Café J | Food | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Location: 3220 W. Liberty Ave., Dormont. 412-561-0450.
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.
Prices: Starters $5-8; sandwiches $7-9; entrees $9-26
Fare: Traditional Italian with contemporary touches
Atmosphere: Casually elegant
Liquor: Full bar


Restaurant entrée portions being what they are -- that is, generally much larger than necessary to satisfy the normal human appetite -- why order appetizers? For this and other good reasons -- including the complimentary bread basket or bowl of chips many restaurants are quick to plunk down on our tables -- many diners don't. 

But we always order starters, and we'll tell you why: In our experience, many restaurants' appetizers far outshine the entrees for which they should be mere opening acts. What small plates have going for them is just that: their size. Instead of quantity -- of food or ingredients -- appetizers reward intensive effort to get the most out of a small amount.

A case in point is the now-ubiquitous slider, the appetizer cliché of this decade. What seem like reprieves from gut-busting maxi-burgers are so often disappointing little hockey pucks of cheap chuck. But with a little creativity and attention to detail, sliders can transcend their fast-food origins.

At Café J, the recently reinvented Jamie's in Dormont, the meat in the sliders is tenderloin. This luxurious cut can be too lean and mild for a full-size burger, but it cooks up beautifully in a smaller portion. Toppings consist of suitably proportioned baby greens, a slice of plum tomato and cheese, adding up to all the satisfaction of a full-sized burger with none of the mass. Another touch we liked was the use of both poppyseed and sesame buns, split and divided so that each slider had a bottom bun of one kind, top bun of the other. 

Best of all were the accompanying French fries, cut beyond shoestring-thin into exquisite little matchsticks that were so perfectly proportionate to the sliders, the plate looked like something prepared for a doll. The fries were no mere gimmick, either, with some edges crisp and others gathering together into bigger bites. Even if you don't order the sliders, beg your server for some of these fries.

This appetizer is Café J on a plate. The restaurant has a certain elegance, yet the convivial bar, complete with the Steelers on the big flat-screen TVs, remains central to the establishment. The menu looks a lot like traditional, Italian-inflected Pittsburgh, with fried zucchini, crab cakes and pasta dishes. Since the menu wasn't wowing us with its creativity, the big question was whether Café J could infuse its roster of tried-and-true dishes with the panache it put into its sliders.

Fried zucchini were paper-thin planks, ethereally battered and served with a lemony aioli. Beans and greens had a tomato-y sauce that is not our preferred style -- others might disagree -- but we liked the dish for its firm beans, plentiful greens and substantial, stew-like texture. We also tried a small plate of pork osso bucco, an intriguing offering since the dish generally consists of a single slice of leg bone. For its appetizer version, Café J used pulled osso bucco, mixed with a rich tomato sauce, served alongside a disk of creamy polenta and a crunchy toasted crouton. The textures were satisfying, but the sauce overwhelmed the meat, whose slow-braised flavor should have been the star of this dish.

Café J offers a fairly broad variety of seafood, on special as a platter during our visit. It was an extraordinary amount of food for the price, and we were pleased with nearly everything. Three crab legs were fresh and light-tasting. Shrimp scampi were beautifully broiled and packed plenty of garlic flavor. English-style scallops were dusted with bread crumbs, lending a delightful crispness without obscuring the shellfish, though the scallops were a bit overcooked for our taste (we like to see a little translucence at the center). The lobster tail was cooked perfectly, but overseasoned; we find that seafood, for obvious reasons, rarely requires much salt. Last was a crabcake, which struck us as a bit déclassé for Café J's new style: a perfect disk, coated in breading and made with shreds of crab, not jumbo lumps. For all that, it was prepared well, with a moist, almost creamy interior; it would make a fine bar snack.

Angelique's New York strip steak was capably prepared, but a dining companion actually sent back her rack of lamb. The flaw was not the cooking of the meat itself, but the preparation: The shanks arrived coated in crushed red-pepper flakes, not mentioned in the menu description, which rendered them too spicy for our friend's mildly inclined palate. The Café J staff were concerned and accommodating, cheerfully cooking up a new order of lamb, which was excellent.

If the customer is always right at Café J, then you can trust us when we say that this is a comfortable setting for good Italian food -- and a couple of really great appetizers.