Restaurant Reviews: Cornerstone, Frescos, and New Amsterdam

I’ve fallen a little behind with the restaurant reviews again, but I kinda like the rapid fire format anyway. Once the year ends and our dining cards expire, Dana and I are planning to cook for ourselves on Fridays rather than eat out, so at that point I’ll probably go back to the single review format. Or I might do it with the next place we go to. Who can say?!?!?!

Anyway, I’m about to make history on this blog with my first ever negative review. As a general rule, I’m relatively easy to please but difficult to impress, and I think that’s reflected in previously posted reviews. Over 14 reviews, the average score has been just under an 8, with a low of 6.5 for two restaurants. Only two places thus far have earned a 9,  and Gaucho stands alone in perfection. While I do take things like service, ambiance, presentation, and creativity/ambition into consideration, to put it bluntly, what really matters is the quality and cost of the food.

Unfortunately, Cornerstone was a colossal disappointment for me on both fronts. Dana liked her roasted beet salad and loved her tomato and goat cheese soup, but my duck breast just didn’t do anything for me. Maybe I was spoiled from enjoying the best duck of my life at the cooking class I attended (on which I haven’t forgotten promising a post), but this offering was overcooked, bland, and rather small for the $25 price tag. The braised greens were tasteless mush, and the maple arbol chili glaze barely imparted any flavor to the dish. The sweet potato puree was good, but I could have done that at home myself with minimal effort. It’s tough to remember the last time I was so underwhelmed by a meal. I’m usually willing to give any restaurant a second chance unless it was a complete disaster, but with so many other establishments in the queue, I’d be surprised if I ever return. Rating: 3/10

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We took a break from the dining cards because I noticed a Groupon to Frescos, where Ben, Abbott House Adventurer Emeritus, recently took a job as sous chef. (Technically, I think he works at their sister banquet facility next store, the Chadwick. Six of one, etc.) Since they’re in the neighborhood, we’d planned to pay his lovely wife Annie and their daughter Lil’ Jim Opal a visit afterwards. While that didn’t pan out, dinner was worth the trip out to Wexford on its own. The Groupon gave us $40 to spend, so we started with the parmesan zucchini fries, which came with a fantastic tomato cheddar fondue dip. I would have loved to try the duck tenderloin skewers, but the zucchini fries was a worthy alternative. And hey, just a reason to go back, right? Dana opted for another roasted beet salad and the roasted veggie flatbread (which, of course, I tried and liked), while I ordered the pork ribeye. My pork was delicious and perfectly cooked; the blackberry pomegranate cilantro sauce really popped, and I will never say no to sweet potatoes. As much as I enjoyed it, I caught a glimpse of the braised short ribs at someone else’s table on our way out and felt a pang of longing. Next time. Rating: 8.5/10

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Last but not least, our most recent dining experience in Pittsburgh was at New Amsterdam. On another dining card and with apps half-off during happy hour, Dana and I both got our own. She loved her cauliflower nuggets, served with curry mayo. I got the chicken tenders with the “honey” habanero “sauce”. The scare quotes are merited, trust me. It was straight capsaicin. I’m reasonably certain I have never had anything hotter, and I’ve tried suicide or atomic wings at a few different places. I was quite literally on the verge of tears and sucking down both my and Dana’s waters through the numb, useless flaps that had once been my lips. (Yes, I know water doesn’t help. Shut up.) Utterly defeated, I flagged down our waitress and asked for their garlic butter sauce. Once I’d recovered, I added sriracha to it and enjoyed the rest of my chicken. For an entree, Dana had the tofu tacos – another win in her book – and I got the Jamaican burger. I didn’t get much of the jerk seasoning flavor, but the house salsa and mango marmalade were really tasty, and the burger itself was one of the better ones I’ve had. It came with sweet potato fries that were thicker than any I’d ever seen before. They didn’t reheat very well as a result, but it was an interesting change of pace from the usual. Rating: 8.5/10

Depending on what Dana wants to do, we’ll either have a comprehensive post on our recent trip to Cleveland, or I’ll review the two restaurants we visited in a separate post.

This week on Abbott Street…

I have a whole bunch of post ideas, but when I sat down this morning I didn’t feel like writing any of them. Figures, right? We’ll blame it on the long week.

Kyle and I have been really working on that whole “self care” thing. Meditation is tough – but the benefits are so crazy. He read 10% Happier this week and I’m hoping to start it today. I also went to an awesome self-care seminar with the lovely ladies of East End Eden. We had some awesome discussions about how little things – dancing, deep breathing, affirmations, gratitude – make all the difference in day to day happiness and contentment. I think it was a reminder I needed. It’s so easy to let these things fall by the wayside as life picks up speed.

