Casbah's chef puts accent on Mediterranean influences
As the son of two bakers, Eli Wahl can't remember a time when he didn't want to be a chef.
His parents, Carol and Bill Wahl, have owned Carol's Pastry Shop in Zelienople for the past 30 years. Eli Wahl says it was just natural for him to follow in their footsteps. The 34-year-old has been executive chef at the ever-popular Casbah in Shadyside for the past 18 months.
"I learned how to bake from my parents, and then I went to culinary school," says Wahl, a graduate of Seneca Valley High School who lives in Harmony with his wife and two children. "If I weren't a cook, I have no idea what I'd be doing."
Wahl's creativity, drive and skills have found a good fit at Casbah, a Mediterranean-influenced restaurant of the big Burrito Restaurant Group. The company includes 10 Mad Mex locations in addition to Eleven, Kaya, Soba and Umi restaurants.
Wahl fit into the company picture perfectly when he started as a sous chef at Casbah five years ago, says Bill Fuller, corporate chef of big Burrito.
"Chef Eli has super attention to detail, and has a huge work ethic," says Fuller, 43, who was the opening chef at Casbah in 1995. "He knows what we want to do here, and is very much in it for the long haul."
Casbah has been consistently busy and profitable since its opening.
"The economic downturn didn't hit Pittsburgh hard because Pittsburgh never had a big upturn," Fuller says. "Pittsburgh has very stable business providers like UPMC and American Eagle. A lot of the restaurant community here did better than restaurants in other parts of the country."
When asked what Casbah is best known for, Fuller doesn't hesitate.
"Casbah sits on the comfortable line between having dinner, and fine dining," Fuller says. "When the economy weakened, we did not cut back or scrimp -- we decided to do business as usual. We did upgrade the quality, and we do it better now. We're in a really good place."
An exotic atmosphere prevails over the 150-seat restaurant, with dim lights, earthy decor, and a colorful mosaic bar. The year-round, heated patio is a popular spot.
Wahl is the 11th executive chef at Casbah. Fuller says each chef has contributed to what the menu is today. Fuller describes the menu as Mediterranean, but emphasizes that other influences are used, too.
"We look at all of the food in the Mediterranean region, and we incorporate those ingredients into food that Americans know," he says. "We take the essence of Mediterranean cuisine, and make them more American."
The menu is heavy on the appetizers and entrees, and features specialty cheeses and pastas. Appetizers include olives prepared different ways; tuna tartare with creme fraiche, shallots and pomegranate vinaigrette; Blue Bay mussels with chorizo, white beans and espelette pepper; and grilled chickpea flatbread with baba ghanoush, chickpea hummus and red pepper muhummara.
Pasta lovers will find veal tortellini with lobster, oyster mushrooms, spinach and pine nuts; potato gnocchi with a duck confit; torchetti mushrooms with roasted tomato, rapini, black truffle butter and walnuts; and ricotta cavatelli with fennel sausage, spinach and crushed tomatoes.
Entrees don't disappoint, either, and feature cioppino with barramundi, shrimp, scallops, mussels and littleneck clams; cauliflower risotto with hedgehog mushrooms; Elysian Fields lamb loin with Israeli couscous, onions, sweet peppers and Swiss chard; and filet mignon with parsnip puree, fingerling potatoes, carrots and whole-grain mustard jus.
Wahl says Casbah is balanced between refined and rustic food. Everything is made from scratch -- even the desserts. The fresh bread is made at sister restaurant Eleven, in the Strip District. Meat comes from Weiss Provisions in Pittsburgh, and the organic chicken is raised at Park Farms, in Canton, Ohio.
"The menu changes several times seasonally, but certain items are staples, like the arugula salad and the pork chop," says Wahl, who started his culinary career at Fox Chapel Golf Club. "We try to do local as much as possible, and we use Penn's Corner Farm Alliance a lot. Our seafood comes from Samuels & Sons."
The kitchen philosophy Wahl lives by is simple: Buy really good ingredients and treat them right. He credits the 10 other cooks for keeping up with the demand of turning tables over two or three times a night.
"One chef told me when I first started that you always have time to do it, and make it right," Wahl says. "I think a big key to success is being consistent. Customers come here for the food, the atmosphere and the quality service."
Sea Scallops, Red Pepper Cassereccia, Jumbo Lump Crab, Roasted Garlic, Parsley Butter
Casbah executive chef Eli Wahl is sharing the recipe for Sea Scallops and Red Pepper Cassereccia, a dish that's been on the menu for several years and probably will never be taken off because of its immense popularity.
Wahl makes the specialty pasta in house, but says Giant Eagle Market District carries the red pepper cassereccia, a tasty S-shaped noodle that's made with the juice of red peppers.
Wahl suggests using kosher salt rather than iodized, or table, salt in cooking.
"A lot of chefs won't use iodized salt -- it gives off a funny taste," he says. "Kosher salt gives a more pure taste, and enhances flavor."
The textures and flavors in this simple dish blend together in mouthwatering satisfaction, and may be best complemented with a Chateau Le Roc, a Bordeaux blended wine.
- 1 cup blanched, picked parsley leaves
- 2 to 4 cloves garlic
- 1⁄4 pound butter, softened
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 8 to 10 cloves garlic, peeled
- 1⁄2 cup premium olive oil
- 12 large sea scallops
- 2 tablespoons canola-olive oil blend
- 1 pound red pepper cassereccia (this pasta can be found at Giant Eagle Market District)
- Vegetable or chicken stock, about 1⁄2 to 1 cup, depending on how thin you want the sauce, optional
- 1 pound jumbo lump crab meat
- Picked parsley leaves, for garnish
Place the blanched parsley leaves and 2 to 4 cloves garlic in a food processor and process until finely chopped. Add the softened butter, season with kosher salt and pepper, and process for several more seconds. Set aside. (May be made well ahead and frozen.)
Place 8 to 10 peeled cloves garlic in a small pot and cover with the premium olive oil. Bring to a simmer and allow to roast slowly without browning. Drain the oil and reserve as garlic oil. Reserve the roasted garlic cloves.
Bring a pot of salted water (about 2 quarts) to a boil.
While waiting for the water to boil, heat a wide skillet over high heat. Season the sea scallops well on both sides with kosher salt and pepper. Add the blended oil to the skillet and sear the scallops until well-browned and cooked to medium rare . Remove the scallops from the pan.
When the water is at a boil, add the cassereccia. They will cook quickly and are done when they float. Strain, reserving some of the pasta water.
Cool the skillet with the stock, or, if desired, some of the pasta water. Add the crabmeat, roasted garlic and 4 to 5 tablespoons of the parsley butter to the skillet. Bring nearly to a simmer. Add the pasta, and toss with the ingredients in the pan.
Place on plates. Top each serving with 3 seared sea scallops. Garnish with parsley leaves.
Makes 4 servings.Additional Information:
Cuisine: Mediterranean influence
Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays. Dinner: 5-10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 5-11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 5-9 p.m. Sundays. Sunday brunch: 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
Entree price range: $19-$38
Notes: Major credit cards accepted. Outdoor covered patio with heaters. Handicapped accessible. Happy hour specials 5-7 p.m. weekdays. Reservations encouraged. Benefit dinners on the last Thursday of every month, with all proceeds going directly to the featured beneficiary group. April 28's beneficiary will be the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh.
Address: 229 S. Highland Ave., Shadyside
Details: 412-661-5656 or www.bigburrito.com/casbah