With their unique promise of discovery and revelation, old maps have an unrivalled ability to fascinate. We are not the first to lament that the charts of the world have all been filled in. There is no more Terra Incognita: Here be no more monsters.
Yet Pittsburgh's labyrinthine geography does leave us with some unsolved mysteries: Is that "street" merely a set of stairs? Can you, in fact, get there from here? And, what, exactly, is Regent Square -- city neighborhood, tiny borough, distinctive corner of Edgewood? Sure, we could turn to an atlas for an answer, but how much more adventurous to investigate ourselves.
And what better place to begin our search than the Map Room, a bar and restaurant recently remade in homage to the art of cartography? The vestibule is highlighted by a segment of New World map from the Age of Exploration, and the aesthetic carries through from there. The back wall of the cozy dining room is a painted enlargement from an atlas of Olde England; other walls evoke the blues of sea and sky, and framed charts, both local and exotic, fill the space.
The menu continues the exploratory theme, venturing far beyond bar fare to include semi-exotic offerings alongside hearty classics that feel like returning home. With seafaring exploration on the brain, we ordered mussels and crab chowder to start. The cup of chowder was generously sized, thick, and strewn with shredded crabmeat as well as the occasional succulent chunk. Corn and potatoes contributed to a texture that was hearty, not heavy. However, the mussels were unevenly cooked, with the larger ones well done but the smaller ones disappointingly chewy, and the whole bowl unnecessarily saline.
Because it is one of our favorite things, we also ordered baked brie with basil pesto. The pesto was rough-cut and rustic, the way we like it best, and the otherwise unremarkable brie was served warm and soft, but not liquefied, alongside a small salad. The dressing's sweetness was a fine counterpoint to the garlicky, herbal pesto, and the walnuts atop it were just the thing to pop atop a bite of brie and bread. We did wish the kitchen had thought to toast the bread, though.
Uncharacteristically, for our entrees we both ordered chicken dishes, while a visiting family member went for the delicious-sounding rosemary beef stew in a sourdough bread bowl. Jason's roasted chicken was in fact half a bird, its skin crisp and its meat infused with mild garlic-rosemary butter. The bed of herbed risotto fared less well from its own encounter with butter, resulting in a mashed-potato-like consistency. The stew's promise of rosemary also proved to be oversold, with the overall effect pleasant enough, but bland. The beef was diced too fine to lend the stew its expected hearty character, perhaps to make the dish suitable for serving as a starter.
Angelique's Providence Chicken did not suffer for lack of flavor, however. Tender, grilled breast meat was served upon angel hair pasta in a sweet, comfortably spicy gorgonzola cream sauce flecked with fresh herbs. Red pepper strips accentuated the sauce's sweet side, subtly counterbalancing its heat.
From a brief dessert menu -- only two items -- we selected bread pudding. It was soft and custardy, rich yet light, and covered in thick caramel sauce with multicolored raisins served on the side like a pretty bowl of beads.
It's said that half the joy of travel is in the journey itself. We found much about our visit to the Map Room -- a lovely space, attentive service -- to be a delight. Unfortunately, the destination -- that is, the food -- didn't live up to the rest of the experience. Whether through underseasoning or imperfect cooking, many of the dishes we sampled fell short of their considerable promise. We did taste that promise here and there, and only hope that, with more miles under its belt, the kitchen will fulfill it completely.
Jason: 2.5 stars
Angelique: 2.5 stars