I’ve started experimenting a little with essential oils – I think I’m going to bite the bullet and buy some. I rubbed some lavender on my wrists at the seminar and STILL smelled like it the next day. But as I was having a pretty stressful day at work, I think it definitely helped. I have a little bottle of peppermint I’ve been using too. I maybe had one too many pumpkin beers last night and woke up with some pain in my temples. I rubbed a little peppermint oil on them and it was gone in 15 minutes! So that’s cool.

Speaking of pumpkin beer, we had an all out pumpkin party last night. It included two cases of pumpkin beer, two types of pumpkin snickerdoodles, pumpkin rolls, pumpkin marshmallows, and I made this apple cider pumpkin cake. Should’ve taken a damn picture. We also carved pumpkins, of course!

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My friend and former blogging partner (for those of you who followed AnythingButRanch) Nick came down from New Castle! His pumpkin is the first one. My friend Jess gave me the idea of making my own pattern. I have no idea why this thought never occurred to me before. A full post on this to come, because it was so fun I’m all ready to do it again. I made a Bugs Bunny pumpkin, because my Looney Tones obsession has been in full swing since going to see Bugs Bunny at the Symphony  (fellow fans – this is a must see! it was amazing!).

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And of course carving pumpkins = roasted pumpkin seeds! So. Many. Pumpkin Seeds. But I think with some googling and trial and error, I have finally found the perfect way to roast them! The key is patience (isn’t it with everything). Post on that to come as well.

In addition to carving Bugs, I’ve been trying to learn to draw Looney Tunes characters. I’m really just trying to get back into drawing period. Again, it requires a lot of patience. But it’s definitely something I enjoy and it’s a good party trick ;)

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Speaking of things I enjoy, today is World Hoop Day! And since my back is finally not sprained I’ve been hooping it up :) I’m off to go do a little more of that. Happy Saturday!

Project: Baby Shower Bookcase

Baby showers have a reputation for being dry, estrogen filled events, where gender roles from decades ago are meticulously upheld. Now I’ve been to one baby shower – and I actually had a lot of fun (possibly because I need female only events every once in a while to balance out living with three guys). But my friend Eva and I decided that one traditional baby shower wasn’t good enough for our friend Annie, so we planned another.

Originally, we were going to have an actual party. The logistics weren’t quite feasible though, so we switched course and focused more on the gift. I sent a Facebook message to all our closest friends with a request to buy their favorite book as a kid to give to Opal, so she could start off with her own little library.

I found an inexpensive bookcase on Amazon. Unsurprisingly – it was easier to put together than any piece of furniture I have ever bought from Ikea. Unfortunately it was laminate. For those of you who don’t know (because I sure as heck didn’t), paint doesn’t stick to laminate. So I laid out a tarp on the front porch and sanded the whole damn thing. Then repainted it with white wall paint.

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[My dad builds furniture in his spare time and I really felt like his daughter in this moment]

Next, I was actually able to get to the fun part of painting. I picked up glow in the dark acrylic paint (and pointedly did not buy girly colors – because 1, babies are unnecessarily gendered from the moment they’re born, and 2, I secretly want Opal to have the same favorite colors as me).

My friend Jess, who can draw some amazing things, came over to help me paint. And after a few hours it looked like this:

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Jess and I went with completely opposite styles – hers is much more realistic and mine is all about nonsense shapes and patterns. The contrast really adds to the finished product. We even painted the shelves.

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Once we filled it with books, it was absolutely perfect. We even got to deliver it to Annie on her birthday! And somehow I managed to not spill the beans about it ahead of time.

I really think Opal’s going to love it.

Oh, and glow in the dark acrylic paint? Actually glows in the dark. Really well.

Thanks so much to everyone who participated!!!

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Restaurant Review: Rapid Fire Edition, Part 2

If you missed Friday’s post…well, you don’t actually have to read it. But you should! Otherwise my feelings might be a little hurt.

I’ll wait.

 

 

…Okay! Here are the other five capsule reviews, as promised.

