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Menu at Sharp Edge is hit with Downtown diners

| Saturday, Aug. 21, 2010

Mindy Heisler, culinary director of Sharp Edge Beer, says the new Sharp Edge Bistro on Penn Avenue came about because people Downtown don't have a neighborhood bar to call their own.

"This is foodie's row," says Heisler, who oversees the culinary operations at all five Sharp Edge locations. "No one thought we would fit in, but we haven't had a dead night yet. We opened at the beginning of non-theater season in June, and we've had a full bar every night."

Known for its extensive imported and domestic beer selections -- some locations boast 325 varieties -- Sharp Edge is also receiving admiration for the casual American menu with a Belgian twist. Heisler's most popular item is the Belgian-style, cracker-like crusted pizza that boasts toppings such as grilled chicken pesto, spinach and mushroom, and even duck confit and fig.

Fresh mussels, a traditional Belgian specialty, are big sellers, as are the Mediterranean nachos, made with fresh fried pita chips topped with spinach and artichoke dip, melted provolone and asiago cheeses, and diced tomatoes and black olives.

"We also offer a variety of specialty burgers that are somewhat unusual, offer unique flavor profiles and create a very interesting array of choices and flavors that are lower in fat than traditional beef," she says. "We have Belgian (lamb), buffalo, salmon, duck, chicken and Kobe burgers. The specialty burgers easily make up more than half of our total burger sales."

Sharp Edge Bistro is an attractive place, with a long, black speckled bar top, gold walls, comfortable tables and chairs, and a high black ceiling. Several unusual red fluorescent glass lamps, painted in a fire design, suspend from the ceiling. About 117 seats are available on the first floor, and the soon-to-be-finished second floor will hold an additional 50 seats for private parties and meetings.

"We serve anywhere from 250 to 300 dinners a night," says Heisler, 34, a Carnegie resident and Baldwin High School graduate. She also graduated from Pennsylvania Culinary and has been working at Sharp Edge for 10 years. "We make everything from scratch. My personal belief is that it's never good to sacrifice flavor or quality for convenience. Anyone can buy something and heat it up; it takes care and passion to create food that is creative and tastes good."

Heisler grew up in the South Hills and realized early in her life that she liked to cook. Her passion for home-cooked meals came from her parents and grandparents.

"I was always at home in the kitchen, and loved to make things for people," Heisler says. "Mom and Dad were big advocates of the family dinner, so dinner was a nightly event that we all contributed to. I count myself as one of the lucky (ones), that I am able to make a living doing something I love."

Jeffrey Walewski began Sharp Edge Beer more than 20 years ago, and now has locations in Friendship, Crafton, Robinson, Sewickley and Downtown.

This newest site has an executive chef, Brian Christman, along with a sous chef and two assistants. Heisler is in charge of the menus, and loves the fact that she has a test kitchen in her office.

"The recipes are trial-and-error," she says. "I get to come in every day and play with food. One of my favorite things to do is cook at home for my friends and family, and some of my best restaurant dishes were born from (goofing) around in my own kitchen at home.

"In my world, I live to eat ... not eat to live."

Because Sharp Edge is known for its incredible variety of beers, Heisler naturally incorporates many of the beers into her recipes.

"American cuisine goes very well with beer, and I cook a lot with beer," she says. "I try to keep food interesting, and the flavor profile with beer opens up a lot of the dishes. I use mostly Belgian sweet beers, and I don't ever cook with hops -- it gets offensively bitter."

Although Heisler works long hours every week, she's never bored and wouldn't do the job if she didn't love it, she says.

"I always swore that I'd never hate my job the way my dad hated his," Heisler says. "This job is always exciting."

When hiring chefs, Heisler looks for people who have the same passion and creativity that she enjoys.

"I can teach a person how to cook a meal," she says. "I can't teach them to care and have passion about the food they are handling and working with daily. It isn't an easy job, but you will only ever get out of being a chef what you put into it."

Bacon and Blue Cheese Mussels

Sharp Edge culinary director Mindy Heisler is sharing her popular Bacon and Blue Cheese Mussels appetizer. She says the biggest mistake most cooks make with mussels is overcooking them and not seasoning them.

"Once the mussels have popped, they're done," she says. "If any haven't popped, throw them away. And a lot of people think because they're grown in salt water, they don't have to season them. But you rinse them first, so they need salt or they'll taste flat."

With this dish, Heisler suggests serving a hearty Belgian beer such as the Bornem XX, which also is used in the recipe.

• 2 pounds PEI mussels

• Water

• 2 slices bacon, cut into small dice

• 4 tablespoons butter, divided

• 3 tablespoons minced shallots

• 1/4 cup julienned leeks (white and light green parts only)

• 1 teaspoon cracked black pepper

• 1/2 cup Belgian Double beer (Bornem XX)

• 3 tablespoons heavy cream

• 1/2 cup diced tomato

• 1/3 cup crumbled blue cheese

• Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

• Belgian frites or crusty, rustic bread, for serving

Rinse and clean the mussels. Place the mussels in a container of water and agitate to rinse. Pick through, removing all the alive and sealed mussels from the water; de-beard and place in a colander.

Cook the bacon in a saucepot over low to medium heat until the fat melts away. When the bacon is crisp, add the 1 tablespoon butter, shallots, leeks and black pepper, cooking over medium heat until the shallots have softened and the leeks are tender.

Add the cleaned mussels and toss to coat. Add the beer and cover with a lid to steam the mussels open. After about 4 minutes, remove the lid and start to remove the mussels that have popped open, placing them in a serving vessel.

After all the mussels have opened (dispose of any that have not), add the heavy cream and diced tomatoes to the pan sauce and bring to a boil. Reduce the liquid until it starts to thicken. Add the blue cheese and swirl in to melt.

Once the cheese has melted, add the remaining 3 tablespoons butter and swirl in over medium heat to thicken. Season as necessary with salt and pepper and pour over the mussels.

Serve immediately with Belgian frites or a crusty, rustic bread.

Makes 2 appetizer servings, or 1 entree.

Additional Information:

Sharp Edge Bistro

Cuisine: American

Hours: 11 a.m.-midnight Mondays-Saturdays (bar open until 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays), 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sundays

Entree price range: Small plates, pizza, burgers, paninis and mussels from $10-$18

Notes: Major credit cards accepted. Handicapped accessible. Daily features, bottle and draft specials. Thirty beers on tap, and between 275 and 325 varieties of beer, with 50 percent of the selection coming from Belgium.

Address: 922 Penn Ave., Downtown

Details: 412-338-2437 or website

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