The Hungover Gourmet


Restaurant ReviewsCafe Allegro (1200 Block of Carson Street, Pittsburgh, PA)

I think everyone has a restaurant that they prefer for special occasions. When I lived near Philly it was inevtiablythe Knave of Hearts on South Street. There they could take something simple as a Sunday Brunch and turn it into a lengthy, luxurious, gastronomical outing thanks to their omelettes, crepes, and unique takes on old standards like Eggs Benedict. (Frankly, this restaurant and its chefs are largely responsible for the latter stages of my dining worldview and the culinary interests that would emerge later in my life.)

I've been in Pittsburgh for a few years now, and we've come up with a very short list of favorite restaurants to celebrate grand events. There's Tessaro's (Liberty Ave. in Bloomfield) and Cafe Allegro on the city's renowned South Side. Me? I prefer the dark atmosphere of the former, with a menu heavy on grilled animal flesh and the best hamburgers you've had the good fortune to sink your teeth into (in fact, they're named one of the "Best Places in America to Have a Hamburger" according to the book Hamburger Heaven).

My better half digs the friendly, Knave-like surroundings of the latter, a family-affair voted the city's "Best Overall Restaurant" the last five years running. Since we were celebrating Kak's birthday she twisted my arm for a return engagement to Allegro's.

We celebrated her birthday there last year as well, though we made some classic rookie mistakes: we drank too much before arriving, ate too much bread before the appetizers, and had too much wine with our meal. I think I put on 10 lbs. that night which I'm still trying to lose.

With last year fresh in our minds, we went into the meal looking to pace ourselves accordingly. With Kak on call, tying on a big ol' load wasn't an option and we settled on a glass of the house Cabernet for her, Yuengling Porter for yours truly. (For those unfamiliar with it, Vitamin Y is easily my favorite beer of all-time, a standard when celebrating the summer solstice, seeing a band at the Khyber, or chasing down a sandwich at the local tavern.)

Ironically we were seated at the same exact table as last year (upstairs dining room next to the fireplace) and were waited upon by John, the same waiter from our first visit. Were it not for the 15 lbs. I've packed on since July of 1996 the scene would be eeirely familiar.

While looking over the summer menu -- plus the day's special attractions -- we munched on some bread and a Seafood Paté, which I think is just a highbrow name for a cream cheese dip made with minced shrimp, crabmeat, and a little salmon judging from its pinkish-orange hue.

Having committed last year's choices to memory I steered clear of anything with vaguely the same ingredients and selected a bowl of Shrimp Bisque (about $4) for starters, and Kak did likewise. Creamy and peppery, the orange-tinged bisque came adorned with a single, large, cool shrimp in the middle of the bowl. Mine was a tad hard to cut with a soup spoon, but that's a small complaint considering the smooth texture and spicy flavor.

Kak passed on a second course and contented herself with the black olives that accompanied my salad of Fresh Tomatoes with Mozzarella ($5). If you ask me, nothing says "summer" quite like a fresh juicy tomato plucked off the vine, and our own garden is just starting to fruit as I write this in late July. The salad mixes its few ingredients perfectly, layering half-dollar sized slices of fresh mozzarella (creamy and chewy without any of the grainy stringiness found in your storebought variety) between 1/4" slices of juicy red and orange tomatoes served next to a bed of red leaf lettuce, all topped with fresh ground pepper and a not-overpowering vinaigrette. A light and tasty course that has already made its way into my kitchen.

Selecting a main entree was a difficult taskn considering dishes of veal, tuna steak, salmon, and lamb highlighted the well-wounded menu. Kak decided on Chicken Breasts Stuffed with Spinach and Cheese Served in Citrus Sauce ($19). Some folks don't like fruit with their meat or poultry, but it's never bothered me. In fact, one of my favorite Knave dishes was a Roasted Cornish Game Hen with Black Cherry Sauce. Out of this world! In tonight's case the citrus sauce was a bit intrusive, masking the taste of the spinach and cheese stuffing more than I'd have liked.

On the other hand, my Grilled Lamb Medallions with Eggplant and Cheese Gratin ($23) was nothing short of spectacular. Grilled to perfection on the outside, pink and juicy on the inside, the lamb was tender, never chewy, and seemed to melt like butter when I sank my teeth into it. The gratin featured a healthy slice of roasted eggplant as its base, topped by a piping hot, lightly-crusted cheese mixture. I'd gladly have eaten a bowl of this heavenly gratin and thanked them for it.

Despite my best intentions to resist the urge to gourge I finished off with coffee and a generous slice of Raspberry Torte ($5) while Kak could barely make it through half a Chocolate Brulee which she described as eating chocolate pudding ($5).

In all a perfectly satisfying dining experience topped by some wonderful, idea-sparking food.

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