Mercurio’s

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While most of the pizza shops in Pittsburgh are pretty lousy, there are some quality pies to be found here, and Mercurio’s is definitely one of them. After splitting a good but not great pesto pistachio flatbread for our appetizer, Dana and I got the bianca and prosciutto pizzas, respectively. Wood-fired pizza is just so far beyond any other kind. I do the best I can at home with an oven that maxes out at 500 degrees, but you simply can’t achieve this kind of crust at anything below 800. As much as I wanted to keep eating my pizza, I knew I needed to save room for gelato, and I’m glad I did. A medium grants you up to three flavor choices, so I went with the tiramisu, vanilla caramel cashew, and dulce de leche, all of which were fantastic. Shadyside isn’t exactly my favorite neighborhood, but you can bet I’ll be visiting here again soon. Rating: 9/10

Piper’s Pub

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Another neighborhood I’m not overly fond of is the South Side. Since I’m not much of a drinker anymore, this makes sense. But amongst the never-ending stretch of shitty dive bars, there are some good places to eat. Again, Dana and I needed to each get an appetizer to hit the $30 dining card minimum, so she got the artichoke red pepper hummus, and I opted for Piper’s version of French onion soup. Both were quite good, although I prefer a non-Stilton cheese. For the main course, I decided on the chorizo mac and cheese, which I enjoyed, but ultimately I regretted not going a little more British Isles and trying the lamb and smoked chestnut or the Guinness stew. Dana’s order was even less British than mine – a Thai chili seitan wrap. I didn’t see bread pudding on the menu, sadly. It wouldn’t have mattered though, because in addition to being quite full, we had to rush to the hospital to meet baby Opal (AKA Lil’ Jim). Rating: 7.5/10

The Porch

For many years, I refused on principle to eat here or at any of the food kiosks that sprang up in Schenley Plaza when I was an undergrad. This is because I viewed them as the direct cause of the demise of Scotty’s cart. Scotty was an incredibly nice, funny dude in his fifties who grilled fantastic barbecued chicken and sausage sandwiches outside of Hillman Library, right across the street from the plaza. The sandwiches were three or four bucks, and usually he’d throw you a free drink, whether you were a regular or not. While he apparently didn’t have express legal permission to grill in that spot, he’d been there more than a decade when I arrived at Pitt as a freshman in 2005. But just a month (and a dozen or so chicken sandwiches) into my first semester, suddenly the Man could no longer look the other way, and Scotty was forced out. The kiosks were open a few months later. This is what is known as “not a coincidence”.

Nonetheless, scars do fade, and armed with another dining card, I let go of my grudge and ate at The Porch. To start, we got the cast iron cornbread and an order of crispy taters, both excellent. The potatoes were served with a delightful curried ketchup. I never use ketchup anymore, but this stuff was different. Unable to decide between the Porch burger and the prime rib sandwich, I asked our server for his thoughts, and took his recommendation of the former. While it was a tasty burger, I didn’t find it terribly impressive given its $16 price tag. Dana had the veggie burger, which she liked a lot. Scotty, wherever you are – this place ain’t got shit on you. Rating: 7.5/10

Round Corner Cantina

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I’d only been here once before our double date with Alyssa and Brian, and that was just for drinks the night of Dana’s departmental graduation ceremony. A cursory glance at Yelp reviews told me to expect solid, albeit overpriced, food and lousy service. Fortunately, we got only the former, as our server was capable. After getting the chips with all three types of salsa they offer (two of which were middling at best – not a great return on nine bucks), I had an order of brisket tacos. They were decent, but nothing exciting. Perhaps the lamb barbacoa, which I strongly considered, would have been more satisfying. On the whole, I feel like this is one of those notorious “more popular than it has any right to be” Pittsburgh establishments. Rating: 6.5/10

Tin Front Cafe

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Cam had promised to take us to brunch many moons ago, and we finally got around to going toward the end of the summer, on what ended up being a double date with him and Jess. Tin Front has a buffet brunch for 13 bucks wherein you receive an entree and access to a small buffet, which included breakfast potatoes, mini muffins, and a few other items. I ended up going with mac and cheese for my main dish (good, not mind blowing), and ate my weight in potatoes and corn muffins (both amazing), with a mimosa to wash it all down. I also tried a bit of Dana’s Bloody Mary, made with habanero-cilantro infused vodka, and reconfirmed that I fucking hate Bloody Marys. Dana forced everyone at the table to help her finish her banana Nutella French toast, which makes her just the worst. Rating: 7.5/10

Zoo Diares: Rascalisms

Now that we’ve gotten some updates about me and Kyle out of the way, let’s move on to a more important topic: What has Rascal been up to?!

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This puppy seems to get more affectionate everyday. Since the new cat, Shrek, has arrived, I’ve been noticing how well he and the other cats interact. Don’t get me wrong, he still tries to hump them at least once a day and bothers them when they’re sleeping, but on the whole they get along so well. They clean each other’s ears, and Godiva and him still play-fight constantly.

