Shadyside eatery Acorn's menu, atmosphere a call for simplicity
Chef Scott Walton's energy and enthusiasm is infectious. When talking about his dining venture Acorn in Shadyside, it sounds more like he won the lottery than started a new restaurant. The way he waxes poetic about everything from braising squash to dry fermenting corn, it seems as though Pittsburgh might have won the lottery as well.
“When I moved to Pittsburgh, the food scene was changing,” says Walton. “I wanted to be a part of it. I saw a real opportunity here.”
Walton came to Pittsburgh several years ago with his wife, a native of the 'Burgh. He had most recently been cooking in Chicago as executive chef at the celebrated Market House and Howells and Hood. Market House, in particular, shaped his ideals of the kitchen and sourcing locally. “We had the second largest urban garden in the country. So just a playground of veggies,” Walton reminisces. “It was back when farm to table really meant something.”
Walton brings this sensibility to Acorn and looks to the availability of ingredients to inform menu items. “If a batch of tomatoes comes, and they don't taste great, I'm pulling it from the menu.” The result will be an ever-evolving offering that matches the season and utilizes the creativity of the kitchen.
Acorn softly opened its doors on Sept. 6 with the first iteration of the menu that features small plates for the table, individual entrees and shareable large dishes. Dishes are simply described using just the ingredients, like tomato & cucumber: dill, buttermilk, cucumelon. Walton hopes the simpleness of the menu will lead to surprise and delight in the presentation and taste.
For this first go, with just days of being open, some plates achieve this status while others fall slightly short, as to be expected with a restaurant in it's infancy.
My visit inspired delight even before entering. “Whoa! Look at those windows!” The big windows open to Walnut Street for fresh air in the front of the restaurant. As a former resident of Shadyside, it is pure happiness when an interesting facade and concept infiltrates the quaint but, let's be honest, bland main road. The interior relies on minimalism with just a dotting of two-toned photographs on the walls over the warm wood tables to create a space that echoes the menu's call for simplicity.
Servers are attentive and knowledgable about the menu. The explanation of the menu by our server led us to choose one of the best bites of the evening, a butter potato in a tonnato (a creamy sauce drawing flavor from tuna and anchovies) dusted with a mojama, a dry-cured tuna, acting much like a salt. This was a perfect example of the surprise served up at Acorn. Things that I wouldn't think would be delicious: a tuna sauce and tuna flakes. The aforementioned tomato and cucumber dish also showcased the ethos of Walton. The colorfully presented dish featured a foamy cucumber base on which small tomatoes and cucumelons rest. While I'm sure the preparation was complicated, the taste is not. The tomatoes and cute cucumelons were allowed to sing with each fresh and crisp bite.
The other small plates and entrees didn't quite rise to the occasion with a beet plate being unremarkable; a goat butter being creamy and delicious but served with a bread that didn't complement; a steak that was adequate; and rigatoni that had a little too much anchovy flavor. We lamented not ordering the beautifully presented oysters that the neighboring table tasted after the server poured homemade seawater on the plate in a flourish.
The final course of a chocolate mousse with an amazing cherry ice cream made our tastebuds dance again. Overall, it is easy to see the promise in Acorn. Walton's vision is clear and seemingly uncompromising. As Acorn is the “seedling that (he) wanted to plant in Pittsburgh,” it will be wonderful to watch it take root and grow.
Laura Zorch is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.