When we stepped into Flairs space, submerged beneath the sidewalk of Bellefonte Street, we had more than a sense of déjà vu; we knew we had been there before. Not to Flair, precisely, but to the three other restaurants that have occupied the space in as many years, all of them above average, none of them still in business. Pasta Piatta, that venerable staple of Shadyside dining, put this address on the map. But when it shut down, it seemed to have installed a revolving door in its wake, leaving us wondering: If quality food is not the formula for success here, what is?
Perhaps it is the eponymous attribute of Flair. Owner and co-executive chef J.P. Anderson has retained the previous occupants warmly modern interior, with its blond wood tables, bent-wood chairs and tall banquettes offering cozy seating around the perimeter. The walls have been carpeted in an apparent effort to ameliorate the spaces tendency to get noisy. The menu offers continental fare with a hometown ahem flair. But refined touches abound, such as house-smoked salmon, homemade chorizo and salads dressed with basil-orange vinaigrette. Rather than a laundry list of current trends, the kitchen offers three cuts of steak for the discerning beef-eater as well as pasta and seafood entrees. Representative dishes of pork and chicken round out the selection. We took this as a promising sign that the chef knows his strengths and has decided to focus the menu on them.
From the starters list, we chose to test Flairs mettle on two local mainstays: artichoke casserole and stuffed mushrooms. Both exceeded their generic antecedents. The casserole was particularly impressive, offering juicy chunks not the usual slight leaves of sweet-tart artichoke browned in a sauce of rich, melted cheese. The mushroom caps were well proportioned to their creamy, dense stuffing, which balanced savory applewood-smoked bacon and sweet roasted red peppers in a cream cheese and Parmesan base.
Entrées are served with soup or salad, and our server recommended Flairs Caesar, adding that its dressing recipe is top-secret. Our outsider analysis is that it relies heavily on a fruity olive oil, with garlic, lemon and anchovies all playing equal supporting roles. The result is a light, but still tart, concoction that, unfortunately, was finer than the lettuce it dressed, which was dominated by chunks of flavorless Romaine rib.
On the soup side, a cup of white bean and sausage combined a wintry heartiness with a light, herbal flavor. The beans were tender yet resilient in a savory broth flecked with red pepper, parsley and scallions or were those chives? Either way, the complementary flavors added up to much more than the sum of their parts.
Ever the partisan of pork, Jason could not resist ordering the double-cut smoked pork chop, and the first cut into its improbably pink flesh affirmed his hopes. The meat had developed a rich texture reminiscent of duck, and the sugar cure balanced any abundance of salt. The dark, reduced sauce was sweet and earthy with the addition of mushrooms, but may have been too assertive against such excellent meat. Mashed potatoes were creamy and rich, but the julienned vegetables, though beautiful to behold, were by turns too crisp and too soft.
For her entrée, Angelique looked no further than the words paella risotto. The appetizing presentation included a ring of steamed mussels surrounding a cake of Arborio rice dense with seafood, sausage and chicken. Though the mussels and the chicken were slightly overcooked, the shrimp and the rice were firm, and the dish as a whole was suffused with the briny richness she had hoped for.
Its a mystery why some restaurants endure while others, equally well located and well appointed, are mere flashes in the proverbial pan. Flair offers a consistent level of excellence in ingredients, preparation and service, plus plenty of its namesake quality. If that isnt a recipe for success, we dont know what is.
Jason: 3 stars
Angelique: 3 stars