Location: 736 Bellefonte St., Shadyside. 412-682-1481
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 5-9:30 p.m.; Fri. 5-10 p.m.; Sat. noon-10 p.m.
Prices: Small plates $8-12; entrees $18-26
Fare: Tapas refined
Atmosphere: Mood-lit modern Mediterranean
Liquor: BYOB; license pending
Smoking: None permitted
You might have heard the statistic that half of all restaurants fail in the first year. We have no idea whether that's true. But we have noticed that whether restaurants sink or swim often has little to do with the considerations that guide our reviews: food preparation and presentation, value, service and atmosphere. Plenty of the meals we have enjoyed over the past five years are now mere memories, no longer available because they were served at establishments that have since closed.
This brings us to the space that now houses Costa del Sol, a Spanish tapas restaurant located below sidewalk level next to the Shadyside parking garage, where many Pittsburghers once dined at Pasta Piatta. While that Italian mainstay had a good run, lasting nearly two decades, it has now had four successors in nearly as many years. Though three didn't make it, we have enjoyed our visits to every single one. The fourth and latest, Costa del Sol, is no exception. Interestingly, it is the latest venture of Bikki Kocchar, whose restaurant Bikki was the first post-Piatta occupant of the space.
The interior, which in the first, eponymous Bikki era was stylishly redone in blond wood with cherry accents, is unchanged but for the addition of elegant little shelves of Mediterranean knick-knacks. These are surprisingly effective at shifting the atmosphere without detracting from the décor's modern sensibility. The menu manages a similar trick, presenting a select number of classic tapas dishes with a twist. In lieu of fried sardines, for instance, we found fresh anchovy filets; traditional risotto was dressed up with an unconventional topping, hazelnuts. With about 10 small plates and just a handful of entrees, chef Jeremiah C. Hickey clearly isn't trying to change the tapas paradigm; he just wants to put his training and originality to work.
The first dishes we tried gave us confidence in this approach. The aforementioned anchovies had nothing in common with the salty bane of pizzas and Caesar salads everywhere. Instead, the tiny white filets were firm and flavorful without being fishy, tossed in a simple, light, lemony vinaigrette that worked straight up or atop one of the wafer-thin, cracker-crisp crostini served alongside. A plate of white-bean pate, which also featured a lentil salad and black bean and cucumber salad alongside, was simple but expertly executed. The mashed white beans retained just a bit of texture to accent the otherwise velvety smoothness of the pate. The black beans and cucumber were slightly bland and watery, respectively, but the lentil salad was extraordinary. The yellow lentils themselves were tiny and al dente, creating a couscous-like effect, while minced carrots and celery showed wonderful vegetal character in their bright, tangy dressing. The same ultra-crisp crostini, striped with chive oil, were served alongside.
A round of warm tapas began with saffron risotto with mozzarella cheese and wine reduction. This was richly flavored with firm, creamy grains cleverly contrasted against a topping of crunchy ground hazelnuts, whose mildly nutty flavor complemented the warmth of the saffron. Marinated pork with bell peppers was less successful in both flavor and texture, with thin slices of pork slightly dry despite the marinade, and the rich-looking sauce not living up to its promise, instead delivering a hint of bitterness.
Costa del Sol offers just three entrees, and of course one of them is paella. Prepared for two and served in the traditional broad pan, it featured excellent, tender-firm rice in a light but well-seasoned sauce, generously studded with a broad variety of seafood, plus chicken and sausage. Unfortunately, the variety extended to quality and quantity, as well. Some of the seafood, like the scallops (both sea and bay) and mussels, were superb, while the salmon tasted twice-cooked. Chicken seemed dry despite a blend of white and dark meats, and crumbly chorizo was delicious but inexplicably scant.
Full from our broad sampling, we nonetheless stayed for dessert, enticed by cinnamon-lavender crème brûlée. The large bowl, perfect for sharing, was filled with a slightly wet custard topped with a substantial, crackly crust. We were most impressed by the flavor of this dish, an unusual combination in which neither cinnamon's spiciness nor lavender's floral character dominated. Instead, these heady flavors mingled and enriched the custard to exotic effect.
The brûlée was a reminder of Chef Hickey's most successful creations. His desire to innovate around the traditions of tapas is generally rewarded with appealing, highly flavorful dishes that seem fresh without a hint of pretentiousness. The only missing element, and the one that could halt the revolving door at 736 Bellefonte, is consistency.