Perhaps the most memorable food trend of the early 21st century has been baconmania — that moment when everything from chocolate to cocktails was colonized by smoked pork belly.
The re-installment of fat and meat as components of a satisfying diet aligned tidily with a mass cultural agreement that bacon sure is pretty darn tasty. It led to rampant experimentation with this crunchy cured meat, as an enhancement to all manner of treats, savory and sweet alike.
Clearly, then, a bacon-themed restaurant is an idea whose time has come. Fortunately, Bakn is not a confectionary, but plays by the old rules, beginning with bacon’s primacy as a breakfast meat and sandwich ingredient. Under chef Randy Tozzie, a native of Upper St. Clair and alumnus of such diverse establishments as Giant Eagle Market District and the Duquesne Club, Bakn takes the meat as its muse in building the brunch equivalent of a gastropub.
Bakn is located in the old Carnegie Granite Works building on the town’s charming Main Street. It has a sleek industrial aesthetic, with a subway-tiled bar in front and a diner-style kitchen counter in back.
Its menu is brief yet comprehensive, familiar yet imaginative. It encompasses diner staples like pancakes, omelets and BLTs (of course), but also more elaborate dishes such as slow-braised short ribs with creamy parmesan polenta and a sunny-side-up egg on top. Although bacon does appear in some surprising places, such as in the steel-cut oatmeal (in candied-maple guise, with berries and almonds), Tozzie knows when to play the bacon card and when to hold it. There is also none of the eager-to-please tendency that leads to unnecessary variations on a theme; when the kitchen has a good idea, it’s on the menu, but nothing seems perfunctory.
We went straight to the meat of the matter by ordering a bacon flight: five strips, one each of uncured, applewood-smoked, candied, Cajun and peppered bacon. The strips at the more boldly flavored end of the spectrum were cut slightly thicker than the milder ones, but all hovered near the sweet spot of meaty chew and delectable crispness, and each distinguished itself with flavor. The Cajun, in particular, had a spicy profile that reached deep into the meat without hiding the pork’s smoky essence. The peppered bacon was darkly flecked with plenty of bold, coarse grind, and the candied tasted subtly of maple. “Uncured” bacon is actually cured without nitrates, and was our kids’ favorite. The applewood-smoked tasted the most like traditional bacon, with peak notes of salt, smoke and cider.
Pancakes stuffed with bacon were alluring, but the chocoholic among us elected to try chocolate-chip pancakes. (It is a measure of Tozzie’s restraint that bacon and chocolate are not served together in the pancakes.) The cakes were broad and medium-thick, neither thin and crepe-like, nor bland and fluffy like most diner cakes. Despite a generous hand with mini-chips in the batter, the buttermilk flavor came through.
Apple-pie French toast, on the other hand, was neither light nor crisp. The caramelized apple topping was sweet and soft, with little of the deep flavor or browned edges suggested by the name.
Beyond the griddle, Bakn showed what a truly great brunch is made of. Angelique’s shrimp and grits was, simply, perfection. Plump, pan-blackened shrimp were succulent and deeply seasoned in a silken swirl of creamy cheddar porridge. Finely diced tomato, scallion and meaty bits of bacon added further depth and breadth of flavor, and a sunny-side-up egg, its yolk broken into the mixture, brought this dish close to paradise.
Jason chose from the sandwich section, bypassing the BLT made with a full pound of applewood-smoked bacon for the pork-belly reuben. His choice had as much to do with the apple sauerkraut as the promise of braised belly. Served on marbled rye, the sandwich was a triumph: The pork was tender; the kraut perhaps not tart enough, but crunchy and with a hint of pickle; and baconnaise — which is what it sounds like, mayonnaise with tiny bits of diced, crisp bacon stirred in —adding another dimension of pork flavor, and pulled everything together. The fries alongside were top-notch, too, beautifully seasoned with herbs and pepper.
Bakn shows how a theme can transcend a trend by playing up a single ingredient’s inherent strengths. We already knew bacon was delicious. Bakn lets you count the ways.