Location: 1015 Forbes Ave., Uptown. 412-396-3550
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-1 a.m.; Sun. Noon-11 p.m.
Prices: Appetizers $6-13; sandwiches $8-10; entrees $13-22
Fare: Contemporary American
Atmosphere: College contemporary
Liquor: Full bar
Smoking: None permitted
The Red Ring is a brand-new dining offering from Duquesne University. Though this fact suggests many a joke based on the near-universal experience of bad student dining, Duquesne has done an admirable job of avoiding college dining-hall clichés, and we will follow suit.
Located in Duquesne's new Power Center, on Forbes Avenue, The Red Ring is part of the school's laudable effort to come down from its high and mighty Bluff, engaging its Uptown neighborhood with restaurants and retail accessible to town and gown alike. In the Power Center itself, the restaurant's neighbors include a healthy, quick-dining establishment and a Barnes & Noble.
Though run by the same food-service conglomerate that operates dining halls and catering concerns on this and other campuses, The Red Ring -- named after the iconic school ring, with its D-adorned ruby -- distinguishes itself from other university dining options by being an actual restaurant, and a nice one at that. The dining room is spacious and contemporary. Curvy half-walls and other partition devices break up the space, creating more intimate zones -- some with deep booths, others with warm wood tables and chairs -- within what might otherwise feel like, well, a great big dining hall. In place of cafeteria-style food lines, there is table service. In place of soda machines, there is a handsome fieldstone bar.
There is also a menu of contemporary American cuisine to rival many of the newer Downtown and North Shore restaurants that have popped up in the past few years. We were impressed that the kitchen, which probably could have satisfied its intended clientele with ordinary pub grub and pasta, chose instead to treat its customers to a thoughtful selection of internationally inflected classics like chipotle barbecue pork tenderloin and blackened chicken alfredo. Artisanal touches like a side dish of "chef's grains" complete the picture; all that seems missing are meats from name-checked producers.
A steak quesadilla appetizer was excellent. Tender steak with good charred flavor was sandwiched in a toasted tortilla with cheese, chunky salsa, sour cream and scallions -- just enough of each.
We also ordered an entrée, Three Rivers Tapas, as a starter. A large platter beautifully arrayed with four types of seafood made a favorable impression, one that was mostly borne out by the food itself. Angelique liked the crab cake's extra-crispy breading exterior, but Jason duly noted the too-bready interior. Seared tuna on Asian slaw was an excellent version of a modern classic, with almost-sweet ruby-red fish and pungent wasabi. A pair of fat scallops could have used a bit more sear, but were nonetheless well-cooked, and matched well with the aforementioned grains, a pleasant range of large and small, tender and firm. The only real letdown were three shrimp in barbecue sauce: The flesh was too soft and the sauce too mild -- not quite sweet or hot -- to really succeed.
Angelique sampled The Red Ring's version of mac 'n' cheese, one of those lowly comfort foods that have recently broken out of the diner rut and onto the menus of white-tablecloth restaurants. No fewer than seven cheeses were melted together with twisty gemelli pasta and served with a cooked tomato, two rounds of fried pancetta, and a browned mixture of breadcrumbs and more cheese on top. The effect was irresistibly creamy, crispy, salty, sweet and tangy all at once. If this dish were a college student and we were its professors, we would say it had realized its potential.
Jason's Woodlands Chicken was also perfectly executed: a large, moist breast reposed juicily on a bed of grains, coated by a mild, savory sauce and surrounded by sliced sweet bell peppers, red and pearl onions, and an earthy assortment of crimini, shiitake and portabella mushrooms. The beauty of this dish was in the harmony of its many tastes and textures.
A dining companion's pulled-pork sandwich was good -- the flavor featured some pleasant vinegar notes -- but, as is too often the case, the meat was too soft, without the crusty bits that make the best pulled pork so enjoyable.
A flatbread pizza proved to be our one reminder of college-style dining, having a soft crust and a sauce overwhelmed by the harsh flavors of dried herbs. At least the cheese was thick and creamy.
The Red Ring isn't just an exciting new option for Duquesne students; it's a legitimate addition to Pittsburgh's grown-up dining scene. It could, in fact, pose a challenge to restaurateurs across the city: If the people best known for breakfast strata and chicken a la king can produce food like this, why are entrepreneurs still offering the same tired dishes that make all too many restaurants feel old on their first day?