East Ohio Street has seen better days. But nobody can tell Nikki Heckman that those days can't return. Her new restaurant and catering service, Bistro To Go, is part of her commitment to the resurgent business district.
"To me, it's all about the street," says Heckman, a restaurant veteran who recalls managing a Hardees 20 years ago on this same street.
A former director of support services for Allegheny Center Alliance Church, Heckman opened Bistro to Go last month in the Hollander Building, which was built in 1888.
She grew up in the North Hills, but discovered an affinity for the North Side, enough to inspire her to make Manchester her home for eight years.
"I was just captivated by the streets here," she says. "This street has always been my passion and focus."
That passion manifests itself in her paintings of North Side doorways and streets, examples of which decorate the walls inside her restaurant. The homey dining room features a bay window, wooden floor, antique stove, church pews and tin ceilings that reference the neighborhood's 19th-century heyday, when it was known as Allegheny City.
Besides serving sandwiches and preparing take-out meals to the lunchtime crowd, Heckman wants to be a good neighbor.
"I wanted to make a difference in the community," she says. "And also because I loved to cook."
Bistro To Go has a sister restaurant, the new Cafe Chevalo in Granada, Nicaragua. It's owned and operated by former North Side resident Donna Tabor. Both restaurants employ Nicaraguan youths who were taken off the streets.
The menu at Bistro To Go includes comfort food and pan global cuisine. In addition to sliced roast turkey with gravy and traditional mashed potatoes, they also serve Chicken herb roasted Mediterranean, Sesame garlic chicken and shrimp or sausage jambalaya.
"They said, 'You're trying to be everything to everybody,' " Heckman says. "I said 'No, I'm trying to get different people in the dining room.'"
She exudes the air of den mother to her staff, who bustle amiably in the kitchen on the other side of the counter. The idea of having the kitchen in plain view is to promote accountability, cleanliness and civility, Heckman says. She's opened restaurants all her life, including Wendy's, Chili's and TGI Friday's.
One of her secret weapons is Chef Alfredo Russell, a courtly Bahamian who specializes in Cajun, Caribbean and Creole cuisine. After leaving the Bahamas, he worked in Florida, New York and New Orleans.
He was working in Florida when he was hired to work at a restaurant in Pittsburgh. The job fell through. Stranded in Pittsburgh, he made the best of it, opening his own restaurant, Alfredo's Buckingham Catering and Restaurant. He ran it for 24 years before retiring. Heckman managed to coax Russell back to the grill.
His specialties include Sweet and Sour Pork Tenderloin, Chicken Isabella and Pan-fried Rainbow Trout.
"Everything I cook, I cook it for me," Russell says as he prepares Jambalaya. "If it don't pass my inspection, you ain't ever going to taste it. That's the kind of person I am."
Bistro to Go plans to offer cooking classes early next year.
Also coming soon, according to Chef Russell: Red beans and rice every Monday, a New Orleans tradition.
Bistro To Go , 415 E. Ohio St., North Side, serves lunch and dinner. Hours are 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sundays. It's open until 5 p.m. Dec. 24 and until 1 p.m. Dec. 31. Catering is also available for parties, receptions and corporate events. Details: 412-231-0218.
Shrimp Creole over Steamed Rice
• 1/4 cup celery
• 1/4 cup green peppers
• 1/4 cup onions
• 1/4 cup mushrooms
• 1/3 teaspoon Chef Alfredo's Gold Dust (Cajun spice), available for $5 at Bistro to Go
• 1/4 cup butter
• 1/2 cup shrimp (20-30) pieces
• 1 clove garlic
• 1/4 cup of Creole sauce
• 8 cups cup long grain rice (cooked)
The long grain rice can be cooked in advance. Boil 8 cups long grain rice until cooked, immerse in cold water and then freeze or refrigerate. It will keep for two weeks.
"That's good because you never know when you might have guests coming over," Chef Alfredo Russel says.
Mince the garlic, cut the celery, onions, green peppers and mushrooms. Put butter in the saucepan.
Pour butter in small skillet or omelet pan. Add celery, green peppers, onions and mushrooms and saute for 2-3 minutes over medium heat (see photo 1). Add shrimp (photo 2). Saute for 2 minutes. Add Creole sauce to taste (photo 3). Pour over rice (photo 4). Add Cajun spice to taste.
Makes 4 servings.