Location: 5904 Bryant St., Highland Park. 412-361-1921
Hours: Tue.-Sat. noon-9 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $4-10; entrees $12-22
Fare: European, especially Italian and Portuguese, and Indian
Atmosphere: Well-appointed basement: dress up or down
Smoking: None Permitted
Two decades ago, Reynold Fernandes began studying cooking in his native India, at a school a hundred miles from the former Portuguese outpost of Goa. He resumed his training in Miami, including stints on cruise ships, renowned for their culinary spectacle, if not refinement. In the past decade, he has presided over kitchens in Western Pennsylvania, including an ongoing catering business.
Now Fernandes has opened his own full-service restaurant in Highland Park, and he has brought all of these influences to bear. At first glance the menu is a familiar array of Continental dishes, its length and breadth perhaps a holdover from the one-list-fits-all cruise-ship days. But a closer reading reveals an intriguing lean toward Portuguese specialties, while tastes of India both appear in traditional preparations, such as dal, and give a twist to local favorites like crabcakes.
Those Indian crabcakes were the first thing we ordered. We find that curry spices pair wonderfully with seafood, and sweet crab would seem to be a perfect match for the warm, sub-continental seasonings of cumin and cardamom. The cakes were small, as befits an appetizer, and only lightly seasoned themselves. This dish's character came entirely from the spicy chutney of tomatoes, onions and herbs, which tasted fresh and vegetal, with robustly spicy notes.
On the Portuguese side, we had a tapas-like appetizer of chorizo with potatoes. A soaring success, this dish featured chunks of moist redskin potatoes, slices of spicy Portuguese sausage and red onions sautéed just this side of caramelization in a sauce intensely flavored by these ingredients, all of which had been cooked and seasoned to their peaks of flavor. The portion was ample, and we were sorry only that we didn't have more of the wonderful garlic toasts, thin slabs of bread which retained their crispness despite being thoroughly saturated with butter.
Buoyed by the excellence of the Portuguese appetizer, Jason ordered fish with Portuguese sauce. The sauce was chunky, like a ragú, composed of onions, tomatoes, bits of sausage and spices. Despite all those assertive ingredients, the overall effect was restrained. Indeed, the downfall of the dish proved to be the pairing with the mahi mahi that Jason ordered: The thick, relatively bland fish was out of proportion to the delicate sauce and overcooked to boot, so that it offered little complementary flavor of its own. In hindsight, Jason thought that tilapia -- also an option -- would have been more compatible with the fine sauce, and when Fernandes visited our table to inquire about our meal, Jason mentioned this to him. The chef agreed, making us wonder why he wouldn't simply put the best pairing on the menu, permitting diners to substitute upon request.
Angelique chose to further explore the Indian aspect of Fernandes's repertoire. She began with sambahr, a southern Indian soup of lentils and vegetables. At other establishments, we've been served cups of it alongside dosas and developed a taste for its broth, roundly flavored with curry leaves and other southeast Asian spices, which also infuse the chopped vegetables within. This sambahr was different: thicker, like a lentil porridge, with vegetables pureed or mashed in for a fairly uniform texture. Lightly seasoned, it so resembled dal that Angelique wondered how the dal on the menu differed. She soon found out: Though similar in texture to the sambahr, it lacked the soup's liveliness of flavor, tasting bland and one-dimensional. Raita, an Indian salad of cucumbers and yogurt, was packed with plenty of fresh, juicy tomatoes and onions as well as cukes, but had an unfamiliar sweet taste, attributed to sour cream, which overpowered the yogurt's characteristic tang.
Reynold's on Bryant's menu lists many Italian and other offerings. But, in hewing to the Indian and Portuguese specialties which make that menu unique, we did not try them. Perhaps, if we had, we would have been more satisfied with our meal. Fernandes' best efforts show that his decades of experience and international perspective can yield bold, distinctive results. We hope Fernandes will learn to trust himself -- and his diners -- with a smaller menu and bigger flavors.