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Taste of Pittsburgh: Discover worldly menu of dining options

| Sunday, Sept. 20, 2009

Like the city itself, Pittsburgh's restaurant scene models reinvention, diversity and a "green" attitude. Today's array of quality dining amazes visitors, and even locals marvel at such rapid expansion of their foodscape.

While this late 19th/early 20th century industrial powerhouse was undergoing transformation into a financial, healthcare, educational and cultural center, its restaurants were also refocusing — from old guard to vanguard, building a contemporary culinary vibrancy that other cities of comparable size surely envy.

Travel plus the ubiquity of food on TV and in the blogosphere continually sharpens diner sophistication here as elsewhere. More importantly, Pittsburgh's storied entrepreneurial spirit is not only alive and well but highly affordable. Lured by national press underscoring the city's low cost of living, creative professionals, including talented chefs and restaurateurs, are venturing here from larger markets to stake a claim on the good life — a boon to all.

Gastronomic diversity roots deeply in Pittsburgh's urban fabric. Historically, waves of immigrants settled here, tossing their native cuisines into our great melting pot of tastes. The presence of international corporations and the multicultural populations of large hospital and university campuses also abet a global-centric food environment.

Match the mood of the moment, plug in some geography and scroll through possibilities — from casual to fine dining, cutting-edge cuisine to seafood and steak, Italian, Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Korean, Pan-Asian, Peruvian, Nicaraguan, Brazilian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Ethiopian, Mexican, German, Eastern European, Middle Eastern.

Sensational sushi restaurants — Umi, Chaya, Sushi Kim, Plum Pan-Asian Kitchen — thrive next to such local icons, as Primanti's in the Strip, with its quirky fries-inside-the-sandwich, and The Original Hot Dog Shop in Oakland, with its famous twice-fried fries — both frequented by visiting celebrities and garnering national media attention.

Many chains have a presence: high end Morton's, Ruth's Chris, the Capital Grille; mid level Cheesecake Factory, Hofbrauhaus, Bravo Italian Kitchen;> and the prized local favorite Eat'n Park, home of the Smiley Cookie.

Tapas can speak Spanish — La Casa, Ibiza, Bossa Nova; Nuevo Latino Seviche; Pan-Asian — Tamari; Thai — Silk Elephant; or eclectic Tusca Global Tapas.

Thanks to Pittsburgh's dramatic topography, dining in window-walled restaurants delivers an exhilarating experience. The most famous views are from restaurant row on Mount Washington. Favorites include: LeMont, a formal, retro-glamor icon serving pricey Continental cuisine — a good stop for a classic cocktail; stylish Isabela on Grandview, in a former private house, with large square windows framing stunning views of The Point; and more reasonably priced but still smart Monterrey Bay Fish Grotto, with scads of fish and breath-taking views from wrap-around windows.

In general, new restaurants are on trend for smaller, more casual, chef-directed spots with serious kitchens replacing the cavernous dining palaces of yore.

Few cities of comparable size boast such broad dining choices.

For G-20, some 20 suggestions:

• Lunch/Tea

Cafe at the Frick: Eat inside a small, noisy but charming, glassed-in pavilion, or outside, under awnings, on the idyllic grounds of Clayton, the Henry Clay Frick family estate. The cafe offers gourmet soups, salads, sandwiches, entrees, desserts and afternoon tea. The chef-run kitchen utilizes local growers and produces Mediterranean/California-inspired cuisines. Reservations are essential. Try to avoid the bus groups visiting the center. Eating exquisite desserts here qualifies as virtuous. Frick Art & Historical Center, 7227 Reynolds St., Point Breeze, 412-371-0600, www.frickart.org

• Sophisticated Contemporary

Eleven Contemporary Kitchen: A superior restaurant, Eleven occupies a large airy two-story space, stylishly decorated with premier materials, dramatic furnishings and flattering lighting. An elevated glass-enclosed wine room heralds the ambitious wine program. The state-of-the-art pastry studio promises serious desserts. The open kitchen generates buzz, as does the sophisticated cuisine focusing on flavor, fresh seasonal ingredients and innovative yet approachable preparations. The first floor lounge dispenses perfect cocktails across a green onyx-topped bar. Upstairs: another bar, an outdoor deck and private dining rooms. Dress smartly to match the surroundings. 1150 Smallman St., Strip District, 412-201-5656, www.bigburrito.com

• Fine Dining BYOB

Bona Terra: Bona Terra, meaning "good earth" in Latin, reflects chef/owner Douglass Dick's commitment to sustainable agriculture, good husbandry and fresh, local ingredients, purely produced, organic if possible. The kitchen's classically based style unfolds in contemporary twists. Memorable appetizers include: roasted organic black mission figs, with gorgonzola-mascarpone mousse and julienne of Serrano ham; seared sea scallops with grilled local peaches, micro-green salad and lemon verbena buerre blanc. Decor is Spartan, dress casually and bring in your own wine. 908 Main Street, Sharpsburg, 412-338-6463

