Hours: Sun.-Sat. 11 a.m.-1 a.m.
Prices: Starters $8-11; sandwiches $9-12; entrées and pastas $13-25
Fare: European-influenced American
Atmosphere: Who put a sports bar in my dining room?
Liquor: Full bar
Smoking: Designated areas
Soho, the restaurant in the new Springhill Suites hotel across from PNC Park, presents a bit of a conundrum: Its location requires that it cater to game-day fans, yet its most reliable clientele will be guests of the hotel, year-round. It would have been so easy for Soho to opt to become a sports bar or an expense-account-worthy sit-down restaurant. Much more challenging is the path it chose of trying to be both at once.
The space itself manifests Soho's attempts to reconcile its split personality. The moody black-and-blue color scheme, wall-sized mural of New York City fire escapes, and quirky moves like placing three brown chairs and one black one at each table suggest a certain urbane ambition. Unfortunately, this is undercut by the dozen or more flat-screen TVs ringing the enormous central bar, and the over-loud soundtrack of early '90s rock.
In fact, we felt surrounded as much by sound as by visual atmosphere. The night we visited, a game had just begun across the street, and the recently emptied dining room and modestly busy bar could have cultivated a mellow mood. Instead, the blaring music meant we had to shout to each other across the table.
The menu was broad enough to cater to guests of all stripes. The appetizer and sandwich lists offered mostly familiar bar/casual restaurant fare. The entrée selection was more original, consisting of simple, European-influenced options that suggested a kitchen comfortable with focusing on one or two flavors in a dish.
The most interesting starter was a special Buffalo-style pierogies. If it seemed like a marriage of two Pittsburgh stereotypes, at least it wasn't banal. On the contrary, Angelique, usually lukewarm about both pierogies and Buffalo sauce, lapsed into gustatory ecstasy at Soho's combination of the two. She found them to have the perfect balance of potato-cheese filling and firm, doughy dumpling, while the tangy, spicy sauce assured they would not be bland. Plenty of soft, butter-sautéed onions added a welcome note of sweetness. Jason is more of a pierogie purist but was willing to go along with Angelique's contention that this dish should be added to the regular menu.
We also tried Soho's sliders, a plate of four mini cheeseburgers. While the buns and beef were of excellent quality, the burgers were so small as to be a bit dried out, with not enough melted cheese to compensate.
Still in a beefy mood, Jason tried a strip steak, surely a business traveler's favorite. It arrived with lovely criss-crossed grill marks and a beautiful mélange of julienned vegetables beside a mound of mashed potatoes. The carrots, zucchini and squash were crisp and buttery, and the potatoes were creamy and dense. However, the main attraction, the steak itself, was a big letdown. It's said that a great steak is bought, not cooked, but there's no excuse especially at these prices for buying a steak that turns out like this. The beef flavor was mild, overwhelmed by the taste of char that failed to develop the meat's character, and the texture was almost mealy.
Angelique fared better with her entrée, Cosmopolitan Seafood, from a special section of the menu devoted to old-fashioned comfort foods. She's not sure she would classify this dish that way, but no matter; it was delicious, chock-full of succulent shrimp, squid, baby octopus and mussels over al dente linguini. Julienned onions and red and green peppers added garden freshness, while diced tomatoes juiced up the garlic-white wine sauce with their astringent tang. Throughout, a touch of spiciness gave just enough edge to the ingredients' otherwise mild flavors.
We can see Soho becoming a favorite spot for sports fans who want to dine well outside the stadium. Its menu includes some dishes with the real potential to create regulars. As for business travelers who wander downstairs from their hotel rooms, they may find Soho a great place to trade industry secrets. No one will overhear.
Jason: 2 stars
Angelique: 3 stars