Location: 409 Beaver St., Sewickley. 412-749-0300. www.sewickley-cafe.com
Hours: Sun. 8 a.m.-8 p.m.; Mon.-Tue. 11 a.m.-8:30 p.m.; Wed.-Thu. 8 a.m.-8:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 8 a.m.-9:30 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers and salads $7.50-16; sandwiches and burgers $9-17; entrees $17-30
Fare: American Continental
Atmosphere: Casual elegance indoors and out
Liquor: Full bar
We're not big on reservations. We find that they're usually only necessary at the hottest restaurants, and besides, there is something about having a deadline for arrival that drains some of the pleasure from dining out: Punctuality isn't exactly our household's strong suit. Usually the worst that happens when we find a restaurant full is that we have a cocktail at the bar or take a stroll around the neighborhood.
But every once in a while, our footloose approach comes back to bite us. Our trip to Sewickley Café was one of those times. Walking into the nearly empty dining room, we had our pick of tables, and our cavalier attitude seemed justified. But then we noticed the back door to the garden ... and we realized: So that was why indoor seating was so plentiful! Those in the know had reserved, and were now savoring, tables in the café's gorgeous outdoor dining area. And so on this splendid spring evening, there was no more garden seating to be had.
Suddenly the café's pleasant interior seemed dark and close. During breaks in our meal, we sneaked outside to admire the mature trees, canopied terrace, and elegant glass sculptures amid the lushly blooming live plantings.
At least we weren't missing out on the menu, which is the same inside and out. Sewickley Café describes its offerings as "American Continental," an apt description for a blend of the familiar -- crab cakes, steak salad, sesame-crusted ahi -- and the elevated, but still familiar: lamb chops, chicken saltimbocca, steak frites. It's a long menu, which can suggest concerns about the kitchen's ability to handle it all, but it holds together as mostly American and Italian, updated with a few Asian inflections.
An entrée of lemon-garlic lamb chops topped with fresh mozzarella and diced tomatoes immediately claimed Angelique's attention, only to be rivaled by the temptation of chicken with pears and brie. The choice seemed impossible until Angelique tore herself away from the entrée list long enough to realize that she could satisfy her lamb-chop jones with an appetizer. A trio of grilled lamb chops in pomegranate glaze (mint demi-glace is also an option) could only be described as out of this world, a phrase we do not use lightly. While the meat was sliced only as thick as the bone, its exterior was flavorfully charred while the interior remained pink, tender and mild. The pomegranate glaze, while tasty, was superfluous on such fine chops. Lamb chops, especially such thin ones, can be difficult to cook, but Sewickley Café delivered perfection.
Our other appetizer consisted of several bite-sized mini crab cakes. These were fine, briny little cushions, crisp on the top and bottom but still moist and succulent within. A creamy aioli complemented their seafoody sweetness. A dining companion's creamy seafood alfredo, however, had a gummy texture which was at odds with the luxurious flavors of this dish.
Jason ordered Kentucky rib-eye steak with Maker's Mark, mushrooms, sautéed onions and cheddar. The bourbon flavor was mild, milder than he had hoped, and the high heat that had been so effective on the thin lamb chops resulted in slightly too much char on the steak. But the robust flavor of the beef came through even the bold mushroom and cheese toppings.
Unfortunately, the Café Burger was not merely charred but blackened and, consequently, dry. The burger plate was, however, partially redeemed by truffle fries, true shoestrings of potato which were very crisp and flavored by the rich, intense notes of truffle oil which even Angelique, a truffle skeptic, relished.
And the chicken, pear and brie which she chose instead of the lamb-chop entrée? Disappointingly bland. The chicken was sparsely seasoned, presumably so the toppings could take center stage. But the pear consisted of only a few thin slices, and the brie lacked the heady tang that makes it probably Angelique's favorite cheese. Next time, Angelique will order the lamb chops for the appetizer and the entree.
And she'll call ahead to reserve a garden table.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story mistakenly identified the artist responsible for the glass sculptures in the Sewickley Cafe's garden. They were made by South Side firm Vessel Studios.