HARTWOOD RESTAURANT | Restaurant Reviews | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper


As I wound along Saxonburg Road with its wooded glades and turn-of-the-century Western Pennsylvania homesteads, I must confess I thought it an unlikely journey towards Pacific Rim cuisine. And though I'd been tipped off, no doubt others would be doubly surprised to find such sun-drenched dishes served in a bookstore.

The Hartwood Restaurant (and Bookworks Café) shares a space and a co-mission of sorts with a bookstore (feed the body, feed the mind). From the outside, it's an unassuming beige cinder-block building, but inside it's a cozy warren of bookshelves, antiques and tables and chairs. There are three seating choices: outside on a stonewalled patio, inside in a small rear dining room, or tucked away like a novel in one of the book nooks. While waiting for food, could a diner resist the temptation to simply pluck a book off the shelf and browse? I opted for the dining room where I could not possibly spill food onto an expensive book of photographic essays and where the live music -- a five-piece folk-music ensemble in the store area -- would be enjoyed at a pleasant level.

The rear dining area was a pretty little room, painted brick and mossy green, with windows that overlooked the patio garden. It was simply decorated with assorted antique fixtures like a mirrored cupboard, gold-framed paintings, light sconces, stained-glass windows and what looked like the side of a pulpit or some other church relic now in secular service. My companion noted that this was the sort of place -- remote, yet nearby, elegant in an off-beat way -- where one might meet for a tryst. I agreed: There was much romantic charm to be enjoyed.

For us, though, romance was to be found in the food, beginning with the complimentary mini-appetizer, a lychee. The small fruit, still intact, had been cut so that its red skin fell in four portions like flower petals. It peeled away easily, revealing the milky soft fruit within. These we popped in our mouths like over-sized grapes, while taking care to remove the hard stone. The fruit was an unexpected treat, with a texture similar to a peeled grape, but with a flowery, almost melon-like flavor.

The menu was small -- just a half-dozen entrees -- but choosing was still difficult. We began with the steamed scallops, which were served in the most divine sauce -- a sweet sharp blend of fresh ginger and coconut milk with a drizzle of molasses. After having dipped my bread into the sauce, I was stunned to be eating "gingerbread," but the ginger, molasses and sweetness from the coconut milk had combined perfectly with the chewy bread to create this delightful fake-out.

My companion's lamb chops arrived, upright and interlocked in a tripod. They were bathed in a mint-mango chutney. The fruity sweetness of the mango took some of the edge off the stronger mint. The lamb was cooked wonderfully, full of juice and ringed with crispy edges, and I obligingly looked away while my companion nibbled every last bit of meat from the bones. There's perfect table manners, but then there's perfect meat.

My dish was mahi-mahi sautéed in a spicy ginger and garlic black bean sauce and presented with jasmine rice and steamed zucchini, that evening's fresh vegetable. The sauce had a good peppery bite, and the ample inclusion of ginger and garlic meant this dish was unafraid to be bold. (I had ordered it "hot"; the kitchen also offers a milder version.)

Throughout the dinner, I appreciated the little touches like the occasionally mismatched plates and condiment holders, and at meal's end I was enjoying the amusing dessert menu, which was handwritten on circular greeting cards that were photographic representations of fine and flowery china. The back of the card was a photo of the back of the plate, satisfying dish snobs like myself. I instinctively turned my card over as I would an attractive plate; it was Spode.

The restaurant offers just three desserts: a flourless chocolate cake, vanilla ice cream with caramel sauce, toasted pecans and fresh fruit, or an ice. We split the chocolate cake, which was agreeably light and surrounded by whipped cream and fresh blueberries.

As we left, the musicians were still singing of trials and troubles. I joked that this must be the first time I'd nudged a $20 dollar exotic fish around my plate while plaintive harmonies beseeched me not to go back down into the coal mines. Still, navigating the hills of Western Pennsylvania these days, it seems one might find a ginger-glazed tropical fish as easily as one might encounter a mineshaft.
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