Location: 134 S. Highland Ave., East Liberty. 412-362-6001. www.spoonpgh.com
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 5-11 p.m.; Sun. 5-9 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $4-12, entrees $18-34
Fare: Inventive, upscale American
Atmosphere: Darkly swanky
Liquor: Full bar
The first thing Jason said after scanning his menu was, "I want everything." Spoon, a swanky new East Liberty restaurant recently opened in the former Red Room location, presented, quite simply, the most enticingly curated menu we've seen in Pittsburgh.
It wasn't the foams, "essences" and other avant-garde preparations that impressed us (although these made their appearances, lest we think the kitchen is not cutting-edge). Such fancies are not its real genius. Spoon's chef, Brian Pekarcik, works mainly in the contemporary American vein, focusing on locally procured, sustainably farmed ingredients and up-to-the-moment seasonal offerings.
If this has become a familiar recipe for new, upscale restaurants, what stood out about Spoon was the superb sensitivity with which each dish was conceived -- from flavor, texture and the creation of combinations that were fresh but not jarring. Classic complementary ingredients, such as ancho chilies and pork, were served with new yet just-right blendings such as cilantro, lime and feta. The result was torment: Of 13 entrees and 11 starters, there was nothing we didn't want to try.
At our server's enthusiastic suggestion, however, we began with Gorgonzola blue cheese soufflé. While simultaneously light and rich, it was only mildly flavored with blue cheese, thus playing a background role to the accompanying tower of sliced stone fruit with arugula, candied walnuts and honey-and-white-balsamic dressing.
"Ahi tuna two ways" featured a small bowl of soba-noodle salad studded with tuna and mushrooms alongside a pair of rolls of tuna wrapped round crabmeat. The flavors were classically Japanese, and the judicious drizzle of avocado puree beneath the rolls enriched their mouthfeel without obscuring the meatiness of the tuna or the sweetness of the crab. It's one of the wonders of our modern cuisine that such an outstanding preparation of Asian ingredients has been folded fully into an American restaurant meal.
A dish called "duck, duck, foie" was as clever as its name. A duck-confit cake reminded Angelique of tender, juicy pulled pork, with crisp edges such as those that pork shoulder develops after hours over the flame. It was deliciously topped with cracklings made of crisped poultry skin, a delicate, surprisingly refined cousin to bacon bits. Alongside, a morsel of foie gras was served in a deviled egg white, its lean firmness a perfect foil for the luxurious, savory pate.
The challenge of decision-making continued as we advanced to the entrée list. It was early September, with autumnal ingredients making their first appearances even as peak summer produce abounded. By treating the vegetarian sampler entrée as a shared side dish, we were able to straddle seasons, looking forward to fall with sweet-potato pierogies and butternut-squash soup. The pierogies were draped with a cream sauce which was light, bright and also a bit sweet in a way that contrasted tastily with the earthier filling. The soup was so dense it was almost a pudding; a minute after taking a spoonful, the surface still revealed a depression. Lightly spiced, this was a pure, rich expression of squash, a preview of autumn in a bowl.
For his main entrée, Jason chose grilled filet with braised beef short ribs. Our server made a point of indicating which was which, because Pekarcik had engaged in a bit of a trick: The filet was served already sliced, on a bed of roasted baby vegetables, while the short rib, commonly braised into shreds, looked like a handsome little steak atop white-cheddar creamed corn. The filet was grilled over very high heat, sufficient to create an almost-brittle crust, instead of heavy char, that enhanced the tenderloin's delicate flavor rather than obscuring it. But the short rib, although it glistened with sauce, seemed underseasoned; it may be that long braising does more than break down this cut, and is needed to fully flavor it.
Finally, the horseradish- and crab-crusted salmon was a piece of fish whose intense, almost coral color was matched by its intense, fatty-but-not-oily flavor. A blanket of sweet crabmeat and buttery béarnaise sauce on top took the richness even further, while a dose of horseradish provided welcome sharpness. A bed of crispy gnocchi were just that: perfectly browned on the outside, and tender, not gummy, inside.
And about that namesake utensil, which appears as the front-door handles and as a striking glass sculpture: The spoon suggests a link between food and diner. If our server forgot to bring us, of all things, spoons for our soup, ah well. Spoon's understanding of food -- where to get it, how to cook it and how to combine ingredients into a dish that really sings -- is confident, deep, and even a little mysterious.