, but it's available tempura style as well. Served with potatoes sliced so thin you could see through them and a Napa slaw with malt aioli, this one could become a favorite. My better half opted for one of the chalk board specials -- Linguini ($21) with clam sauce and shrimp and a dab of cauliflower puree. The squid ink linguini was coated with a light, tasty clam sauce he quickly proclaimed "best ever."
Meat lovers may want to sample the Meatloaf ($21). If the fish and chips were any indication of Bonfili's take on comfort food, a Kobe beef meatloaf with goat cheese and chive-whipped potatoes, crispy onions and blistered tomato jam will NOT fetch memories of bad days in a cafeteria.
Likewise, the comfort food labels on desserts could be a bit misleading. My Blondie ($8) was a torte composed of thin layers of caramel blondie alternating with a pretzel cream accompanied by paper-thin Granny Smith apple slices baked with a caramel glaze. An Ice Cream Float ($8) of vanilla ice cream swimming in dark Guinness left us wondering why we'd wasted all those years with root beer.Additional Information:
Cuisine: Global-inspired American contemporary cuisine
Hours: 11-2:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 5-10 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 5-11 p.m. Friday and Saturdays
Entree price range: $18 to $25
Notes: Reservations recommended, BYOB
Location: 5501 Centre Ave., Shadyside