Location: 736 Bellefonte St., Shadyside. 412-621-3152
Hours: Tue.-Fri. lunch 11 a.m.-4 p.m., dinner 5-10 p.m.; Sat. lunch noon-4 p.m., dinner 5-11 p.m., tapas only 11 p.m.-midnight.; Sun. brunch from noon, dinner 5-9 p.m.
Prices: Tapas $6-11; tapas flights $12-18; entrees $17-35
Fare: Globally influenced, locally harvested tapas
Atmosphere: Contemporary bistro
Liquor: Full bar
Smoking: None permitted
Like so many of our favorite imported cuisines, tapas were unheard of when we were growing up (mostly on pork chops, spaghetti and burgers). But once we encountered them, we wondered where they had been all our lives. Now, some may decry the use of the word "tapas" outside of the context of authentic Spanish cooking, but we have watched with interest their evolution from Spanish novelty cuisine to household word and general template for "small plates." More than a tradition-bound ethnic culinary custom, tapas have become an opportunity for a chef to explore a plethora of rich, intense flavors that would weary the palate in an entrée, but delight it in just a few bites.
Chef Ronald A. DeLuca Jr., formerly of Blue in the North Hills, has doubled down on this premise. At Pangea (where he is also a co-owner), the menu features not only individual small plates but tapas flights, in which DeLuca groups three variations on a theme. Hummus, for example, is flavored with northern Italian, Greek and Spanish ingredients; seafood cakes are made of lump crab, lobster and Gulf shrimp, and salmon. DeLuca's watchwords are "globally influenced, locally harvested." This broad-brush, international approach to tapas yields a menu filled with enticing options and the opportunity to explore various ways of preparing similar ingredients.
The single-plate tapas serve nicely as starters. Angelique raved about her Elysian Fields lamb tagine, in which bite-size morsels of tender lamb mingled beautifully with sweet potato, chick peas, preserved lemon and mint crème fraiche. Smooth pearls of couscous carried the sweet-savory, earthy, herbal flavors of this dish, which stopped just short of spicy, instead coating the palate with an enjoyable warmth.
Angelique also had a warm brie and strawberry salad over field greens with toasted almonds and a pomegranate vinaigrette. Full of sweet, tart and nutty notes, the salad managed to be both bright and rich at the same time, not an easy feat.
Jason's crab risotto gratin was rich, all right -- frankly, a bit too rich for an appetizer -- but didn't have quite the flavor impact he had hoped for. The intense creaminess of the gratin muted the other flavors, and the risotto was a little too al dente.
A flight of open-face grilled burgers showcased the potential of lamb, turkey and filet mignon in ground, seasoned and garnished form, belying the humble promise of the burger. Each was prepared and served to bring out the best of the meat's native flavor and texture, rather than to disguise the mediocre. The lamb had plenty of fennel and a creamy yogurt raita; the turkey was densely packed and blanketed in mellow Jack cheese; and the filet was hearty and beefy, served on a boursin crostini and topped with an heirloom tomato slice.
Pangea also offers a full selection of entrees very much in line with the complex tapas preparations. Seared sea scallops, for example, come with both asparagus cream and spiced roasted-red-pepper coulis. Jason went old school with cioppino, the classic Italian-American fish stew. Pangea's was boldly flavored with tomato, pepper and onion broth, and the seafood was generously portioned and generally high quality; in particular, the large medallions of halibut were firm, moist and flavorful. While the clams were on the tough side, the only real complaint was the single piece of crostini balanced atop the stew. This big, brothy bowl cried out for the better part of a baguette.
Our meal at Pangea was not quite perfect: The service, like some of the dishes, was a bit too fussy. But the creativity in the kitchen, the quality of the ingredients and the confidence evident in their preparation made for an invigorating dining experience. Chef DeLuca is making small plates the biggest thing in Shadyside.