The fantastically named Moon is a township in transition between its past as a bustling service depot for Pittsburgh International Airport and its future as the collegiate, if frankly suburban, hometown of Robert Morris University. In this shifting landscape, hotels formerly occupied by USAir travelers now serve as dorms for RMU undergrads, and a restaurant called Savory Hill is a conceptual, if not physical, landmark.
Outwardly, Savory Hill presents little to distinguish it from the other businesses on Brodhead Road, a secondary commercial thoroughfare which winds its way westward from the concentration of chain stores nearest the airport-university corridor. It's easy to drive right past it, but to do so would be a shame: Savory Hill's fortifying menu of locally sourced, creatively prepared fine dining stands out in a local restaurant scene mostly represented by empty calories.
Savory Hill bills itself "an eclectic bistro," and decorative touches like reclaimed wood-plank bathroom doors and candleholders fashioned from trimmed wine bottles (labels left on) suggest, ironically, a particular brand of urban sophistication which relies on a rustic country aesthetic. Rather than allow this to bend our brains into pretzels, we focused on owner-chef Thomas Langan's ambitious menu, whose restrained selection dabbles both in trendy offerings such as short rib and in intriguing updates of timeless classics like Southern fried chicken. Savory Hill's suburban clientele may inform the more familiar options, but at no point does the menu condescend or get bogged down in the expected.
Our meal began with a creative chef's Holy Grail: an original yet accessible appetizer. Rock Solids Bites were morsels of dip (yes, dip) crusted and quick-fried for an effect reminiscent of jalapeño poppers without the pepper. See what we mean by intriguing? Regular options include spinach dip crusted with crushed pita chips and French-onion dip coated with potato chips, and as with every category on the menu, there is always a daily special. While the popper analogy may be off-putting, these bites transformed traditional pub grub into something much more sublime, with satisfying crunch, a burst of savory flavor and no regrets.
The starter list as a whole bounced between rarified — scallop Napoleon, with asiago-lemon bread crumbs and star-anise gastrique — and regular-Joe, such as buffalo-chicken nachos, albeit classed up with a bleu cheese-celery relish. Both ends of the spectrum appealed, but, seduced by the promise of local, seasonal produce, we selected salads. Baby romaine was a version of a Caesar, tiny leaves with oven-roasted tomato and a tasty garlic-herb crouton. The dressing was much like a traditional Caesar, too, though a refreshed version really could have sung, as did the honey-champagne vinaigrette on Angelique's chef's garden salad. Its carefully balanced sweet and acidic notes were the perfect foil for this lovely salad of tender baby lettuces, "toy box" tomatoes (which must be so named because they look like colorful baubles) and local goat cheese, making it one of the most memorable salads she has ever had.
South of the Border surf-and-turf in lesser hands could turn into steak and shrimp with some salsa, but Langan is better than that. Chipotle-marinated sirloin was no surprise, but it was a nice cut — thin enough that the chili flavor held up, thick enough to cook well. Even better were beautifully seared scallops, still translucent in the center, lightly flavored with tequila and lime. The bed of honey-chipotle jasmine rice was as thick as a risotto, but its sweetness highlighted the dish's main shortcoming: not enough spice. Each element was well balanced, but none packed any heat, so that the plate as a whole tilted just a touch bland.
Slow-braised boneless short rib was meltingly tender and deeply savory, as short rib should be, and accompanied by a lusciously sticky risotto studded with charred asparagus. The vegetable's caramelized top notes struck just the right balance with its bitter undertones. But the best part may have been the fresh local carrots. The size of a child's finger, they came in three colors — orange, yellow and deep purple-red — and were cooked to the peak of tender-firm sweetness.
A trio of homemade cheesecakes provided an echo of the "bites" concept at the close of our meal. Topped with vanilla, chocolate and strawberry sauces, the cake itself was rich and creamy, and the crumbly graham-cracker crust showed that sometimes, tradition knows best.
It's still a local secret, but the view from Savory Hill is superb.