Favorite
Location: 900 Penn Ave., Downtown. 412-338-6463
Hours: Lunch, Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner, Tue.-Sat. 5-9:30 p.m.
Prices: Starters $9-14; entrées $24-35
Fare: Virtuoso contemporary American
Atmosphere: Urban sophisticate
Liquor: Full bar
Smoking: None permitted

As Downtown moves toward becoming an actual neighborhood, where homeowners (and renters) hold their own against commuters, we're starting to see some inklings of a 24-hour residential community. No, not a grocery store — if only. But in the past year, the well-heeled residents of Downtown's new lofts and condos have seen the opening of several new restaurants and watering holes serving them in the style to which they have become accustomed.

The latest is Nine on Nine, an elegant restaurant and lounge smack dab in the middle of the Cultural District. But if the white tablecloths, gleaming wood and lantern-light are ultra-sophisticated, the tiny bar and intimate lounge area have the friendly, everyone-knows-your-name air of a neighborhood bar. Turns out the gentleman who struck up a conversation with us while we waited for our table lives across the street; he's a regular.

And what a menu he gets to regularly enjoy. At Nine on Nine we see the maturation of contemporary American cuisine, effortlessly shifting from refined continental to Asian fusion to ingredient-focused invention. Instead of showy creations from often-jarring combinations, the kitchen produces dishes that may be new, but instantly seem right: thyme-roasted Amish chicken with asparagus flan, miso cod, venison with pear and chestnut. We would have been happy with whatever chef and co-owner Rick DeShantz sent our way.

We began with an appetizer of tuna and salmon sashimi, presented as a checkerboard of blush-pink and rosy-red fish accompanied by spicy jalapeños and creamy avocado. These flavors, one piquant, the other rich and mild, allowed the ultra-fresh fish to awaken every taste bud we had. Grilled quail was succulent beneath a crispy skin and served with a miniature country buffet of cheese grits, fried sage, ham and blackberry sauce. The latter was as intensely flavored as a Mexican mole, and the whole effect was savory, sweet and herbal at once.

The regular at the bar had recommended the chilled spring-pea soup, so we tried it. Whole peas gave the bowl a crunchy, tender texture and predominant garden flavor, while decidedly non-vegetable ingredients like smoked salmon and a poached quail egg contributed depth and savory notes.

Hearts of romaine salad included roasted tomatoes and Spanish anchovies like sweet sardines, all drizzled with a refreshing lime-garlic dressing and topped with crostini.

Between these starters and our entrées, we had time to set our forks down for a while. Our waiter appeared with truffled risotto, explaining that DeShantz doesn't like his diners to wait too long between courses. All we can say is that you should hope for a delay: This amuse bouche was nothing short of sublime, the grains of rice each distinct within a creamy sauce distilling the earthy flavor of truffles and sharp shavings of Parmesan.

Angelique's rack of lamb — from Jamison Farms in Latrobe — arrived with goat cheese and pancetta twice-baked potato, tomato confit, green beans and demi glace. The meat was luxuriously tender and intensely flavored, while each accompaniment was a culinary jewel unto itself.

Jason's "tasting of duck" presented a tower of thin, rare breast slices teetering atop buttermilk polenta, with shredded confit and foie gras completing the poultry exploration. The meat was crisp-edged with a richness like fine beef, and the polenta provided a sound flavor base without being a mere background.

We have rarely enjoyed such a well-rounded, beautifully prepared meal, and while the prices are far from modest, they are below what we would expect to pay for such an extraordinary performance. While a reservation is a good idea if you have a show to catch, you could do far worse than to just show up, relax at the bar with some of the locals, and enjoy your evening at Nine on Nine as it comes.

Jason: 4 stars
Angelique: 4 stars

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