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Muriel's
856 Western Ave., North Side. 412-322-0476

If the aroma of freshly ground coffee brewing can rouse the sandiest of sleep hounds from their slumber, and the smell of pie baking can activate even the salivary glands of those emaciated Olsen Twins, I wonder if anything is more alluring to a foodie's nose than the block that houses Muriel's Restaurant, in Allegheny West. The smoker was going strong on the sunny November afternoon when I had a lunchtime chat with the owner and chef, Stephen Esherick, and the air was redolent with the fragrance of delectable smoking pork.

Muriel's, a 30-seat restaurant residing in a converted Victorian house at 856 Western Ave., reflects a cozy dovetailing of American casualism and fine bistro dining. The woman who put the Muriel in Muriel's is Esherick's grandmother, Muriel Black, who left him the seed money to open the restaurant. "It's funny," he says of the restaurant's posthumous patron: "She hated to cook, but loved to go out to eat. But she got me started in the kitchen, cleaning her copper, teaching me how to fry an egg."

That family spirit permeates Muriel's. The first thing one notices is the neighborliness of the place, particularly whenever gregarious host Arthur LoCasale is working. If Muriel's is not a labor of love for LoCasale, he does a great job of faking it. Veterans of the Pittsburgh restaurant trade, LoCasale and Esherick have worked together off and on through the years, at multiple stops along the way.

Patrons dine in the simply decorated front room, decked out with stone floors and watercolor yellow and blue walls. The high ceilings and long front windows keep the space airy, and some the chef's own watercolors, from his post-collegiate days spent kicking around Europe, adorn the dining room walls. Vagaries of Pittsburgh weather permitting, there is a picturesque garden patio seating 25, which seems to me to be the perfect setting for an al fresco Sunday brunch (which is served from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m.).

The design is straightforward and familial; the food is anything but. Freshness is the mandate and everything is made on site, from the smoked pork to the panna cotta, the brunch pastries to the Cuban sandwiches. Each offering is bold without pretension and familiar without becoming pedestrian. Esherick's sense of adventure in the kitchen is just more evidence of Grandma Muriel's spirit.

As we chatted in the warmth of the kitchen and as he prepared lunch (served Monday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.), some of his culinary philosophy became evident. "If you just always make grilled-cheese sandwiches, then you'll always be the person who makes grilled-cheese sandwiches," Esherick says. "But if you experiment, if you test yourself, try new things, you grow. Sometimes it doesn't work out. My poor fiancée was my guinea pig when I was developing the menu."

I am embarrassed to admit that though Muriel's is a quick jaunt from my North Side home, and opened in March of this year, I hadn't dined there until a few days before chatting with Esherick. I spent the days in between burning up cell towers urging friends and family to try it. I anticipate becoming a fixture.

Even with expanded dinner hours (from 5 until 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday nights, 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday), weekends are busy, and I was glad to have made a reservation. Other hungry souls lacked the same forethought, but LoCasale found room for these patient diners among the lively Friday night crowd. Though I was a complete failure at Scouting, where eating is concerned I believe that it is best to be prepared: Make reservations for weekend dining and, as Muriel's is BYOB (with a corkage fee of $2 per person), bring your favorite grape juice with you.

I was finishing up in the kitchen with Esherick when LoCasale popped his head in and said with authority, "The food here is as good as any in the city of Pittsburgh." With a mouth full of Cuban sandwich, I was in no position to argue.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY BRIAN KALDORF
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