obligatory obscure reference

self-deprecating yet still self-promotional witty comment


Pittsburgh’s “Culture of Complacency”

Filed under: , The Future Of,Food and Restaurants,Pittsburgh — jet @ 19:35

On the way home tonight I stopped at a PCLB store (state owned liquor and wine but no beer store) to pick up a bottle of cheap sake. Good sake is hard to find here, but at least PLCB stocks Sho Chiku Bai Nigori, a fine table/drinking nigori. The PLCB I stopped at has a history of having “something other than gekkikan”, so I was checking out the good stuff and considering maybe trying a new ginjo or two.

Then I noticed bottles of Sho Chiku Bai Organic Nama Nigori on the shelf.

Yeah, you read that right. “…Nama Nigori on the shelf”. I don’t know that non-refrigerated sake is bad for you, but it’s probably going to taste pretty foul.

What happened next is a wonderful example of what I think of as a culture of complacency.

Me: Excuse me, but there’s a problem with some of your stock.

Manager: What?

Me: This sake. It’s nama sake, it’s unpasteurized, and if it’s not refrigerated it will go bad. It’s probably not safe to drink either, I don’t think spoiled sake is something I’d want to drink.

Manager (showing no interest in looking at the bottle): They ship me stuff, I put it where they tell me.

Me: Right, but they apparently didn’t tell you this needs to go in the fridge.   

Manager (still no interest in looking at the bottle): Look, I told you, they ship me stuff, I put it where they tell me.

Me: Ok, but it even says on the bottle to “keep refrigerated”. If it’s gone bad, or if it’s a health risk, you aren’t going to at least take it off the shelf?

Manager: Nobody’s returned any of it yet.

Me: Well, you just started carrying this. I’ve been living here 3 years, this is the first time I’ve seen nama anywhere in a state store.

Manager: I’m telling you, they ship me stuff, I put it where they tell me. You don’t have to buy it if you don’t want it.

And yes, I’m notifying the PLCB and ACHD including store and date/time of visit…

I’d like to think that if I went to a manager/owner of a privately owned store and said, “hey, one of your products is definitely gone off and might be bad for someone to drink” that their response wouldn’t be “so?”

[tags]complacency, pittsburgh, plcb, sake[/tags]


So you’re thinking of moving to Pittsburgh — Restaurants

Filed under: Food and Restaurants,Pittsburgh,Restaurants,Reviews — jet @ 17:46

[Note: After I started writing this, Mike Madison, author of Pittsblog, wrote a nice piece on Sushi and Pittsburgh 2.0. His point of view is thinking about how to get people to move to Pittsburgh and develop an economy, I’m looking at it from reporting how things are and what to expect if you move/visit here.]

I’ve been told that if I’d moved here 10 years ago, I would have been seriously unhappy about the restaurant selection. While I don’t consider myself a foodie, I am a person that enjoys a wide range of dining choices, fresh food prepared properly, good service, and I don’t mind paying a few extra bucks to get it. Pittsburgh isn’t San Francisco or New York City in terms of range and quality of restaurants, but there are some really great restaurants in Pittsburgh. The trick is learning how to find them, learning whose opinion to trust, and, sadly, having access to a car.

Pittsburgh has benefited from a number of new restaurants opening up in the past decade that cater to both people like me and the real foodies. From the high-end restaurants like Eleven and Soba (owned by the misleadingly named Big Burrito Restaurant Group), Mio, and Willow to less-fancy-but-still-excellent places like Red Room Cafe and Remedy Restaurant and Lounge, Pittsburgh is catching up with other cities in the number and quality of contemporary restaurants.

It’s not as if there weren’t good restaurants here before — Pittsburgh boasts a number of high-end restaurants, many of which have been in operation for decades. The problem is that many of these places have been here for decades and really haven’t changed that much. The fare is often traditional Italian or continental cuisine with good but expected dishes: veal scallopine, fish-of-the-day Oscar, various cuts of steak with sides of potatoes, salads heavy on the dressing, and I think you can probably guess the rest of the menu. I’ve had dinner at Monterey Bay and Grand Concourse and the food was great, the service was excellent and there’s really nothing to complain about. Except that it’s pretty much the same menu that I’ve been looking at for most of my adult life. I think it’s safe to say that if I never had fish-of-the-day Oscar again, it wouldn’t upset me very much.

