Hours: Breakfast 7-11 a.m.; lunch 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; dinner 4-11 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $10-12, entrees $11-25
Fare: Continental, Filipino and Fusion
Atmosphere: Southeast Asian elegance
Liquor: BYOB; full bar pending
Over the past few years, we have watched with fascination as the South Side Works has transformed from a vast expanse of barren earth -- the former site, of course, of the extinguished J&L Steel plant -- to a brightly built-up "retail and entertainment district." And since a big part of entertainment is eating out, we have been watching -- and sampling -- the emerging restaurant mix especially closely. So far, we've determined that South Side Works shoppers and movie-goers have been offered a carefully market-researched choice of chains. The menus, prices and quality might vary, but one thing you can count on is a commitment to brand identity.
It was refreshing, then, to note that South Side Works' newest restaurant, Priscilla Dining in Art, is clearly the product of a more personal vision. Priscilla St. Mary, who co-owns the restaurant with her sister Guia Posadas, brings to the enterprise her experience as personal chef for celebrities and society types (including Pittsburgh's own Hillmans), as well as in restaurants in other cities. But what struck us most resoundingly was the sisters' visible commitment to their concept of "dining in art." An interior arcade creates intimate spaces without compromising a sense of spaciousness, and seemingly every square inch of the apricot-sponged walls is adorned with paintings or sculptures, most if not all from the owners' native Philippines. Meanwhile, the staff is accommodating and professional, not to mention numerous. The overall effect is of a gracious restaurant in some tropical former colony, combining a bit of Old World refinement with a certain exuberance.
The menu shares this character, with Filipino dishes and East-West fusion fare tantalizing the palate alongside standard steaks and Italian and French classics. We began exploring this dichotomy with a very Continental lobster bisque with white truffles and fresco eggroll vegetariano con crespo.
The soup was extraordinarily rich, with a thick, velvety texture beneath a generous dollop of truffle cream. Unfortunately, the flavor was dominated by salt; whether due to the inherent brininess of the lobster or a heavy dose in the kitchen, we couldn't tell.
The eggroll featured a perfect rice crepe wrapper, a delicate membrane enclosing a bouquet of still-crunchy sautéed vegetables, all served over a bed of toasted vermicelli. The unseasoned vegetables had a mild flavor of their own which cried out to be dipped in the accompanying garlic-peanut butter sauce.
Intrigued by Priscilla's unorthodox combinations, Jason ordered osso bucco Toscana with seafood paella. Clearly, the goal of this pairing was contrast: the veal shank was draped in a dark, thick sauce with a roasted flavor, very different from the bright mix of fresher flavors that characterizes paella. Unfortunately, we experienced a contrast in quality as well. While the meat was tender, succulent and finely seasoned, the seafood in the paella was uniformly dehydrated and flavorless. The rice managed to be simultaneously dry and mushy, as if it had been cooked more than once, and the only seasoning seemed to come from a drizzle of what appeared to be marinara sauce on top. Even setting aside regional and personal variations on this flexible dish, this was an unappealing paella.
Happily, Angelique fared much better with a preparation "from the 7,107 Sea Islands of the Philippines": whole Atlantic squid sautéed in garlic butter and scallions. As far as we know, no one else in these parts offers whole squid, and we applaud Priscilla for demonstrating that there is more to this mollusk than fried calamari. A squid the size of an evening bag was as tender as promised, and the garlic and scallions gently flavored the mild flesh without overwhelming its unique character.
The enticing dessert menu was severely abridged on the night we were there. We settled on a rustic berry tart that was still chilled from the cooler, rendering the should-have-been-flaky pastry shell chewy and tough.
Priscilla's inventive décor and welcoming staff prepared us for a refined alternative to the corporate-controlled dining at neighboring South Side Works venues. But while being at Priscilla's was a pleasure, eating there was a variable experience of delicacy followed by disappointment topped off by delicacy again. Perhaps with focus and commitment to the best it has to offer, Priscilla's dining can live up to the promise of its art.
Jason: 2 stars
Angelique: 2.5 stars