Since Bites and Brews opened on Ellsworth Avenue this summer, we have asked ourselves the musical question: Is it a meal-worthy destination, or just another bar offering incidental pub grub to soak up pints of ale? There was only one way to find out, so off to Shadyside we went.
What we found was a bar, to be sure, but one with a unique presence that broadens Ellsworth's -- and Pittsburgh's -- wheat soda scene. The owners of the venerable Elbow Room opened Bites and Brews in June in a well-calculated move to pump up the volume on their neighborhood hangout theme. A minimalist space dominated by the high-octane colors of a 1970s McDonald's -- red, orange and yellow -- Bites and Brews' casual yet contemporary flair both fits in and stands out among the avenue's funky shops, outdoor dining, swanky foreign foods and smoky cafes.
The Bites and Brews concept is as simple as its name. Thirty beers on tap, plenty more in bottles, and two -- count 'em, two -- menu items (and not a one of them breaded and fried): pizza and sandwiches. To this seemingly narrow selection, the kitchen applies its motto -- "Why should we tell you what you want to eat?" -- piling on so much variety in ingredients and preparation, you'll pore over the menu as long as if there were pages of options.
The system is this: Bites and Brews provides the choices, and you construct your own creation using a checklist (No. 2 pencil provided). There are no predesigned offerings, though the management does post some suggestions (the Tree Hugger for veggie types, the Badabing for those who love their meat).
On the pizza side, you get to pick a slice or a whole pie (one size only), white or red, and then one or two of a couple of dozen toppings, ranging from the obvious pepperoni to the more chi-chi shrimp. You can, of course, pay more for extra toppings, but the straightforward approach is paramount.
Over on the sandwich side, a similar regimen pertains, with the two base models being meatless or meaty. The choices here are even broader and more interesting, with cheeses including asiago, crumbled feta or bleu, as well as over a half dozen more common varieties. In short, you have more ways to build your own sandwich than anyplace we've ever seen, and since it's all laid out in front of you, invention and exploration are the order of the day.
When our pizza arrived, we were wowed by its generous size, cut into 12 manageable slices. There was enough cheese to create a full blanket without suffocating the tangy tomato sauce below, and the pie was built atop a thin, chewy-crisp -- just the way we New York pizza lovers like it -- garlic crust. The garlic was mellow and herbal, not at all sharp, but it lent its unmistakable flavor to every bite. We reserved criticism only for the amount of grease (for which the pepperoni may have been to blame) and the scanty portion of spinach. We liked that the fresh leaves were shredded, and thus did not compete with the cheese for holding together slices, but wanted more.
Jason's sandwich was a combination of pulled chicken and bacon with cheddar on herb foccacia. While the mix of flavors was good -- all of Bites and Brews' ingredients seemed fresh and high quality -- some of the toppings got lost in the mix. The horseradish dressing was virtually undetectable, and the cheese portion seemed suited to a smaller sandwich. Which is not to say that the sandwich as a whole was skimpy: The meat was ample, and the sprouts and roasted red peppers were just right. But many, if not all, of the ingredients are pre-measured, and it may be that the management has sacrificed expertise for efficiency, denying the sandwich-maker his art.
Angelique had no such quibbles with her sandwich, a meatless combo of hummus, Muenster, cucumbers, sprouts and red onion between substantial whole grain slices. The ingredients here were in perfect harmony, with the cucumbers and onions thoughtfully sliced very thin so they would not be overwhelming to bite into.
Our verdict on Bites and Brews? We think the decision to focus its menu on two very versatile items was a wise one. What the kitchen does, it does quite well, serving up some of the best pizza and custom sandwiches in town. They're worth eating even without a beer to wash them down -- though that certainly wouldn't hurt.
Jason: 3 stars
Angelique: 3 stars