• Stars and Diamonds

Lautrec: Nemacolin's flagship restaurant, steered by talented chef de cuisine Dave Racicot, carries Mobile five Stars and AAA five Diamonds. In a lush setting of luxury and choreographed service, diners can order tasting menus featuring first-class, cutting edge contemporary American cuisine. Racicot masterfully pushes the envelope on what to expect and experience while dining. Allow plenty of time for the meal. Staying overnight is the best plan. Dress for the occasion. Jackets for men are encouraged, though not required. Cocktail attire for ladies just seems right. Chateau Lafayette, 1001 Lafayette Dr., Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, Farmington PA, 724-329-8555- Ext. 6286, www.nemacolin.com

• Lively Mediterranean

Casbah: This Mediterranean restaurant and wine bar runs a serious kitchen. Sophisticated decor utilizes local artisans in metal, ceramics, leather and glass. From the enclosed front patio you can check out the social order: well-dressed East End ladies lunch-often with hats; young professionals meet end of business day; dinner caters to smart casual couples/small groups of all ages. The menu draws flavors from Italy, France, Spain, Greece, Turkey and North Africa. The extensive wine list supports an active wine program. Hip achievers hit Sunday brunch. 229 S. Highland Ave., Shadyside, 412-661-5656, www.bigburrito.com

• Stylish Pan-Asian

Soba: This urbane grazing and grooving ground boasts drop-dead decor and a high-voltage kitchen turning out Pan-Asian cuisine. Sensuous materials — river rock, zebra wood, cork and a two-story waterfall coursing down a slate wall — evoke exotic climes. The first floor bar buzzes. Dining rooms tier from the first to the second floor, and there's an upstairs outdoor patio. Flavors, derived from diverse Asian and European cultures, arrive filtered through a contemporary vision. Order small plates, large plates and bowls. The menu changes daily. 5847 Ellsworth Ave., Shadyside, 412-362-5656, www.bigburrito.com

• French Bistro

Le Pommier: A pioneer in Pittsburgh fine dining, this delightful French icon resides in a charmingly converted 1869-built commercial store front on the South Side. Gallic sensibilities in food and service deliver a sophisticated meal in a relaxed ambience. While known for its pates, duck and impressive desserts, the menu changes seasonally, with specials reflecting that day's market. Wine lovers revel in the serious cellar of all French labels. 2104 E. Carson St., South Side, 412-431-1901, www.lepommier.com

• Japanese/Sushi

Umi Japanese Restaurant: A steep climb up two flights of steps terminates in a sleek, L-shaped dining space. The delectably designed aerie offers attractive artwork, tatami tables, regular dining tables and - the best seat in the house — a suspended concrete and stainless steel sushi bar. Umi serves a full Japanese menu, but smart-casual cognoscenti trek here for major league sushi and sashimi - particularly omikase (chef's choice). Grab a seat at the bar, order unfiltered sake and watch celebrated sushi chef Mr. Shu masterfully prepare each dish. Yes, it's expensive. 5849 Ellsworth Ave., Shadyside, 412-362-6198, www.bigburrito.com

• High Energy Sicilian

Dish Osteria & Bar: Enjoy Dish's urban energy, as well as a kitchen that cooks till midnight. The spot, a former South Side dive bar, has minimalist decor and an edgy buzz — a place of spirited socializing, though not for intimate conversations. Michele Savoia cooks Southern Italian dishes, especially ones from his native Sicily. The food is fresh, with market-directed nightly specials. You can order small plates or a major meal. Pasta with lamb ragu, and grilled fresh sardines with sweet-and-sour caramelized onions are favorites. 128 S. 17th St., South Side, 412/390-2012, www.dishosteria.com

• Neighborhood Locavore

Legume: A petit bistro with homey decor and an ebullient noise level, Legume exhibits laid-back ambience and an intense focus on ingredients — seasonal, sustainable, local and frequently organic. French and Italian country cooking influences the edited menu. Chef Trevett Hooper knows his way around offal, but the signature is a half-chicken cooked under a skillet, served with celery root-potato mash. It's BYOB, with a $3 corkage fee. 1113 S. Braddock Ave., Regent Square, 412-371-1815, www.legumebistro.com

• European Bistro

Point Brugge Cafe: No reservations, a miniscule space and magnetic charm explain the lines snaking out the door of Point Brugge Cafe, even in the most miserable weather. Diners wait, though, amiably socializing till it's their turn to mellow over steaming bowls of mussels, twice-cooked-french-fried potatoes, served with basil mayo, and Belgian beers. The limited menu offers such Belgian classics as carbonnade Flamande and waterzoii. 401 Hastings St., Point Breeze, 412-441-3334, www.pointbrugge.com

• Downtown Elegance

Nine on Nine: Chef owner Rick DeShantz wraps all the delicious details into an elegant dining experience at Nine on Nine. Trained as an artist, he worked with designer Courtney Lynch to create a show-stopping decor, with a cool but comfortable ambience. A passionate chef, he weaves French and American inspirations into a cutting-edge menu of quality ingredients, meticulously executed. The restaurant recently opened also for lunch. Next door, Bar Nine offers trendy cocktails and ambitious bar food. 900 Penn Ave., Cultural District, 412-338-6463, www.nineonnine.com

• Steak! Steak!