So what’s different about the newer restaurants and why am I so happy they’re located in Pittsburgh? It’s primarily because they are striking out in areas being ignored by the traditional establishments fixed in the 1960s American Dining Mindset. As an example, Eleven makes an effort to support the Slow Food movement by buying fresh greens and meats from local farmers and as a result their specials will vary with the season. They also create new dishes with ingredients that you might not recognize or that you wouldn’t thought of combining unless you’re a veteran of the original Iron Chef; for example sharp cheddar ice cream served with hot apple pie, or in-house cured lamb bacon served with a green salad. (I know, I know, “lamb bacon”? It is amazingly good, trust me on this.) At the same time, Eleven has a $12 hamburger on the lunch menu that is all the evidence you need for using good beef to make a hamburger.

Unfortunately, if you really want to enjoy the wide range of restaurants in Pittsburgh, you’re going to need a car, or at least a friend with a car. Many of the better restaurants are out in the ‘burbs or in an area of town not well served by the bus. (The taxi infrastructure is effectively non-existent, don’t think you’ll leave a restaurant, go to the curb and hail a taxi.) If you need wheelchair access, call ahead, as Pittsburgh is one of the least-ADA friendly cities I’ve ever lived in. Newer buildings are great, but a lot of restaurants are in older buildings that have never been updated.

Two things that I’m still getting used to are planning ahead for weekends and dealing with smoking. If it’s 2pm on Saturday, you’re probably not going to get a reservation at Soba, Elven, Mio, or any other place that isn’t a 9-10pm seating. You can go hang out in the bar and take your chances on a table opening up, but be prepared to eat at the bar. Which brings up another issue — smoking is still allowed in the bars of restaurants, so if you care about such things, you might want to scope out how far your “non smoking” table is from the smoking area. At Kaya, there’s only a few feet between where people can smoke and the handful of non-smoking tables and at some Mad Mex restaurants the bar is directly beside the non-smoking area with only a counter to divide the two. Things are changing, however, as Eleven and Soba both have smoke-free bars, meaning you can actually go out for a drink in Pittsburgh and not come home smelling like an ash tray.

So if you’re thinking of moving here and you like contemporary continental and American food, you’re in pretty good shape. Some of the restaurants are as expensive as those in SF or NYC, but others are cheaper or have larger portions. If I order a steak, I plan on only being able to eat half of it and using the rest for a sandwich the next day. It’ll take a few trips to various places, but soon you’ll enjoy some of the Pittsburgh friendliness that people talk so much about, the waiters will start to remember your names and you theirs.

Now the bad news.

If you know your sashimi from your nigiri, like your Thai food “Thai hot”, or enjoy a good ceviche as an appetizer instead of nachos, things are a bit bleak.

So-Called “Ethnic” Food

“Ethnic”, and by that I mean anything not European, Eastern European or American, is where things start to go sour. Pittsburgh suffers from a mid-20th Century view of “ethnic” food — bland and Americanized. It’s not that Pittsburghers are stupid or malevolent, they just haven’t benefited from a large immigrant population opening up restaurants and therefore haven’t developed the taste and experience that goes along with a large, diverse, ethnic restaurant scene. The European immigrant cultures that have been here for a century have really done well with their own cuisines with places like Lidia’s and Grand Concourse and the like; but Pittsburghers haven’t been exposed enough to non-European immigrant cultures to understand that there should be a difference between a pirog and a gyoza or that not everything should be smothered in sauce.

I don’t think it’s all in my head, either. Part of what drove me to write this was an amazingly ignorant review of a new Japanese restaurant. The well-meaning reviewers complain about bland agedashi tofu and factually state that udon noodles are made of buckwheat. The thing is, agedashi tofu is a very light dish based on the delicate flavor of tofu and comes with a very light sauce so that you have a chance to taste the tofu. Contrary to the reviewers’ statements, udon noodles are made of wheat, not buckwheat. (It’s soba that are made of buckwheat.) It could be that they knew what they were talking about and the editor introduced these mistakes; in either case, I’d be embarrassed if this was the first restaurant review one of my visiting friends got their hands on. “No, really, not everyone here thinks like that!”

So it should come as no surprise that Nakama Steakhouse and Sushi Bar is regularly voted “best sushi” by Pittsburghers. Truth is, it’s easily some of the worst sushi I’ve ever had, and that includes sketchy, all-you-can-eat sushi places. Nakama is basically a big bar on one side with a lot of hibachi tables on the other and a tiny “sushi bar” in between. If I lived on the south side, it’d probably be a great place to have a beer with friends, but that’s not the same as “best sushi”.

