Introducing the Pittsburgh Quarterly Restaurant Review Board

The region’s top dining experts describe their ultimate dining experience
Illustrations by Stacy Innerst Illustrations by Stacy Innerst
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Pittsburgh Quarterly is happy to introduce a major new food and dining section, featuring Pittsburgh’s leading food experts – a group that for the past 25 years has chosen the region’s best restaurants. We’re honored that they’ve decided to join Pittsburgh Quarterly. And our readers are literally in for a treat as they bring their expertise to these pages. In the first and introductory piece of this new section, we’ve asked our culinary mavens to describe their ultimate dining experience, so that you can get a sense of the breadth of their personalities and preferences. Below are their responses, anonymous because they want the same experience our readers get when they go to a restaurant.

Somewhere on the road from Marbella to Ronda in southern Spain is a small, boutique hotel that has a restaurant on site. It’s half indoor/​half outdoor with a total of eight tables and four teams of wait staff, each dedicated to two tables. Our waiter asked if he should select the fine Spanish wines for our meal (Yes!) adding that “Of course, the Champagne will be French.Dinner is five or six courses, some are single bites like one perfect poached oyster, or three small grilled anchovies, and an entrée of almost impossibly tender lamb. However, the course we still talk about, 10 years later, was the amuse-​bouche of mint-​seasoned sweet pea puree covered with aspic of oxtail. If they had just brought out 10 more of those and nothing else I would have been happy. As the night went on and a chill came up, staff came around and placed pashminas on the shoulders of the women so we could all linger over the after-​dinner drinks a little longer. It was the perfect meal.”

It’s like a perfectly performed orchestra. It must comprise the following qualities: 1) Fresh, unique and quality ingredients; 2) Presentation with intention; 3) Outstanding service; 4) An appropriate setting and ambiance. It’s not always white tablecloth… for example, Gaucho’s dining is appropriate to the menu being served. This includes cleanliness, extending to the bathrooms.”

Here in Pittsburgh, the ultimate dining experience I had was in the wine cellar at Bar Marco when Jamilka Borges was the executive chef. I invited nine women who were trendsetters in the city and treated them to an absolutely delicious dinner of an outstanding tasting menu with paired wines. It hit on all cylinders. It was absolutely magical. The second in Pittsburgh was when I hosted chef Thomas Keller in my house for dinner… terrifying, but it was the ultimate dining experience (with him as guest and me as chef. He was lovely — I was quite nervous).”

When traveling, one of the great adventures in dining is not knowing what you’ll discover. A restaurant on a side street with a hand-​written menu of limited items — the best of today’s market. Being welcomed at the door by an owner, seated at a simple table with plain tableware, fresh flowers and white cloth and napkins. Authentically old casual atmosphere. A waiter who views service as a profession. A dirty martini and a great French Burgundy. Smells from the kitchen. Fresh crusty bread on the table with local butter and sea salt. A well-​paced series of small, coordinated plates. Bite-​sized desserts to sample with a perfect cappuccino. And, of course, being with friends who love the same. (And a driver waiting outside.)”

The setting must be beautiful and comfortable. The menu must be outstanding, seasonal and of ingredients of the best quality. The service must be top-​notch, almost invisible, but attentive. The wines must be memorable. Very importantly, the guests at the meal have to also be special and mean something to you. You have to leave there thinking, ‘wow… that will never happen again.’ ”

The ultimate to me is from the beginning to the end, from entering the dining establishment to exiting — a near-​perfect experience in food, attention, atmosphere and detail. This is almost an impossibility, but in Pittsburgh we have come very close. I’ve been on both sides of the table and in and out of the kitchen. Even though food is the ultimate component for me, here are a few local establishments that come close: Eleven, Twisted Frenchman, Cure, Umi. I am a Gemini through and through so this could change at any moment — in addition, not subtractions, for we are known for our loyalty.”

My preferred atmosphere is casual to slightly upscale atmosphere without being stuffy or unclean. Adequate lighting and a menu of appropriate text size along with low volume, non-​abrasive music that does not contribute to the noise level is ideal. Finally, patrons who speak in reasonably hushed tones and comfortable-​sized tables and chairs with some distance between diners round out my atmosphere preferences. A vocational approach to service resulting in informed, prompt and appropriate interactions and a fairly priced wine list or BYOB, along with the ability to make a reservation, are all desirable.”

My ultimate dining experience would be inviting Italian chef Giuliano Bugialli to my home to cook for my children, grandchildren and best friends. I would love my grandchildren to participate in making the pasta from scratch. The pasta would extrude from the Kitchenaid attachment and wander, to the delight of all hands, around the kitchen island. With Giuliano’s wit and stories, he would convince them how easy and wonderful it is to all create and enjoy good food together. If I closed my eyes I would see my grandmother Hannah smiling down on us. The meal would include caponata, homemade pasta with porcini mushrooms and Parmesan Reggiano, bistecca (filet) and gelato with the chef adding as he pleased. The meal would be accompanied by a great Amarone wine and hearty Tuscan varieties. Each person would take home my usual gift of Sarris Dark Chocolate Pretzels and a wedge of Parmesan Reggiano and, of course, laugh at me. They know I love all of them, Pittsburgh, and terrific food. Sharing delicious food with the ones you love is the ultimate dining experience.”

No matter the cuisine (Thai, Indian, Chinese, Korean, Italian, Portuguese, French), the food should be prepared from high-​quality ingredients with solid, appropriate foundational cooking techniques relevant to the cuisine. Fresh local vegetables are important and, as appropriate, homemade stocks, homemade pastas/​dumplings and inspired fresh fish and meat selections are desirable.”

The setting is a picturesque vineyard which produces high quality, reasonably priced wines. Fresh local flowers adorn an antique inlaid marble table set with local ceramics. There is soft music, natural light with the temperature hovering around 72 and low humidity. The menu is local everything: bruschetta topped with artichokes, blue cheese, olive and parsley; anchovies with local lemons; stuffed and fried zucchini flowers; rocket salad with thinly sliced cured braciole; homemade ricotta stuffed ravioli or pasta a gricia; veal breast perfectly prepared with assorted vegetables including wild chicory, panna cotta and espresso for dessert. Assorted vineyard wines are poured throughout the leisurely three-​hour lunch.”

My ultimate dining experience is eating outdoors on a perfect sunny, breezy day … maybe on a beach in the Mediterranean. I would feast on all fresh ingredients, fruit (watermelon, peaches), seafood (grilled freshly caught fish, shrimp), fresh hearty bread, oily olives and red wine. I have had some wonderful dining experiences like this in Greece and Spain. But I’ve also had some dining experiences like this in the U.S.; for example, I love diving and digging up clams in the Atlantic (using toes to find them) and then having homemade clam chowder with crusty bread on a porch.” “For the ultimate dining experience in Western Pennsylvania, I choose Lautrec. Style of presentation and depth of preparation set the restaurant apart. Excellent service, beautiful selection of china and cutlery to suit each dish, with sweets cart to finish. The best part is it’s only an elevator ride to your room.”

I have had many ‘ultimate’ dining experiences around the world and just when I think I have had the ultimate ultimate, it gets eclipsed by another. The next ultimate experience seems to always be right around the corner.”

PQ Staff

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