CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
The Tomato, Wasabi, and Avocado Tartare dish is shown at Con Alma in Shadyside.
Vegan and vegetarian menus are becoming more mainstream at restaurants across the country, but it still takes some boldness to pull them off. Con Alma recently undertook that step and has transitioned to a full vegetarian menu at their Shadyside location on Ellsworth Avenue.
As a vegan, I was excited to try some of the restaurant’s plant-based offerings. This was my first trip to the popular jazz bar, and the place was relatively quiet when I arrived around 6 p.m. on a Tuesday evening. For the uninitiated, Con Alma is located on the quieter section of Ellsworth, nestled back toward the shops and boutiques. Upon arrival, diners are greeted by the name scripted in stylish, neon pink lights.
It wasn’t long before the restaurant began to wake up, with musicians and patrons arriving, and I ordered my entree. I was enticed by the two curries toward the bottom of the menu, and chose a West Indian Chick Pea Curry with chickpeas, shallot, garlic, sweet pepper, fennel seed, curry powder, turmeric, ginger, cilantro, and coconut milk. What drew me away from the other offering, the Red Curry, was the addition of mint chutney, one of my favorite flavors.
When my curry came, it was served with white rice and topped with a heaping pile of fresh cilantro. This time — and they may not serve it this way always — the curry featured fingerling potatoes, another pleasant surprise. I tried the curry on its own first, and it had a richness attributed to coconut milk but without the intense coconut flavor. The spices and curry really shone in that first bite, and the chickpeas were cooked well, with a nice bite that melted into a tender interior.
There was also carrot in the curry, and while I usually am turned off by the flavor and texture of cooked carrot, it really absorbed the flavors of the curry and didn’t have the taste to which I am usually so adverse. They had been cooked pretty thoroughly, so there wasn’t any crunch, but that wasn’t an off-putting factor.
I mixed the curry with my rice next, trying to achieve the perfect bite, and was greeted with the hidden mint chutney. I didn’t see it next to the fresh cilantro and was hit with a mouth-warming spice that coated my tongue and throat. I love spicy food, and while the brightness of the mint in the chutney caught me off guard, this was a very welcome sensory experience.
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
Pittsburgh jazz musician Tim Stevens performs at Con Alma in Shadyside.
The curry came in a big, steaming bowl, so after a few bites, I found myself feeling full and asked for a to-go box. I then sat and listened to the music for a while from my seat at the bar, which had a great view of the band. Local performer Phat Man Dee just so happened to be in the restaurant at the time and joined Pittsburgh jazz musician Tim Stevens on stage. (A $10 per person music charge is added to each check during live music hours at the restaurant.)
After listening to the music and pursuing the menu a little more, I decided to get the tomato and avocado tartare starter plate to go. A backwards dining experience, for sure, but it was totally worth it.
The tomato and avocado tartare was the best thing I’ve eaten in a while. Again, I tried each element on its own to get the individual flavor and then tried them together for the perfect bite. Served with fresh potato chips, the tartare is a decadent and fresh appetizer. The tomato is finely diced and has a sour flavor to it that awakens the palette immediately. The avocado is creamy and smooth, it pairs well with the zesty tomato and fried capers.
The fresh potato chips are perfectly seasoned and crisp and give a satisfying crunch. My perfect bite was not dissimilar to the feeling of eating chunky guacamole, but with the addition of white truffle oil, the flavor profile is completely different.
I’ve already made plans to return to Con Alma with a friend, and will hopefully get to try the fresh pasta I heard another guest raving about.
Con Alma. 5884
Ellsworth Ave., Shadyside. conalmapgh.com