With a family connection in New Kensington, Jason has been making tracks on Allegheny River Boulevard for a couple of decades now, and on every trip he's noted what appears to be one of the most desirable restaurant properties in (well, actually, just outside of) Pittsburgh. Nestled between the tree-lined road and the river, it's one of the area's few dining establishments with a real river view, even if the Allegheny Valley Railroad below does present a pesky barrier to the actual, physical riverfront. So we're not sure which is the greater mystery: Why we never stopped in, or why the building sat empty for more than five years after the last restaurant to occupy it, La Recette on the River's Edge, closed?
Though the answer to the latter question remains inscrutable, the recent opening of a new restaurant in this primo location has given us an opportunity to partake of its temptations at last. Its name, Barcelona at Rivers Edge, melds a reference to the venerable previous occupant with one to the currently modish cuisine on offer.
Barcelona's menu is unambiguously Spanish, with a little bit of Portuguese and Italian thrown in for good Mediterranean measure. But the vibe is more old-school American than Old World. Whether it's the mirrored panels in the ceiling or the clubby bar with a giant flat-screen TV broadcasting golf to the entire dining room, this is not a restaurant attempting to whisk you away to any exotic locales.
On the other hand, with big windows facing the sunset over the Fox Chapel Yacht Club and a rooftop deck to let you commune with the riverbank, there's really no need to imagine yourself anywhere else. The menu, freshly overhauled at the time of our visit, encompasses both traditional Spanish dishes, like paella, and Spanish-accented local classics, like lobster crab cakes with blood-orange buerre blanc and pico de gallo.
The salads were especially intriguing. We ordered two: Barcelona's distinctive adaptation of a Caesar and lolla rosa mixta, greens and hearts of palm tossed with blood orange and ruby-red grapefruit and dressed with pomegranate vinaigrette. The Caesar used Spanish white anchovies (our favorite recent advance in salad technology), shaved manchego in place of parmesan, and goat-cheese fritters that stood in brilliantly for croutons -- crispy on the outside, creamy within and pleasantly rich. Crisped serrano ham threatened to overwhelm the salad with its saltiness, but the dressing, lighter than a traditional Caesar but still creamy and citrusy, pulled everything together with great success. Meanwhile, the citrus in the lolla rosa mixta spanned the spectrum from sweet to bitter-tart and, enriched by the pomegranate juice in the vinaigrette, tasted, simply, like summer.
An appetizer of chorizo slices sizzled with peppers and onions was simple and satisfying, a drizzle of (we think) sherry vinegar brightening things while adding just a hint of bite. A platter of cheese and olives included rather uninspired green manzanillos and indifferent kalamata-like black olives, but was balanced by good-quality manchego and goat cheese.
Lobster macaroni-and-cheese was a real surprise. This once-original dish has become a reliable, if rarely inspired, staple at any restaurant that considers itself remotely chic, and to tell the truth, we ordered it here mainly for our kids. But when it arrived, we found ourselves tempted to take Barcelona's truly excellent rendition for ourselves. It had a wonderfully creamy sauce (close to an Alfredo) which allowed the campanelle pasta to shine and the sweet meat to stand out; a hint of nutty tang came from the strong, grown-up-worthy cheese grated on top.
The balance displayed in most of our starters faltered somewhat in our entrees, which suffered from an overabundance -- if such a thing is possible -- of herbs. Jason's paella in particular failed to come together, despite the presence of plenty of well-cooked shellfish and more tasty chorizo. But the morsels of dark-meat chicken tasted overdone, the rice was oddly al dente, and the too-tomatoey sauce was harshly over-seasoned. A dining companion's pork tenderloin was beautifully cooked, but the chimichurri drizzle, based on the Argentine herb paste made for well-seared steak, was too intensely herbal for the more delicate pork. It was all the more of a shame because the accompanying roasted-apple polenta was done very well, as was another side dish, of scalloped potatoes.
Angelique's lamb renewed our confidence in Barcelona's kitchen, however, with beautifully cooked medallions of meat, confidently seasoned with salt and pepper in perfect balance to bring out the lamb's own distinctive flavor. On the side, red peppers and green beans were perfectly sautéed so that they tasted tender yet still fresh.
We salute Barcelona in its attempt to bring the flavors of the Mediterranean to Pittsburgh's Allegheny riverfront. Although it might be worth stopping in to savor the view alone, Barcelona doesn't bank on this asset, but serves a lot of very good food at reasonable fine-dining prices.
Barcelona at Rivers Edge
4616 Allegheny River Blvd., Verona. 412-793-1777
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun. 4-9 p.m.
Prices: Starters $7-15, entrees $17-30
Liquor: Full bar