Square Café | Restaurant Reviews | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
Location: 1137 South Braddock Ave., Regent Square. 412-244-8002
Hours: Breakfast and lunch Tue.-Sat. 7 a.m.-3 p.m., Sun. 8 a.m.-3 p.m.; dinner Fri. and Sat. 5-10 p.m.
Prices: Soups, salads, and appetizers $4-11; entrees $18-26
Fare: Modern American
Atmosphere: Fine diner
Liquor: BYOB

Square Café has a dual personality -- family diner by day, sophisticated bistro by (weekend) night -- and neither of them is really square.

The storefront space is playful yet sophisticated, with white floors and walls set off by citrus-colored polka dots. During the breakfast and lunch hours, '50s-styled tables of chrome and linoleum give the place a retro edge, but they dress for dinner in white linen cloths and candlelight. The menu changes weekly to offer executive chef William Shepard plenty of opportunity to demonstrate his approach to modern American cuisine.

It's an approach that succeeds through equal measures inventiveness and restraint. Not only does so-called American cuisine lack a tradition of tried-and-true recipes to guide it, its vitality is in creatively combining ingredients to come up with dishes that defy tradition. This freewheeling fusion style can result in absurd concoctions almost as often as brilliant ones, but Shepard knows when to fold 'em, as the song goes. His expertise is in serving up standard preparations -- grilled vegetables, sautéed fish -- with fresh combinations of flavors like feta and beans or lemon butter and pine nuts.

We whetted our appetites on a honey-wheat quesadilla and a starter portion of shrimp Normandy. In the latter, succulent sautéed shrimp are dressed in a seemingly unusual pairing of citrus with bleu cheese and cream. The combination is delicious, the bright lemon-lime cutting the richness of the cream sauce, the bleu cheese adding its distinctive sweet-sour notes. After the shrimp were gone, we asked for more bread to mop up the plate.

The quesadilla represented the best potential of fusion cooking, raising a simple Mexican sandwich to new heights of delicacy and sophistication. A large tortilla was toasted crisp and folded around a mixture of squash, zucchini, red peppers, onion and mushrooms, each grilled to its perfect point of flavor release. Gently melted goat cheese served as a rich binder for the vegetables' intricate blend of sweet, tangy and earthy tastes, adding a tart note of its own, while pine nuts provided crunch, and sour cream and salsa on the side stretched the balance of richness and freshness even further.

It is worth noting that the quesadilla could serve as a meal in itself, because our entrees suggested that smaller plates may yet be Square Café's forte. Jason's New York strip steak was well cooked, well seasoned and well proportioned -- a manageable 12 ounces rather than a massive 16 -- but gristly edges belied the menu's boast of hand-cutting. The horseradish mashed potatoes were spectacularly, majestically horseradishy; even the salted and peppered steak cowered before its astringent power. To Shepard's credit, his mixed vegetables presented the first Brussels sprouts Jason has ever liked, joined by late-season summer squash and savory bacon in a buttery toss.

Like the shrimp Normandy, Angelique's blackened Atlantic salmon in lemongrass cream sauce featured a strong seafood complemented by an interplay of light and heavy ingredients. The fish was moist and tasty within its delicately blackened crust, while the sauce was simultaneously sweet, sour and salty. With the charred surface of the salmon contributing a subtly bitter note, the combination stimulated every taste bud on our tongues. But despite this vibrancy of flavor, we found this dish less than completely satisfying. It seemed to lack a dominant note to unify the disparate tastes and contain them within one theme.

Square Cafe's desserts are not made in-house, but they are tempting nonetheless. We shared a tall slice of New York cheesecake, which was fluffy on the tongue but sufficiently dense on the fork. A seasonal latte -- pumpkin, gingerbread or gingersnap -- rounded out the repast.

We were left with the impression that Square Café's outstanding breakfasts and lunches (pumpkin walnut waffles! salmon BLT!) outshine its dinners, especially for the price. But morning, noon or night, the place has an attractive knack for combining the comfortable feel of an everyday hangout with the elegance of a special-occasion restaurant. And with fare that is always a notch above the ordinary, we cannot deny that it's hip to be square.

Jason: 3 stars
Angelique: 3 stars

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