Location: 1720 Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill. 412-521-1272. www.murrayavenuegrill.com
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Sunday brunch 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., dinner 3-11 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $5-9; Salads, burgers and sandwiches $7-13; entrees $14-21
Atmosphere: Warm, cozy and casual
Liquor: Full bar
Restaurant critics cannot afford to be creatures of habit. We are itinerant diners, safari-ing weekly to new locations in search of the fresh, the tantalizing, the delicious. But sometimes we find, to our surprise, that what we were looking for has been right under our noses all along.
Such was the case with the Murray Avenue Grill, whose unassuming storefront, shaded with a somber black awning, we must have passed a thousand times as we traversed Squirrel Hill's bustling business district en route to Thai restaurants, Japanese sushi shops, Mexican taquerias, modern pan-Asian bistros, even a kosher kitchen. Only after gorging ourselves on Squirrel Hill's global smorgasbord did we stop to consider what Murray Avenue Grill might have to offer.
The answer is: quite a lot, as the crowd of eager diners packing into the narrow, deep space on a Friday night attest. Many were headed after dinner to a movie across the street at the Manor Theater. So come show time, a less crowded, more relaxed vibe took over, with families, date-night couples and regulars moving into the pendant-lit booths and freshly refinished bar.
We settled into a booth at the very back of the restaurant to peruse the menu, which is a veritable encyclopedia (in content, if not in length) of all-American fare, from wings and burgers to steaks, chops and salads-as-meals-in-themselves. We began with a trio of sliders, those trendy little mini-burgers, and barbecued-chicken flatbread featuring the Grill's signature "chipotle 'cue" sauce.
The flatbread was a triumph of its genre. The bread itself was both chewy and crispy, as well as substantial enough to hold the weight of its considerable toppings without collapsing or becoming soggy. Sizable chunks of chicken breast -- grilled, of course -- were moist and tender, permeated with the sweet, smoky flavor of the chipotle sauce, and intermingled with just enough red onions to add zing. Melted mozzarella was creamy over all, and a sprinkling of fresh cilantro gave each bite a brightly herbal finish.
The sliders featured Angus beef patties sandwiched between buns sprinkled with cornmeal (or a similar ground grain) for texture. The sliders could have been juicier, a common pitfall with mini-burgers. A single cherry tomato, served as a garnish, was a nice touch, but one per burger would have been better.
Entrée burger options included not just the traditional grilled-beef patties, but turkey burgers, black-bean burgers and the Grill's "famous" salmon burger, which Angelique tried. It was not bad. No, really, it was good. It was just that she was hoping for ... something more. Perhaps more, or more distinctive, seasoning, though the salmon itself was rosy and moist. Or a bun with more character, and toppings more inspired than merely serviceable (lettuce, tomato and red-pepper mayonnaise).
Jason prefaced his pork chop with an excellent cup of red-rock seafood bisque. Studded with morsels of seafood, this had a sophisticated flavor and was rich without being heavy.
The 12-ounce chop, double-cut and as luxuriously thick as a summer beach read, was smoky, juicy, and cooked to order. It was charred on the outside, but the flavor of its inner meatiness prevailed in each bite. A side of garlic mashed potatoes were chunky and pungently garlicky.
For dessert, chocolate cobbler pulled out all the stops: It was cake, brownie cookie and sundae all in one. It was very sweet ... and so plentiful that we actually -- brace yourselves! -- could not finish.
Murray Avenue Grill may not be as showy as the Squirrel Hill restaurants serving exotic foreign cuisines, but it offers a different pleasure: a variety of good, all-American fare that is well conceived and thoughtfully prepared. Don't pass it by.