Like Thai food? There’s decent Thai here, but set your expectations low in terms of prices and service. I finally convinced Noodle Hut that I like my food “Thai hot”, but it took a few attempts and explaining that I learned to eat Thai food in California before I got anything reasonably spicy. Bangkok Balcony is pretty good, but there’s often no correlation between the “scale of 1 to 10” and how spicy my food is and they usually up-charge us to call drinks even when we ordered well drinks.

How about Mexican? There’s Mad Mex, a tex-mex chain owned by Big Burrit, with several restaurants spread throughout the area. I like Mad Mex plenty and go there often, but I’ve yet to find a place in town that serves a good mole poblano or fresh ceviche. Mad Mex is great tex-mex, but I also like Mexican cooking based on seafood or good marinades and taco places that make their own tortillas or buy local, fresh tortillas.

But there is hope

There are a handful of good ethnic places if you’re willing to look. Chaya in Squirrel Hill serves some of the freshest sushi and tastiest Japanese food I’ve ever eaten, and I’m including the decade or so I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area when I make that comparison. It’s cramped and BYOB, but I’ll gladly wait in line and BMOB to enjoy their food. Noodle Hut in Regent Square is amazingly tiny with a long wait, their takeout service is amazingly well-organized. Silk Elephant is a Thai tapas place that opened recently, and while it’s pricey, the food is excellent. Across the street from the exceptionally underwhelming Lulu’s on Craig St is the amazingly good Little Asia. We haven’t scoped out all the Indian places yet, but I’ve heard there are some good places outside the city limits and that the same is true for middle eastern cuisine.

A note about service

After living here a couple of years, I am finally beginning to understand what “entitlement culture” means when it comes to customer service in stores and restaurants. We used to eat at Bangkok Balcony on a regular basis, then one evening we were seated for dinner, waited 10 minutes to have our order taken, then have the table next to us get seated, order, and served food and pay their bill before our food even showed up. Twice I had to ask a manager where our food was, and by the end of the evening, we just got a “sorry about that” from the manager. We’ve had similar bad service at a couple of other places and again, only a brief apology, so I don’t think it’s just Bangkok Balcony. I think it’s something in the local culture where customer service isn’t necessary for a business to keep its customers. I’ve never lived in a city before where a manager didn’t at least comp your drinks or something if your waiter severely screwed up your dinner.

The high-end places (Soba, Grand Concourse, etc) have amazing service, and the service in smaller places like Remedy and Point Brugge Cafe is just as good, but upscale is no guarantee of service. At Azul one evening we watched our waitress eat dinner at the bar and chat with her friends, back turned to us, while we waited to order, have our drinks refreshed, etc. The manager (owner?) sat nearby the entire time this was going on, so it’s not as if the waitress was unsupervised. Her boss simply didn’t care about making sure she paid attention to customers.

I don’t know if Pittsburghers simply don’t know what good service and therefore fail to demand it or if they have just grown used to it and are willing to tolerate bad service. Either way, be prepared to make a fuss from time to time and don’t take it too personally. Like I’ve said before, Pittsburghers can be amazingly friendly one-on-one, but in business situations that can easily change. If you’re treated poorly in a restaurant, don’t immediately assume it’s because you’re not from around here or that your skin’s the wrong color, it could just be that the place has extremely bad service.

A few final thoughts…

Pittsburgh has some amazingly good American, Italian and continental restaurants and a handful of equally good ethnic restaurants. Good restaurants are not always easy to find, and you can’t always trust the local reviews and restaurant polls, but as you start making friends, ask them where they go and why they like it. It won’t be long before you start making acquaintance with many of the staff at your favorite places, and they’ll often recommend other places or tell you where they eat and what they order. You can’t put much faith in the way the restaurant looks from the outside or through the window, as there are a lot of restaurants opening in everything from bars to old churches, but that’s part of the fun of exploring, right? Get used to calling ahead for weekend reservations or to find out the BYOB status, scope out the smoking situation in advance, and you’ll have an easy time of things.

We’ve had some wonderful experiences in restaurants since moving here, it just took a little bit of effort and a little risk taking.



Decent sake selection in Pittsburgh? Maybe…

Filed under: Food and Restaurants,Pittsburgh — jet @ 10:04

[EDIT: The answer is now a solid, “NO”. There’s no good sake selection that I can find in PGH. As of Spring 2008, the Monroeville store has a lousy selection of sake. I don’t know if it has anything to do with the change in PLCB CEO or if there was a sake expert at that location who has since left.]

… if you count Monroeville as being in Pittsburgh.