The Capital Grille: A comfortable, clubby environment — mahogany, leather, stuffed game, portraits of local notables — gives hint that The Capital Grille is ready to bring pleasure to your life. Though a chain, local restaurants get customized by the talents and resources of the local executive chef, and the Pittsburgh team rocks. Authentic Kobe beef carpaccio, premium beef dry-aged on site, pristinely fresh shellfish — products don't get better than this. Well-trained servers, a lively lounge and an impressive wine program round out the experience. 301 Fifth Ave, Downtown, 412-338-9100, www.thecapitalgrille.com

• Inspired Pizza

Dinette: Everyone seems to love casual Dinette. Decor is sleek and bright. A wine bar offers a weekly changing list of 20 labels. Chef/owner Sonja Finn focuses on doing a few things really well: appetizers, salads, soups, small plates and, especially, single-serving pizzas, seemingly simple but arresting in their creativity — Brussels sprouts, butternut squash, chevre, lardons and mozzarella; oyster mushrooms, shiitakes and truffled pecorino. With careful recycling, composting and energy-efficient equipment, the tiny restaurant does a great bit for the environment, 5996 Penn Circle S., East Liberty, 412-362-0202, www.dinette-pgh.com

• Burgher Icon

Tessaro's: A high-energy neighborhood spot, Tessaro's sizzles steaks, burgers, fish and chicken on a 500-degree wood-fired grill. The burgers are hand-formed from in-house-ground beef, cooked to your specification and served with the condiments of your choice, including four types of cheese. The solid American food is good, consistent and served by caring staff. Add a side of coleslaw or potato salad, toss back a beer and enjoy the spirit of this icon. 4601 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield, 412-682-6809

• New Thai

Typhoon: Sleek minimalist Typhoon sets the stage for modern Thai cuisine. Traditional dishes — pad thai, panang beef curry and fiery green curry chicken — are still on the menu, but contemporary twists update some items and options are further augmented by Pan-Asian influences — especially Japanese and Korean. The atmosphere is upscale, yet relaxed. And there's outdoor seating in fine weather. 242 S. Highland Ave., Shadyside, 412-362-2005

• Smart, Casual and Affordable

Toast Kitchen & Wine Bar: Owners Paul Tebbets and Chef Chet Garland designed a winner from a simple concept: follow today's taste for smart, casual, comfortable dining, offering good value. The space and decor are so appealing that diners love to frequent the place. The menu changes regularly, even daily, so repeat customers are never bored. And the food is special. Garland loves clean flavors and has long advocated a farmer-chef partnership and seasonality. He also draws on his experience cooking in the south--hence such dishes as sea scallops, with Byrd's Mill grits, habanero cheddar and brown butter. The kitchen is refreshingly flexible, encouraging diners to order as much or as little as they want. 5102 Baum Blvd., Shadyside, 412-224-2579, www.toastpittsburgh.com

• Casual Fine Dining

Mio Kitchen & Wine Bar: Sophisticated Mio raises the bar on casual fine dining in Pittsburgh. Owner Matt Porco's mission is to balance wine and fine food in a smart but comfortable and relaxed environment. The interior actually is elegant, with attention to details such as wrought iron accents and a prominent temperature-controlled wine room. The menu is upscale contemporary American and French. Ideally, the best showcase to his talent and style is the chef's tasting menu paired knowledgeably to wines. But don't miss desserts by pastry chef extraordinaire Barbara Ferguson. 225 Commercial Ave., Aspinwall, 412-781-3141, www.mio-pgh.com

• Contemporary Italian

Vivo: Visiting charming Vivo is akin to being dinner guests in a good friend's home. At table you'll relax in upholstered armchairs pulled up to recycled marble table tops. Owners Sam and Lori DiBattista are long-time supporters of seasonal, fresh and local, so the menu changes according to availability. Actually there is no written menu. That evening's choices are recited. You choose, and you'll probably commit to too much food. Remember all mains come with pasta and a salad, and Lori's desserts are irresistible. BYOB. 565 Lincoln Ave., Bellevue, 412-761-9500, www.friendsofvivo.com.

• Regional Italian

Lidia's Pittsburgh: You can get pasta with red sauce at Lidia's Pittsburgh. But why do so when there are so many more unusual regional Italian — especially Friulian — options featured. Chef, cookbook author, TV celebrity and restaurateur, Lidia Bastianich celebrates these unique regional specialties in the soaring David Rockwell-designed space. Don't miss: fricos (fried Montasio cheese with savory fillings) or Trieste-style mussels, laced with Tokai. Special events fill the restaurant's calendar, and there's Sunday brunch. 1400 Smallman St., Strip District, 412-552-0150, www.lidiasitaly.com

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