THE CAFE AT THE FRICK | Pittsburgh City Paper


I stopped by last week to welcome a friend to town. Her new old home was mercilessly hot; the kitchen in literal pieces; and the floor was strewn with boxes -- the stress level here was high. I pulled Miss Frazzled aside and said, "What you need is a quiet, elegant, relaxing lunch; an around-the-corner getaway; a peaceful little sliver of Pittsburgh." And so I made plans to whisk her away to the Café at the Frick where we could lunch leisurely like ladies-who-lunch.

The relaxation began right at the curb since the Frick complex (museums, Clayton mansion, Café, gardens) provides free parking in a guarded lot. From there it was a pleasant short stroll through the manicured lawns and landscaped gardens to the Café, a charming cottage reminiscent of a small English country home. There's ample seating outdoors on the patio. But the weather was terribly steamy, so we requested indoor seating and were quickly accommodated at a table by a window. The Café has six large paned windows which flood the small room with natural light and offer sylvan views of the gardens: You'd never know you were two blocks from busy Penn Avenue.

No sooner had we been seated -- the tables here had pretty little bouquets with the carnations dyed to match the salmon-colored napkins -- when temptation strolled by: an apple-and-blackberry crisp topped with a big scoop of vanilla ice cream, someone else's dessert. I'd yet to open my menu, and was already fretting about which dessert to have. There were more than half-a-dozen desserts listed on the chalkboard; I reminded myself we were here to relax.

The Café has a small menu of salads and sandwiches, but fewer choices didn't make it any easier to choose -- so many sounded good. (And despite the small selection, my friend, the vegetarian, had at least four dishes to choose from.) Ultimately, I opted for the prix fixe option, which included a meal-sized salad, the soup of the day and a dessert of my choice.

The soup -- served with garlic-toast fingers -- was puree of squash, carrots and onions topped with pesto. It was probably just a happy coincidence that the orange-and-green soup matched the two dominant colors within the Café, though I'm sure the balance of creamy richness and lightness had been purposefully orchestrated.

For my entrée I had chosen the chicken roulade salad: spinach and feta cheese rolled in a chicken breast and sliced into attractive swirly disks. Beneath the chicken roulade was an ample bed of fresh greens dressed in a lemon-garlic mixture and garnished with whole olives, roasted red peppers and many pine nuts. Nothing says "summer refreshment" like a lemony cool chicken salad, which was not overwhelmed by the richer feta. The pine nuts and the sweet red peppers were perfect complements. I also appreciated the "lightness" of this dish. Out of the corner of my eye, dessert after dessert passed by -- and even I was impressed at the significant size of them. I had to save room; after all, with a cleverly chosen prix fixe lunch, I'd already pre-ordered a sweet.

My friend had ordered the special -- bruschetta toasted with fontina cheese, fresh spinach and mushrooms topped with shaved asiago cheese -- and pine nuts. Pine nuts appeared to be the ingredient of the day; every one of our dishes but the desserts had pine nuts. But, I love pine nuts, and these were particularly sweet. The bruschetta was quite tasty -- succulent melted cheese, the sharp tang of the balsamic vinegar dressing -- but it looked very filling.

At last it was time for dessert. Truthfully, we ate very leisurely, stretching out what was a very relaxing experience. We were in agreement that the Café was the sort of casual place with elegant touches (like the edible purple pansy that graced all the dishes and a small bowl of candied walnuts that comes with the check) that was the perfect mid-week restorative -- as well as a superb little leafy right-in-the-city haven to share with visitors.

We were invited up to the serving area to appraise the desserts if we wished. A little walk of 50-odd feet to and fro seemed a nice break. I lingered over the chocolate almond cake, the rhubarb pie, the meringues filled with lemon parfait and blueberries, but settled on an enormous slice of Portuguese almond cake. Little bits of almond were mixed throughout the soft three-layer cake, which was covered in buttercream frosting -- and accompanied by a big wallop of fresh whipped cream. My instincts had been right about the bruschetta; I had to assist my too-full friend with her chocolate mousse. What are friends for? * * * 1/2