Location: 136 Sixth St., Downtown. 412-325-4310. www.melangebistrobar.com
Hours: Mon.-Tue. 11 a.m.-8 p.m.; Wed.-Thu. 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Fri. 11 a.m.-2 a.m.; Sat. 2 p.m.-2 a.m.; Sun. 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $5-19; entrees $17-34
Atmosphere: Sophisticated gallery
Liquor: Full bar
What's in a name? When it comes to restaurants, it depends. It could be something as matter-of-fact as the street address or the owner's own moniker, or something as evocative as the name of a far-off land. Mélange, a new dining spot in Downtown's restaurant-heavy Sixth Avenue corridor, is one of the more aptly named restaurants we have had the privilege to visit. While most eateries celebrate a particular theme or culinary tradition, Mélange offers a self-styled "world tour of exquisite taste and culinary artistry."
"We'll see about that," we admit to thinking. Because we have found that it's a rare kitchen that is actually fluent in so many cuisines.
But Mélange's interior gave us an idea of its approach. The large space, more or less equally divided between booths and tables, features blond wood and warm colors as background to a series of large-format, gallery-framed black-and-white photographs. While the photos' sameness of size and mounting builds aesthetic unity, their subject matter represents a broad range of interests, from music to nature, architecture and sports (this is Pittsburgh, after all). And not a clichéd dorm-poster image in the group!
Similarly, the menu skips around from Thailand to Greece to the Pacific Northwest, but the unifying quality is a refusal to rely on culinary clichés, which staves off the boredom of a greatest-hits approach.
Faced with an enticing selection, we considered how to plan our own international itinerary. We began in Greece, with the dramatic-sounding saganaki: battered and pan-fried kessari cheese drizzled with brandy and flambéed tableside. Our server put out the fire with a squeeze of lemon from a cheesecloth bag, then left us to stack slices on the accompanying pita wedges. The alcohol (in Greece, ouzo is traditionally used) intensified the flavor of the cheese, but unfortunately the dominant notes were saline. Further liberal squeezes of lemon countered the saltiness somewhat, and the texture of the cheese -- soft and creamy, but not gooey, inside; lightly crispy outside -- was excellent.
We also had the shrimp and chorizo cornet, in which the title ingredients were mingled with roasted corn, diced sweet peppers, garlic and scallions in a parmesan-cream sauce, and served in a flaky puff-pastry cornet. When it arrived, the opening of the cornet was closed with a brittle, lacy cracker which tasted like the crispy edges of a grilled-cheese sandwich. Once the cracker was removed, the filling tumbled out as from a cornucopia. The sweetness of the vegetables was a perfect foil for the succulent tiny shrimp (a better choice than pieces of meatier larger shrimp would have been) and savory, subtly spicy crumbled chorizo. The sauce was luxurious but not heavy, allowing the fresh flavors of the ingredients to shine through.
Several salads looked intriguing, in particular the "tomato flower pot" and the Oregon spring salad with smoked salmon and blueberries, but we moved directly on to entrees. Angelique chose the spiced lamb and couscous, in which sliced lamb loin was rubbed with a peppery Moroccan spice mixture, grilled, and served with zucchini, squash and bell peppers -- also grilled -- over curried couscous. The lamb was robustly flavorful, with a pleasing contrast between the tender meat and the exterior crust formed by the grilled-on spices. The zucchini and squash were firm, not mushy as is often the pitfall of these vegetables. The couscous was seasoned just enough that it wasn't bland, but not so much that it competed with the lamb.
In Jason's entrée of veal chasseur, the boneless medallions were buttery-tender beneath a smooth, glossy sauce, a demi-glace intensely flavored with wild mushrooms and, it must be said, a smidgen too much salt. Fingerling potatoes were well cooked in a sauce of their own which was rich and creamy, even slightly stringy with melted cheese. But the potatoes were cut too thick, making for slightly off proportions in each bite. Pan-roasted haricots verts, however, were magnificent, bright green with flavorful browning -- a triumph of freshness and fine cooking technique.
In addition to satisfying food, Mélange features capable, efficient service -- an important consideration for restaurants catering to the Cultural District crowd. Mélange is a restaurant that lives up to its name, serving a lively variety of well-considered international dishes in a sophisticated setting.