Shrek and Rascal are slowly building their relationship. Shrek is terrified of Rascal, but also loves to terrify Rascal by running at him, swatting, and running away. Rascal is scared of Shrek, but also really wants to play with him. Some days he just stands there and barks at him. On Friday Shrek meowed loudly at Rascal, and Rascal jumped into my lap.

But back to that affectionate thing. Rascal wasn’t a cuddlier until about 6 months. We maybe kind of forced it on him. Now, I fall asleep most nights with him pressed against my shins. He’s also a bed hog and sleeps as soundly as Kyle. So when I get up in the middle of the night to pee and he takes my spot in the bed, I literally have to pick him up and move him. But sleepy Rascal is best Rascal so it’s kind of okay.

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Rascal has also taken to sleeping under the covers- but only after 5 a.m. or so. He nudges me awake and I let him in because I’m a pushover. On Friday morning he mistook my t-shirt for the covers, got stuck in my shirt, freaked out and scratched the shit out of me as I tried to get him out. I was so mad when it happened, but now just thinking about it makes me laugh.

He is the epitome of a lap dog. Even when lap is occupied, he wants to be in it. One day last week he managed to nudge himself under my laptop. He has finally stopped trying to fight belly rubs (we used to get nibbled if he willingly rolled over) and enjoys between the eye pets as well.

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After that time Rascal ate a whole pack of gum, we started putting a little more effort into his training. Dog training is such a bizarre thing to me. Mostly because I’ve never had a dog, I’m sure. Rascal usually gets the concept withing the first 10-15 minutes. But it then takes another ~2 months for him to do it consistently. So just now are we really seeing the returns of what we started in July.

I also never realized how much of dog training was practical training. Potty training, obviously. But commands like “off” (to stop leaning on the counter/ jumping on someone), “leave it,” and “stay” come in handy pretty much every day. My other favorite command is a tongue click to keep him moving when we’re on a walk, because he’s a curious pup and wants to stop and smell everything. We’re slowly starting the process of teaching him to be off the leash. We’ve only taken a few test runs, but so far so good.

All is well in the world of Rascal.

We might be a little obsessed with him. Don’t tell anyone, k?

Restaurant Review: Rapid Fire Edition, Part 1

Hi, everybody! (Hi, Dr. Nick!)

As Dana already covered, we pretty much abandoned the blog this summer in the interest of spending as much time as possible outside. No regrets there. However, we have been to a bunch of restaurants in the last couple of months that I’ve meant to post reviews for, since we decided a while back to make Friday our “dinner date” night. I figured it would be easiest to do a capsule on all of them in one post. Then I decided to milk it for all it was worth split it into two posts, because it was getting long. I expect to return to the usual format going forward (beginning with tonight’s visit to Cornerstone), but here are short and sweet critiques of five different restaurants in the Burgh, with five more coming in my next post.

Blue Dust

In order to reach the $30 minimum to use our discount from City Dining Cards, Dana and I got separate appetizers – though, as usual, I helped her finish hers off. After all, can’t review what I haven’t tried, right? (Really I’m just a glutton). The red bean dip had a nice flavor (I detected a good amount of curry, among other spices), but the texture was a little too mushy for me. I mean, it’s bean dip, but still. My smoked drumsticks could have used some sauce – they weren’t bad by any means, just a bit bland. For entrees, Dana went with the caramelized walnut salad (goat cheese, red onion, arugula, balsamic vinaigrette), while I opted for the Hot Italian sandwich. Dana loved her salad. My sandwich was decent, but I regretted not going with the brisket instead, and I found the salsa that came with the side of chips to be massively disappointing. Service was good, and when it turned out that Dana’s app was half off during happy hour and brought us below the $30 threshold, they took the discount card anyway. Rating: 6.5/10

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Stop me if you’ve heard this before: To hit the $30 minimum, Dana and I got separate apps – bean dip for her and wings for me. This time it was a white bean dip, which Dana liked but I found kind of gross. My honey sriracha wings were tasty, though. They were a bit small, but there were eight instead of the half-dozen specified in the menu, so it probably came out in the wash. Because we are clearly old people (cf. opening sentence of this capsule), Dana and I ordered the same thing for dinner…well, sort of. She got the vegetarian version of the banh mi sandwich, while I got the pulled pork, because this is America. I forgot to ask for mine without aioli (aioli is something that I always find more appealing in theory than practice), but I liked the sandwich a lot anyway. Except for the part where I managed to get three jalapeños – a strange addition to a banh mi, frankly – in a single bite and nearly died. That sucked more than the bean dip. But everything else was good. Rating: 8/10

