Imagine an ancient fieldstone farmhouse in the French countryside. It was long ago emptied of its original treasures, but savvy designers have enhanced its rustic charm with new furnishings, simply created from items found in and near the kitchen: a chandelier of colored-glass wine bottles, butcher-block tabletops and banquettes upholstered in what appear to be large linen dish cloths. The palette is neutral, with a variety of rich textures standing in for color. Outside is a private terrace, festooned with flowering vines and fountains, and magically illuminated by strings of twinkling lights and a real fireplace.
Now imagine this exists in a suburban strip mall outside of Pittsburgh.
It does, and its name is BOhèm (short for "Bohemian") Bistro. The strip mall in which it is located, in Seven Fields, may be the prettiest strip mall anywhere. Like all strip malls, it sits behind a parking lot off the highway, but shapely architecture, lush flower gardens and pergolas trailing grapevine do much to ameliorate the anonymous strip vibe. Best of all, BOhèm's space opens to that pretty courtyard in the rear whose irregular shape and deep balcony along one side create intimate outdoor nooks, even as they cunningly obscure the fact that you're sitting between two parking lots, just 50 yards from a busy road.
Such lovely surroundings would flatter any meal, but BOhèm's kitchen has ambitions of its own. Its aim is to create small, sophisticated dishes to be shared, as the name suggests, in an informal atmosphere. The sophistication is in the execution, with comfort foods and peasant fare — deviled eggs, pulled pork, roast chicken — taking center stage, and boutique-ier items like pancetta, smoked onions and andouille sausage deftly employed to inflect certain flavors and subtly mute others.
BOhèm's preparation of Brussels sprouts, for instance, is one our server boasted has converted many a diner to the charms of this much-maligned vegetable. No wonder: The sprouts' flavor was all but obscured under a sweet balsamic glaze, with salty-smoky pancetta and nutty parmesan underscoring the impression of Italian antipasti. The sprouts' outer leaves were deliciously charred, but they might have benefited from being cut in half before roasting; we found them too firm inside.
Steak carpaccio — almost translucent, tissue-thin slices of raw filet — was prepared classically with arugula and shaved Parmesan, plus a pickled shallot for both oniony astringency and vinegary tang. The beef was so barely-there that these accompaniments were almost too much, but with attention to the proportions, the flavors held together.
In the middle of the menu, any of five items are available as tartines, crepes or flatbreads. Angelique could not imagine a croque madame, that classic hybrid of grilled ham-and-cheese and French toast, as a flatbread, but BOhèm showed how it can be done: with ingredients (including whole-grain mustard béchamel and pea shoots) spread judiciously atop the chewy, yeasty bread, and a slightly runny, "dippy" fried egg on top. A traditional croque madame is satisfying, but this was superb.
Mac-and-cheese may be close to the end of its run as the It Dish of gourmet comfort foods, so it's just as well that BOhèm transformed it even more than we're used to. When the menu mentioned spinach, we expected some leaves threaded amongst the noodles and gooey cheese, but instead the dish was more like pasta Florentine, lightly creamy and thoroughly infused with spinach's earthy, mineral notes.
The menu doesn't claim to be seasonal, but most of the items evoked the onrushing fall. An exception was swordfish in a citrus-basil beurre blanc, redolent of Mediterranean climes, on a bed of autumnal beet spätzle together with springlike petite haricots vert. Confounding or not, the flavors worked together (perhaps united by preserved lemon's unique profile), but with two flaws. The spätzle was under-salted and, like any boiled starch, it was hard to correct at table, and the fish itself was just a touch overdone. Swordfish is always firm, but it usually retains juiciness; in this case, it seemed that a smaller piece — for which we praise the kitchen, as proteins are too often oversized — had simply cooked through too quickly.
The far North Hills have become the region's second hotbed of excellent dining, with suburban outposts of many successful city restaurants and others that follow their lead. In this context, BOhèm Bistro's approach isn't uncommon, but it is appealing and worthwhile, and its space, indoors or out, is among the finest in the region.
Note: An earlier version of this story misidentified BOhem Bistro’s chef.