If you have tickets to a concert at Heinz Hall or a show at the Benedum, Byham or O'Reilly theaters, your map of pre-performance dining is pretty well established. The theater crowd is the bread and butter of most sit-down restaurants within a tomato's throw of these venues. Their upscale fare befits a night on the town, and their staff knows how to deliver the check in time for you to find your seat before the curtain.
But if you wait to have dinner until after the show, not only do you risk your stomach announcing its protests during the balcony scene, your options are a lot more limited. Up until a couple of years ago, if you wanted dining that even hinted at fine, you had to fetch your car from the garage and drive to a place that was open past the encore. Then into this breach stepped Bossa Nova, nominally a nightclub but also a sophisticated Downtown restaurant serving excellent food in an atmosphere that won't make you feel self-conscious in your dress-up theater clothes.
Bossa Nova's oversized industrial space, stripped down to the bare bones of exposed brick piers supporting a timber ceiling, also manages to feel sumptuously swanky, thanks to the sculptural swaths of silk and velvet used to subdivide the space. Cocktail tables, white-clothed dinner tables and coffee tables with sofa seating provide a choice of settings for a variety of social and gastronomical agendas. The menu is all small plates, though on Saturdays from 6-9 p.m., Bossa Nova hosts an all-you-can-eat Brazilian paella and pasta kitchen for $10.
In the traditional tapas vein were chorizo with potatoes and sardines, and olives with foccacia. The foccacia was more of a flatbread, but its freshness complemented the small, firm Spanish sardines and triangles of nutty manchego cheese. The chorizo, in a thick, dark cabernet-Dijon mustard sauce, was savory and spectacular, with rich flavors in perfect balance.
A few menu items seemed more like entrees than tapas, including the orecchiette with lamb ragout. This hearty, tasty pasta dish had a sauce reminiscent of a rustic Bolognese, with well-cooked tomatoes, tender lamb and fresh, coarsely grated parmesan-reggiano.
More typical for small plates in Pittsburgh are crab cakes and flatbread. The menu promised a light curry cream sauce for the crab cakes, but the emphasis was on light, not curry -- if we hadn't read the description, we'd still be trying to identify the subtle flavor. The crab cake was above average, with pimiento studded throughout the firm, sweet jumbo lump meat.
Bossa Nova offers several flatbreads from simple to complex. The duck confit with figs, carmelized onions and goat cheese sounded a bit ambitious for a nightclub, but was a big success, with the ingredients evenly distributed so that each bite offered a well-melded balance of the diverse yet complementary flavors.
Last but not least were the obligatory (not that it's a bad thing) Asian-inspired dishes. The Bossa Nova roll's mushy rice and chewy nori wrapper suggested that sushi might be best left to the pros, but the ginger scallops showed that the kitchen is just as at home on the Pacific Rim as on the Mediterranean coast. Large, succulent scallops, seared to perfection, were served with a soy-based sauce redolent of both sweet ginger and spicy wasabi, with braised greens and lightly cooked shiitakes rounding out the flavors.
Bossa Nova is a nightclub you don't have to be out clubbing to appreciate. We found excellent food, exemplary service and a grown-up atmosphere that accommodates everyone, from socially lubricated twentysomethings to Cultural District patrons (and matrons) to young parents on a rare night out on the town.
Jason: 3.5 stars
Angelique: 3 stars