Café Zao | Restaurant Reviews | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
Location: 649 Penn Ave., Theater Square, Downtown. 412-325-7007
Hours: Lunch: Mon.-Fri. 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; Dinner: seven days 5 p.m. until half-an-hour after performances end (usually round 11 p.m.)
Prices: Appetizers, $6-8; entrees $22-35
Fare: Portuguese
Atmosphere: Subtle swank
Liquor: Full bar

In this town of football heroes and Mr. Rogers, the phrase "culinary celebrity" may be an oxymoron. But if there is such a thing in Pittsburgh, its name is Toni Pais. Once head chef at the elegant, Continental-style Baum Vivant (on Baum Boulevard -- get it?), then proprietor of Café Zinho, the funky little bistro off Shadyside's über-hip Ellsworth Avenue, Pais has been entertaining Pittsburgh palates with fresh, sophisticated gourmet dishes for over a decade. And now, with his new downtown restaurant Café Zao, Pais has parted the curtain on an exciting new stage of his career.

Café Zao is the Cultural Trust's venture into restaurant patronage, and the Trust plays up Pais' gastronomic guru status, with coming-attraction-style posters featuring the charming chef mugging with his ingredients. Located in the Trust's new Theater Square building, the restaurant is a coolly elegant study in ice blue and deep mocha brown, colors which evoke the sky and earth, with light fixtures like bleached tree branches. The color scheme is studiously repeated in everything from the oil paintings on the walls to the ink on the menu; one almost expects all the servers to have blue eyes and brown hair. The walls are upholstered in silk, the chairs in velvet, for an atmosphere of sumptuous understatement. Best of all, Zao offers the opportunity, all too rare downtown, to dine outdoors.

Its Portuguese-inspired menu offers something truly apart from Pittsburgh's standard line-up of high-end eateries, with ingredients -- predominantly meat and seafood -- from this coastal country prepared with gourmet precision and a modern flair. The menu is brief but thorough, with appetizers, salads and entrées to suit any mood -- except, notably, vegetarian. We were also surprised by what may be the first ironic menu item we have ever encountered: Pittsburgh Pasta, consisting of fettuccini in cream sauce "finished" with ketchup, chipped ham, grilled Portuguese sausage, and, because Toni Pais can't keep his tongue in his cheek for too long, fine pecorino Romano cheese.

Focusing on the tastes of Portugal rather than Pittsburgh, we started with soup and salad. The baby spinach and arugula salad with peppers, crumbled bacon and warm raspberry vinaigrette had a typical ingredient list distinguished by exceptional quality and preparation. The greens were tender and juicy, the bacon savory, and a mild and creamy cheese was grated over it all. With the dressing sweet-tart and light, not cloying, it all added up to a salad that tasted like more than the sum of its parts.

The Clam Billi Bi soup consisted simply of a pale yellow saffron and cream broth. Presumably the clams had played some role in the stock, but there remained somewhat disappointingly little evidence of their participation. Angelique thought the soup tasted like a bowl of melted butter, rich and smooth, but with a subtle saffron flavor.

The Portuguese sausage appetizer had the character of a peasant dish refined for a royal supper. Sweet, salty, smoky chourico sausage was grilled and served on a lofty bed of potatoes, greens, peppers and onions, seasoned with olive oil and roasted garlic, while a lightly syrupy balsamic reduction played off the heartiness of the rest. Trinchado of wild boar, served on skewers, was even more elemental, albeit in a rich, dark red wine and garlic sauce. It came with stems of baby watercress whose slightly bitter crunch wonderfully complemented the chewy meat.

Angelique's Salmon Paulista featured a rosy, firm filet with a peppery crust. It was served in a bath of roasted golden tomato sauce whose gentle tang set off the dense, oily fish to perfection. A small pile of risotto and black bean cake served mainly to sop up more of the delicious sauce.

At some point in recent years, chefs started treating veal chops as lamb chops' big brother, as opposed to steak's younger sibling, and Zao's hefty, exquisitely grilled version shows the wisdom of this approach. Charred on the surface, tender within, the meat was rich enough to savor on its own, and mild enough to cooperate with the sweet, earthy, pimiento- and shiitake-studded tamarind sauce.

The dessert menu included gelato, sorbet, and mousse, but our appetites and a cool summer evening steered us toward fresh fruit. A chilled chocolate cup filled with strawberries, raspberries and blueberries in cream sauce demonstrated the pleasure of fresh fruit in season adorned only with its most basic confectionery complements. Key lime pie was tartly authentic, with a dense, crumbly crust resembling unsweetened shortbread, and strewn with more fresh berries.

Our meals weren't perfect -- the salmon was a bit overcooked, and Jason's risotto wasn't worth eating even with the rich sauce -- but the total Café Zao experience was about as close as you can get. The servers are friendly, professional and knowledgeable, the atmosphere inside and out is classy but comfortable, and the menu offers dishes from Portugal to Brazil and beyond. Tony Pais' Cultural District debut deserves cries of "Bravo!" and "Encore!"

Jason: 3.5 stars
Angelique: 3 stars

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