It's an exciting time to be a foodie. Partly it's the growing availability of excellent ingredients, whether from local farms or exotic locales. Partly, the national restaurant scene right now is probably the most exciting and innovative it's been since California cuisine -- with its simple, fresh, seasonal approach to cooking that we now take for granted -- first began to colonize the country, three decades ago. But more than anything, here in Pittsburgh, that most meat-and-potatoes of cities, we are excited to note that we no longer detect more than a moment's lag between what's happening in the hottest kitchens of New York and Los Angeles -- and here.
Which brings us to Bite Bistro, in Bellevue, newly opened in the space vacated by the venerable Vivo (which has relocated to Sewickley) by the same owners, the DiBattista family. Bite doesn't proclaim itself on the culinary cutting edge: On the surface, its cleverest innovation is responding to the town's (recently upheld via referendum) dry status by offering not just cork service, but a variety of fresh fruit- and herb-based mixers (speaking of recent trends) for diners who bring their own liquor.
Closer examination of the bistro-style chalkboard menu, however, reveals a kitchen closely in touch with the latest progressive thinking about how and what we eat. There's plum powder on the roasted chicken leg, an apparent nod to molecular gastronomy. Another appetizer, "Nasty Bits," reveals that the kitchen is conversant not just in the chemistry of food, but in ecology. Nasty Bits consists of a roasted chicken carcass, presumably inspired by the still-new "nose to tail" movement that means more or less what it sounds like: Eat the whole animal, not just the tasty parts.
The upshot is a menu that is varied and intriguing without seeming disjointed or overly broad. It being late summer, we chose a couple of salads to start. Sweet, slightly earthy roasted beets contrasted nicely with tart lime juice and a mildly astringent scallion pesto, while alfalfa sprouts provided a delicate, juicy crispness. We've often kept our distance from panzanella -- Italian bread salad -- out of a fear of soggy bread cubes. But Bite's promise of sopressata drew us in, and the thin slices of dry-cured salami did do a nice job of adding some heft and savor to a successful blend of cucumbers, tomatoes and rustic bread chunks lightly infused with dressing. Instead of the bread, it was the tomatoes that were disappointing, in what should be their peak season. We've noticed less of a bumper crop than in some years, but it is our belief that tomato-centric salads should simply be removed from menus rather than be served with supermarket-grade produce.
Our two other "small bites" suggested a transition to fall, with a hearty blend of grains, including tiny, tender lentils and firm wheatberries, spiced with cardamom and moistened with cooked tomatoes. Angelique enjoyed it, but Jason found the spicing to be less-than-subtle. In contrast, the beautifully roasted chicken leg was brilliantly brightened by a sprinkle of plum powder. We're not sure how one powders a plum, but we loved how its subtle, almost floral character built with each additional bite, never overwhelming the chicken yet imparting a distinctive, fruity tang.
There were four sandwiches on the menu during our visit, all equally tempting. Forced to choose, we picked prosciutto with Angelique's favorite brie, St. Andre, and "sloppy lamb." In place of beef and tomato sauce from a can as in a sloppy joe, Bite combines tender lamb with molasses, chipotle and onion for a very successful reinvention of the cafeteria classic. The flavor may have been a touch heavy on the sweet, but we really appreciated the light hand with the chipotle; much as we love its smoky flavor, it's strong, and can easily overwhelm a dish. Here, it provided smoke and a hint of spice while ceding center stage top its rightful star: the lamb.
When it came to entrees ("Big Bites"), the pork loin caught our eye with its unusual cotillion of sides -- collard greens, polenta and Hollandaise -- while the hangar steak gave us a chance to try the "pork-fat frites" with Bite sauce. In both dishes, the meat was seared beautifully, with plenty of well-seasoned char and wonderfully tender interiors (we're pretty sure the pork loin was actually tenderloin). Hollandaise, whose richness is usually combined with bright vegetables like asparagus, was surprisingly effective with the pork, more subtle than an aioli but with a comparable silkiness. But the collards were underseasoned and the polenta was dry, almost crumbly.
The frites, meanwhile, were a true innovation, and a revelation to boot. Forget about debates between shoestring, steak-cut and pub fries: Bite cuts its potatoes into egg-noodle-size strips that combine the best of crisp, homemade chips with just a hint of the fluffiness of traditional fries. There's variation in thickness, as well, so that a forkful will feature both all-crisp and all-fluff frites, a real textural pleasure. We were less convinced of the merits of the eponymous sauce, however, which combines caramel and sriracha for an effect we found both too sweet and distractingly evocative of vanilla.
Our actual dessert, chocolate pot de crème, was topped with salted caramel for an effect that was gloriously rich, intensely flavored and beautifully balanced. With friendly service, a relaxed atmosphere, reasonable prices and a menu that betrays intelligence without toppling into pretension, Bite upholds the high standards the DiBattistas have set for themselves in Bellevue.
565 Lincoln Ave., Bellevue. 412-761-9500
Hours: Tue.-Thu. 4-9 p.m.; Fri. 4-10 p.m.; Sat. noon-10 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers and sandwiches $3-12; entrees $11-15