How many users of Schenley Plaza remember that, until quite recently, this marvelous urban oasis was one of the city's most-detested parking lots? There was only one good thing you could say about it back then: The adjacent street was always lined by a fleet of vendor trucks selling a diverse and tasty selection of street food. These on-the-go dining options were supposed to be replaced by the attractive food pavilions in the Plaza itself, but something seemed to get lost in translation.
Now something much more ambitious than a snack pavilion has opened where once the food carts ruled. The Porch, an Eat'n Park venture, is housed in its own glorious wood-and-stone structure, which feels both sophisticated and rustic. The interior is bright and airy, faintly lodge-like, with a wood-fired oven vying with views of the park to be the center of attention.
The food, too, is modern without being stark, homey without being heavy. The restaurant's mandate is a challenging one: Located in the heart of Oakland and the front yard of the University of Pittsburgh, The Porch wants to be a home for professional (and professorial) lunches, a natural spot for Mom and Dad to treat their starving students to a nice meal, and a casual, affordable place for the mature but not well-heeled to wine and dine. By our lights, The Porch succeeds admirably in all cases. Contemporary American cuisine is well suited for this task, thanks to its emphasis on simple dishes well prepared, with fancy flourishes mostly reserved for sauces and other grace notes.
Take, for example, the ways in which The Porch dressed a humble pizza for success with butternut squash, leeks, crispy sage and taleggio. Truth be told, the crust could have been a touch darker and crisper, but its yeasty chewiness was satisfying in its own way. The interplay between sweet, soft squash, slightly pungent leek, peppery sage and heady cheese was simply brilliant. Served alongside, on the baking sheet which delivered the pizza to our table, were tiny, adorable heaps of grated parmesan, red pepper flakes and sprigs of dried oregano which offered further customized flavoring options. This was a combination that tasted as good as it looked on the menu page.
The Porch cleverly built a distinctive appetizer out of two Pittsburgh menu staples: calamari and fried zucchini. Matchsticks of zucchini were fried, but not battered, and scattered amid a fine serving of squid (mixed tentacles and rings, the way we like it) to add textural and taste contrast. A spicy, sophisticated marinara was an outstanding accompaniment. Our only quibble was that there wasn't enough: The wonderful zucchini was too scant to make more than a trace impression, and the whole platter was on the small side.
For as mild as this winter has been, we didn't really get to appreciate one of the Porch's special features, which is its rooftop kitchen garden. Nonetheless, the arugula in the rocket salad had a distinctive character that made us think of gardens rather than supermarket bags of greens: The leaves were thick, almost succulent, giving them a substantial quality that salad greens rarely achieve. Combined with roasted beets, pickled shallots, toasted pepitas, shaved Parmesan, chorizo sausage and a subtly sweet sherry vinaigrette, it made a well-constructed, substantial salad.
Which brings us to the belly of the beast — pork belly, that is. This is, of course, the cut bacon comes from, but it is usually cured with less smoke and cooked more slowly, with the end result being fatty shreds of tender pork. The Porch, however, served up what were basically extremely thick slices of chewy bacon. It was on the salty side, but frankly, the pork was almost incidental to the deliciousness of the dish: Served atop a mound of roasted pumpkin bits, surrounded by rings of zesty pureed onion and sweet-tart cider vinegar reduction, the pork belly became part of a superb essence of autumnal flavors.
Meanwhile, a lasagna with house-made chive pasta, béchamel sauce and beef Bolognese was served hot out of the oven in a cast-iron skillet, its creamy, beefy, vegetal and herbal flavors melding lusciously together. From the rotisserie came a pair of whole duck legs, gorgeously crisp with succulent flesh and not a hint of fat. The legs sat astride a potato-parsnip galette, essentially a hash brown, that provided a simple (if oversalted) contrast to the meat's richness. The duck was dotted with foie gras, which melted onto the hot skin, adding its own distinctively luxurious flavor; a small mound of foraged mushrooms, simply sautéed, contributed a note of earthiness.
The Porch is ambitious, but its reach is equal to its grasp, with simple dishes accorded the same care and quality as the most sophisticated.