Location: 216 E. Eighth Ave., Homestead. 412-461-4615. www.tinfrontcafe.com
Hours: Tue.-Thu. 8 a.m.-8 p.m.; Fri. 8 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sat. 10 a.m.-9 p.m.
Atmosphere: Eat-in art gallery
Liquor: Full bar
As the world grows more vegetarian- (and vegan-) friendly, more and more restaurants have added conspicuously vegetarian offerings to their menus. While pasta primavera may still be an all-too-familiar bore, we've also begun to expect more, especially from kitchens that subscribe to the fresh/seasonal/local mantra. But it remains the case that most restaurants offer only one or two worthwhile meat-free dishes.
Tin Front Café in Homestead has taken a number of recipes that could feature on some of the area's best menus and put them together for what may be the most rewarding vegetarian dining in the region. The menu is brief enough -- three starters and five entrees -- that we achieved a milestone: We ordered everything on it. Then sat back to enjoy the cool evening breezes, which blew about the scents from the potted herbs in Tin Front's secluded rear courtyard.
We began with that vegetarian standby, hummus, served with slices of cucumber and crisp, substantial pita chips -- a classic combination. But as with almost every dish on the menu, Tin Front included something wholly unique to show that it hadn't just cooked this dish up by rote. In the case of the hummus plate, it was asparagus slaw, which sparked a lively debate at our table over whether it did or did not taste like asparagus. Suffice it to say that both lovers and revilers of this vegetable found the slaw palatable; something about its ultra-fine dice and light, bright dressing mellowed the asparagus' native flavor and rendered it a compatible, if nontraditional, accompaniment to the creamy combination of chick peas, garlic and lemon.
Butternut bisque with basil was a silken treat that managed to make this humble gourd taste every bit as luxurious as lobster. Every spoonful bathed our palates in the squash's bittersweet flavor, tempered with cream and enlivened by the peppery chopped basil. The soup's presentation, served in a goblet with a whole sprig of basil like a cocktail garnish, made it even more special.
Tin Front does, in fact, serve a pasta-and-vegetables plate, but the linguine is local and freshly made, and slivered asparagus was an interesting -- and effective -- addition to the more familiar zucchini. Indeed, with the seasoning hovering between mild and nonexistent, that distinctive asparagus flavor, which lay low in the slaw, here became the primary theme of the dish.
Seasoning was frequently a sin of omission at Tin Front, where the grits beneath black-eyed peas and kale required two passes with the salt shaker to take on much character. This can probably be chalked up to the kitchen's entirely reasonable position that the peas and greens, lightly stewed with ginger and onions, are flavorful enough on their own. While the combination is classic Southern cuisine, the kale was handled in a more modern fashion -- thoroughly cooked, but not drowned -- and the ginger enhanced the greens while making the earthy peas really pop.
Portobello mushrooms are the vegetarian cook's best friend -- hearty, richly flavored and with a substantial mouthfeel that is often compared to meatiness. But the mushroom is most noteworthy for how it holds up to a good sear. Tin Front's seared Portobello cap was topped with spicy black beans and rhubarb chutney. No one could say this dish was underseasoned: The beans offered a spiciness both hot and sophisticated. The tangy, juicy rhubarb proved an excellent foil for the earthiness and fire of this intensely flavored dish, without bringing in cloying sweetness or insubstantial fruitiness.
Risotto, another classic preparation that adapts well to vegetarianism, was perhaps the most unusual dish of the evening. Beets gave the Arborio rice a cool, tart flavor (not to mention rendering it a vivid, deep magenta), while ginger added zing. Unfortunately, the flavor was so close to the gingered cranberry sauce that Angelique makes every year for Thanksgiving that she had a hard time remembering that she was eating creamy, cheesy rice.
We found it curious that Tin Front doesn't offer desserts, as making them vegetarian is simple enough. Not that this kitchen doesn't have plenty of imagination. And it gets to stretch it anew every season as the menu changes with the produce at the farmers' markets ... a little something to make us look forward to fall.