Double Wide Grill

Dana and I had been here several times already, but with my brother bringing his family out for a weekend in Pittsburgh (a visit long-awaited and eagerly anticipated by yours truly), I realized that there is a startling lack of non-chain restaurants with kids’ menu in our area. Double Wide was one of the few places I could think of that could accommodate Chris’s carnivore diet, Dana’s vegetarianism, and my nieces’ innate, insatiable lust for chicken fingers and macaroni n’ cheese. Perhaps recalling my earlier error at Blue Dust, I went with the brisket sandwich with sweet potato fries, while Dana enjoyed her usual vegan pulled pork. I’m not as big of a fan of the Memphis sauce (used for beef and chicken) as the Carolina (pork), but that didn’t keep me from inhaling my sandwich – the level of hunger that can be achieved when you spend the day trying to keep up with little girls is astounding.  The fam all seemed to enjoy their food as well. We finished the meal by sharing a slice of chocolate peanut butter pie. Rating: 8/10

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Fiori’s Pizzaria

As I’ve mentioned previously, I have a high standard when it comes to pizza that most joints in this city don’t come anywhere close to satisfying, but this place is always mentioned in discussions of the best pizza in the city, and was vouched for by a native New Yorker. As was the case with Slice on Broadway back in May, I went with my buddy Ryan, after we attended an awesome cooking class (a birthday present to me from Dana, and one which I will further discuss in a future post). Noticing that roasted red peppers were a normal topping, rather than a double-priced deluxe like at most other pizza shops, we decided to get a pie with those and capicola. Our girlfriends, who were spending the day hooping, asked us to bring them one with onions (like Dana, Eva doesn’t eat meat). I’m pleased to report that Fiori’s lived up to the hype. Rating: 9/10

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Gaucho Parilla Argentina

I’ve been here four times since Ryan introduced me to it in the spring, and that is not enough, because this is bar none my favorite restaurant in the city. I quit the job I had in the Strip District before they opened last winter, which is probably a good thing on the whole, because I would have been broke and morbidly obese from eating lunch there every motherfucking day. A filet mignon sandwich? On really good bread (a rarity in Pittsburgh)? With roasted red peppers and sauteed onions? And chimichurri? With three other bomb-ass sauces (ajo, cebolla, and pimentón) freely available on the counter? For 12 bucks? Fuck and yes to all of that. As a bonus, unlike a lot of restaurants, there is a palpable sense that the employees enjoy their work and are having fun. How many other places have you seen with a cumulative five-star Yelp rating after 200+ reviews? I haven’t even tried any of their other stuff, apart from the roasted potatoes (which are excellent, but the sandwich is so filling that you don’t need to order anything else). It’s not because I don’t want to; it all sounds amazing. I just can’t pass up the filet. On my next visit, I should probably get something else to go. I should probably get everything else to go. This place fucking rules. Rating: ∞/10

Enjoy the weekend! Ours is looking pretty busy, so the second part of this post probably won’t be up until Monday at the earliest. But hey, at least we’re posting again.

Ground Cherry Cake

I’ve gotten a lot of weird things in my CSA box this summer. Mostly good weird. Watermelon radishes, kolkrabi, romanesco… the list goes on. This past week’s week veggie was this thing called ground cherries.groundcherryhusk groundcherryI think of them as a cross between a tomatillio, a cherry tomato, and a berry. They taste as weird as they sound, but in a good way…I think. Ground cherry coffee cake came up in the first results of my recipe search. I haven’t done nearly enough baking with produce this summer so I figured I’d jump on it.

It’s a pretty basic coffee cake recipe, complete with crunchy topping. There aren’t any weird ingredients besides the ground cherries. Butter is cut into the flour sugar mixture as it is in scones and biscuits. The ground cherries require no prep besides washing – you just plop them on top of the cake batter and then cover them with the crunchy topping mixture.

The cake was a big hit here on Abbott Street. We had a bunch of friends stop by as it was coming out of the oven. We all proceeded to crowd in the kitchen, eating slices from pan to paper towel to mouth.

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Original Recipe from The Kitchn

I halved it since I didn’t have a whole lot of ground cherries. This allows the cake to fit in a 8 X 4 bread pan. I used an almond milk/ apple cider vinegar mix for the buttermilk, and replaced the chopped pecan pieces with pepitas and almonds.

Enjoy! This recipe will make your house smell like snickerdoodles!