Let’s just get one thing out of the way first: the PLCB and state-owned liquor store monopoly needs to be abolished. I’ve never lived in a state where an outdated bureaucracy was allowed to control so much of what the public consumed. The previous CEO of the PLCB seemed to have an idea of how to change things for the better; but thanks to politics he’s been replaced with an inexperienced person who apparently has no desire to improve the PLCB or even continue the previous CEO’s.

Want people to move to Pittsburgh? Fix the PLCB so I don’t have to apologize or explain to visitors why our liquor laws are so insane, why it is so many of us buy wine while we’re out of state, and why I have to buy a full case of beer if I want something out of the ordinary.

So, anyway, sake in Pittsburgh.

If you’ve been to a Japanese restaurant here in Pittsburgh and ordered “sake” off the menu, you had crap. If it had a brand or adjective beside the name, like “nigori sake” or “geikkeikan sake”, you probably payed way, way too much for average sake. If you went to a burger joint and they only listed “beer” on the menu, would you order a “beer”, or would you demand to know what brand it was. If your choices were, “beer $3, Budweiser Beer $5”, would you think “wow, this Budweiser must be the good stuff?” or would you think, “Uh, what?” (The best sushi restaurant in town is BYOB with per-glass charges and no corkage, clearly they understand the situation…)

For those of us who like sake, our choices have been “drink something else” or “BYOB”. Even BYOB is problematic, as most of the PLCB stores don’t carry decent sake. What’s the point in BYOB if what you’re bringing is still crap sake?

I’ve found an exception, however, the Monroeville PLCB store at the Monroeville Mall. It is not perfect — for example, they occasionally have undated bottles of very expensive sake, so there’s no telling if it’s gone off or not and none of their sake is chilled so you have to figure out how to cool it on the way to the restaurant or plan in advance and keep it in the fridge. On the other hand, this location carries a lot of premium brands at prices similar to what you’d pay in the next state over. If you want to try a good daiginjo or a proper nigori, this is the place to go. They don’t stock nama (unpasteurized) sake, but given the shipping/handling requirements and the short shelf life, I’m not at all surprised.

If they don’t have it there, your other option is apparently special order via the PLCB. I haven’t tried this yet, but I’ve heard from some friends that it’s not too difficult with wine, so it shouldn’t be too difficult with sake.

And if you have no idea what I’m talking about, hop over to True Sake and take a look at their Learn section. The owner, Beau, has also written an excellent book on sake that can be appreciated both by the neophyte and the purported expert. Sake is a beverage I think many Americans would enjoy if they had a chance to buy good sake and drink it under the appropriate conditions.



Review: Karma on 8th

(Update, 2 Feb 2007. Karma on 8th appears to have gone out of business. Really a shame, it was an excellent restaurant.)

I’ve been to Karma on 8th three times now and thought I should write a few words about it as I liked their food and want to see them thrive.

Karma on 8th is not in the nicest looking neighborhood of Homestead, but the owners have put a lot of effort into fixing up both the inside and outside of the building. They’ve put even more effort into assembling a talented kitchen and wait staff and creating a good environment for having a great dinner.

My favorite dishes are the Boursin Crusted Chicken and the Chicken Marsala. Both have the right balances of seasonings and sides and are reason enough to visit on their own. The pasta specials are creative and equal to the regular dishes if you’re looking for something out of the ordinary. The Caesar Salad and Hummus Platter are both excellent and could easily be a meal on their own if you’re looking for something light. The only let-down has been the Cajun Salmon. It was a bit bland and underwhelming — when I see “Cajun” as an adjective for fish I expect spicy and hot. Given that it’s damned near impossible to get anything other than wings “spicy and hot” in this town, including at Thai restaurants, I can’t really hold this against them.

The service at Karma on 8th is excellent. The wait staff manages to be present when needed without fawning or constantly interrupting with pointless questions. Unlike the bartenders at some of the other restaurants in town, the folks here know that a Martini is made with gin and served up by default and not with vodka and served on the rocks.

If you’re looking for a late evening, there is music and drinks after 10 in the upstairs loft where one can kick back in an overstuffed chair and have a conversation without having to shout or jockey for a bar stool.

One other thing to like about Karma on 8th — the restaurant is completely non-smoking. None of this “we allow smoking at the bar which happens to be right next to the non-smoking tables”, either, there is no smoking allowed inside the building. There are now two places in Pittsburgh (the other being Eleven) where one can go for a drink and not come home smelling like an ashtray.

[tags]Karma on 8th, Pittsburgh, restaurant, review[/tags]

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