Location: 4621 Liberty Ave., Bloomfield. 412-683-4575. www.sausalido.net
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat. 4:30–10:30 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers, salads $8-13; entrees $18-26
Fare: Seasonal Continental
Atmosphere: Neighborhood bistro
In a city with a notoriously aging population, one group that seems to be getting younger all the time is restaurateurs. The exciting truth is that Pittsburgh's most visionary chefs and culinary entrepreneurs are no longer our parents' peers, but our own -- or younger. Whether serving comfort food at a hang-with-the-gang kind of place, or more sophisticated fare on candle-lit, white-clothed tables, restaurants opened by the under-40 set lack only one thing: pretension.
Casual elegance is the byword at Sausalido, in Bloomfield, a neighborhood that is itself transitioning from bluehairs to bikesters. Sausalido is owned by a young man whose family name -- Mineo -- inspires a certain reverence around these parts. Nicholas Mineo, a self-described "people pleaser" and cousin of the venerable Squirrel Hill pizza makers, once ran the deli at the family's Shadyside Market. But when he decided to go out on his own, he left pizza and cold cuts behind. He and his executive chef, Michael Simpson, looked to Northern California culinary culture for inspiration, developing a menu around seasonal ingredients combined into New American and Continental dishes.
In practice, this means that, while an ingredient may recur in more than one dish, the preparations themselves vary widely, from ultra-traditional offerings like crab-stuffed shrimp to au courant updates like duck with orange-apricot balsamic glaze. Such an approach can be tricky to pull off well.
We were reassured by the bread course, served with a tangy, garlicky white bean spread that tasted lively on crusty, Italian-style bread. An appetizer of "Venezuelan lump crab stuffed shrimp" soon followed. The presentation was exciting, with shrimp seeming to burst from dumpling-size crab cakes surrounded by diced roasted red pepper and lemon herb oil. Though cakey in texture as well as in name, the crab cakes had a light, not leaden, texture and plenty of briny flavor.
Raspberry beet salad -- in case you haven't noticed, beets are enjoying a warm welcome back from your grandmother's repertoire -- was a sweet success. A honey-raspberry vinaigrette accentuated the sugary beets themselves, while the meaty crunch of toasted pecans and crumbled Danish blue gorgonzola, tangy and creamy, provided counterpoint. Our only quibble was that all those rich ingredients could have used a more plentiful spring-green base.
Jason's London broil was a mouth-watering exercise in updating a familiar standby. Marinated flank steak, its edges crisp from the grill and interior a juicy pink, sat atop a rich, creamy bed of savory Parmesan and pancetta risotto. A stone-ground mustard sauce, coming from a rather different tradition than the risotto, pulled all the ingredients together and brightened what was otherwise a hearty, almost heavy entrée.
Angelique ordered pancetta-wrapped sea scallops finished in the oven with white-wine sauce, and served with sautéed baby spinach and gorgonzola mashed potatoes. A posher pairing than that cocktail-party staple, scallops and bacon, the salty pancetta and seared, sweetish scallops complemented each other beautifully. The mashed potatoes had a rustic texture interspersed with chunks of sharp gorgonzola, while the spinach was earthy and vegetal. However, the white-wine sauce was too light to unify these disparate ingredients, so that while each bold flavor itself was excellent, the dish never quite came together on the palate.
The menu offers four desserts, reflecting diverse inspirations: crème brûlée, apple tarte tatin, gelato and chocolate cheesecake. On a cold night, upside-down apple tart was as soft and warm as down comforter, its richly flavored fruit and surprisingly fluffy pastry combining to satisfy. Unfortunately, the scoop of gelato alongside was hard as a rock; the tart dessert would have been better without it.
Sausalido has an intimate appeal that derives directly from the people-pleasing personalities, not to mention talents, of its youthful owner and chef. At its best, it offers a fresh take on contemporary cuisine in a casual, yet still refined atmosphere. We expect that with experience will come still more refinement in the kitchen.