Basically tempting at Meat and Potatoes
Five years after opening Nine on Nine, his high-end white tablecloth restaurant, Richard DeShantz wanted to expand his horizons.
Instead of changing the menu or the decor, he decided to open a second restaurant nearby.
"I live Downtown and like what's happening there," he says. "I love Nine on Nine, but it's high-end and formal. I wanted to reach out to a wider audience. Nine on Nine might be a little intimidating to some people. I wanted to do a neighborhood place; something fun where people could belly up to the bar for a burger."
On June 1, DeShantz and his partners officially opened Meat and Potatoes, which he believes is Pittsburgh's first gastropub, in the Theater Square Building space previously occupied by Tony Pais' Cafe Zao.
After studying at the Pittsburgh Institute for Cultural Arts, now called the Cordon Bleu, DeShantz worked at Hyeholde Restaurant in Moon. He took time off to travel, then, returned to Pittsburgh where he took part in the birth of Mediterra Bakehouse and spent four years making bread, before moving on to start Cafe Richard in the Strip District.
He has no plans to abandon Nine on Nine. The upscale restaurant will continue on its path, he says.
"At (Meat and Potatoes), anything goes," he says. "There are no rules. It's all about the food, having fun with it, enjoying it."
The walls and ceiling are black, the velour banquettes are black, even the chandeliers are black.
But sunlight pours through the big plate-glass windows, and the spirit of Meat and Potatoes is pleasantly laid-back and relaxed.
Dish towels take the place of napkins. Wine is poured into tumblers instead of stemware. Panna Cotta is served up in a glass jelly jar. The floor is concrete and the white wooden door of the private dining room adds to the informal feel of a pub in a European neighborhood in transition from industrial to upscale.
Small, round tables lack cloths and encourage intimacy.
A long oval bar fills the center of the room, encouraging customers to drop in for a pre-theater snack or return afterward for drinks or dessert. The absence of a television encourages conversation and attention to companions.
Waitstaff in long black aprons still are getting the feel of the place and the menu. But they're attentive to refilling waterglasses, removing empty plates and serving customer's needs. No one raises an eyebrow if one member of a party orders a full meal while another is content with a Plain Jane Burger ($11) or a housemade Hot Dog ($12) with truffle aioli and red-onion relish.
"This is the food my chef buddies and I would cook, not stuff with squirt bottles and foam," DeShantz says. "It's all about the ingredients."
Those interested in a traditional three-course meal will not be disappointed.
Main courses include sweetbread piccata ($18) and roasted chicken ($17) and a Kobe Flat Iron ($22), juicy, tender slices of beef cooked the way you ordered it and enlivened with a fresh and herby chimichurri sauce and slices of roasted potatoes.
Ricotta gnocchi ($16) offered fluffy pillows of potato pasta tossed with a savory mix of meaty mushrooms, bright-green peas, crunchy ramps and shavings of pecorino romano cheese.
Moules (Mussels) ($14) are featured in three variations spelled out on an overhead chalkboard that allows the recipe to change with the seasons, the availability of ingredients or the whim of the chef. They already have caught the eye of lots of diners, as evidenced by the number of surrounding tables accepting deliveries of the enameled steam pots.
We also cast admiring glances at the Soft Shell Banh Mi Sandwich ($14) at a nearby table.
The crusty split roll had difficulty containing the abundance of deep-fried crab, avocado and greens that beckoned.
As you would expect from a gastropub, there's a wealth of snacks, appetizers, sandwiches and finger foods that encourage mixing, matching and sharing.
Thank goodness for those dishtowel napkins. They were necessary, since we chose the Smoked Wings ($14). Glazed with a sticky, sweet but spicy Asian chili sauce and a confetti of scallions, they were decidedly finger-licking good.
We're already looking forward to dropping by for a quick foray into other listed small-plate options: mac-n-cheese ($14) made with lobster, taleggio and cheddar cheeses and truffle; Parmesan Pepper Fries ($5) served with ranch mayo and mushroom flatbread ($12) with taleggio, ricotta, truffle and pecorino romano.
Paired with either of the salads -- the Wedge ($7), iceberg lettuce with blue cheese and thick-cut bacon bits, or Spring ($8), greens, fresh feta, roasted pepper and tomatoes, and olives tossed in a lightly lemon dressing -- any of the small plates would make a satisfactory meal.
Desserts are made in-house and we chose the apple cobbler ($7) from the trio that was offered. Prepared in a little cast-iron skillet, it's worth the short wait while it's finished in the oven. Served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, it's easily enough for two to share, if you don't mind a bit of sparring over the last bite or two.
Meat and Potatoes
Cuisine: Casual dining comfort food
Hours: 5-11 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 5 p.m.- midnight Friday-Saturdays and 4-9 p.m. Sundays. Beginning in early July, lunch service will be added at 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays-Fridays and brunch 10:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays.
Entree price range: $16-$24
Notes: Accepts all major credit cards; reservations accepted and encouraged. Outdoor dining will expand in early July,
Location: 649 Penn Ave., Downtown
Details: 412-325-7007 or website