The bistro is, originally, a French concept: a modest restaurant, possibly even in the home of a boardinghouse-keeper, serving simple, home-style meals at inexpensive prices. Setting aside the fact that cassoulet is a far cry from baked beans, it sounds almost diner-esque.
Like most things French, however, the bistro has acquired a gloss of cachet in being transplanted to the U.S. Here, the word "bistro" connotes a restaurant that is informal, yes, but that serves food you'd never make at home — food that is special, creative, a step above. Bistros are convivial meeting places, and as such, they always serve that social lubricant, alcohol.
So it is at Bistro 9101, owned by chef Sean Minahan, whose résumé spans from the Carlton, in Downtown Pittsburgh, to Walt Disney World, in Florida. Now he's come home to the Pittsburgh region to open his own restaurant on the suburban strip of hair salons, dry cleaners and auto-service establishments that is Old Perry Highway. Many of these businesses, including the bistro, are in converted old houses, testifying to the changing nature of the suburban North Hills.
From a restaurant in such a location, even one that calls itself a "bistro," we might expect the usual: wings, burgers, crab cakes, mussels, popular pasta dishes such as fettucini.
And Bistro 9101 delivers, but not in quite the ways we were expecting. Chef Minahan is too experienced to offer any clichés straight up. Instead, the wings are "pig wings," the cakes are salmon and the burger is a bacon-cheddar brisket burger on a pretzel bun. With caramelized onions. And, instead of fries, frites (sometimes, it's all in the lingo).
Even when the ingredients were on trend — panko-coated fried chicken, pumpkin ravioli — there was a certain fussiness that reminded us why most kitchens have moved on to today's simpler, more straightforward preparations. It takes skill to get a minimalist dish just right, but it's really difficult to perfect every aspect of an elaborate, multi-ingredient recipe.
For instance, in Jason's duck special, the core was truly excellent: The breast meat was rosy and flavorful with crispy skin, the pumpkin ravioli were tender and richly autumnal, and the sage-cream sauce offered a unifying richness that flattered both of these elements.
But a bed of spaghetti squash and wilted spinach — charmingly plated in alternating little mounds — wasn't so successful: The squash was under-seasoned and the spinach, disappointingly bitter.
In other instances, the flavors were great, but the proportions worked against them. Pig wings — morsels of pork shank — had bold seasoning that enhanced the rich meat (although one of the four in our serving was a bit tough). The presentation, on a long platter with a wedge of tortilla between each "wing" and puddles of chimichurri, was striking without being overly showy. But the chimichurri was too scant to be much more than decoration; this was a shame because it was so bright, herbal and delicious. What we really wanted to do was mop it up in quantity with bites of pork and tortillas.
"Jambalini," a riff on jambalya in which shrimp, mussels and scallops were served over fetticini in a "spicy" tomato broth, was another qualified success. In theory, we loved this idea, which melds traditional seafood pasta — usually served in a light white-wine sauce — with the more assertive flavors of Creole cooking. But the reality was not assertive, not Creole enough to fully distinguish itself from Italian cooking.
We had two dishes that really came together. One was crawfish bisque, which was luxuriously thick with plenty of crawfish meat and a satisfyingly creamy texture offset by briny seafood and astringent tomato flavors.
The other was the crispy-chicken sandwich. The meat was plump and juicy, the panko coating light yet crispy, and the topping of dressed frisée was a grown-up finish to a popular favorite. The accompanying frites were shoestring style, some crisp, while others were softer and chewier.
Bistro 9101 offers many of the things its name suggests. Attentive, knowledgeable service in a white-tablecloth-casual setting made us feel comfortable and well taken care of, and the menu offered many — but not too many — intriguing choices. In the attempt to be a step above, however, there were sometimes missteps, while the best dishes showed a confident kitchen on a sure footing.