Yes, the annual food festival that we call “WQED presents PITTSBURGH Magazine’s BEST RESTAURANTS PARTY” was held at the Convention Center this past Monday night, and for anyone who enjoys eating, it’s always an adventure, an experiment and a chance to taste things you might not otherwise order off a menu. I see from the WQED official wrap-up that there were 70 restaurants and some 2200 hungry people. This was the 20th annual party. It’s been held for the past several years at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center right beside the Allegheny River. The sweeping roof of the convention center is an awesome and interesting addition to the skyline (or streetscape — or whatever you call that part of the city that’s not really sticking up into the skyline) on that side of downtown Pittsburgh.
Once you get in, up the escalators to the Convention Center main floors, it’s a beautiful and interesting building, certified green and all that, and having this event on the concourse under the glass ceiling is striking and beautiful, but I have to say: this is not an easy or welcoming building. It’s hard to figure out how you get in, where you get in, and there is little — if any — helpful signage. If you don’t get a parking space in the building (as I didn’t at 5:55 when some guy was waving all cars past the parking entrance, pointing at the LEASES ONLY sign) then you have to park at least a block away. When you get back to the center, it’s confusing. Where’s the front door? You enter through what-feels-like the basement, and I know, after many visits, I still often assume I just haven’t yet found the real way to get into the place.
Now I think it’s great that the G20 meeting is coming to town in September, but I shudder to think about foreigners trying to figure out the idiosyncrasies of this weird and unfriendly Convention Center. Enough rant.
The food is what matters, and as usual, it was interesting, often delicious and plentiful.
In the photo to the left here, I think that’s pork tenderloin with ginger and scallions on the woman’s tray (very nice, from Willow, I believe) and the picture at the top of the blog was maybe smoked trout (from the Hyeholde?) if my memory serves me well. I hope the restaurants get a lot of business from a sampler evening like this because they all put on a delicious good show.
This guy is Jesse Seagar from Point Brugge Café in Point Breeze, a great spot for mussels and fries and some of the world’s best beers. He and his cohorts were handing out tasty little shrimp salads on swanky crackers.
Can you ever get enough shrimp? These little pink boys (above) were cooked and served inside a clever little envelope of eggplant. All of them from Sesame Inn. I’m impressed.
There are some restaurants that I know well, some I’ve been to a time or two, and others that I know nothing about, like the relatively new Dinette in East Liberty where these folks in the black aprons work. He’s giving me the “You’re that guy who makes those programs” point, and she’s gonna faint because I’m her favorite Pittsburgh celebrity or something like that. Their salad was good. I want to check that place out. I also tried the excellent crispy rice (above, with shrimp too, I believe) from Bangcock Balcony. Pittsburgh food tastes especially good when you’ve got a sturdy old railroad bridge as a backdrop. And it’s not just food, there’s drink too. I stopped to get some Boyd & Blair vodka (made from potatoes just up the Allegheny and across the river in Glenshaw!) Potent and Pittsburgh-y. One of the guys who started this vodka company, a guy named Prentiss Orr, is in my show called STUFF THAT’S GONE, and he’s also behind the big book of Pittsburghers titled PITTSBURGH BORN PITTSBURGH BRED that was put together for the 250th anniversary of our town last year.
OK. So, one of my favorite things at this event was the little Vietnamese sandwich called a banh mi (or here banh mai) with pork belly prepared by Kevin Sousa who’s getting ready to open a new restaurant in Garfield called Salt Of The Earth.
Thanks to my foodie friend Paula (see Getting HOUSES Ready) who reads Kevin’s blog regularly, I’ve been to several of Sousa’s “secret” dinners at the site of his new place, and he’s cooked some wonderfully interesting and eclectic food there. Many courses. Served at long tables where you sit with people you may have never met before. Good times.
Because those “secret” dinners are like family affairs, I know this smiling woman (above) is Kevin’s wife and the tall guy is one of his right-hand men. Can’t wait for the new place to open. (Kevin is assembling more banh mi, hidden behind his wife in the photo.)
One of the downsides of BEST RESTAURANTS is you end up standing most of the time, balancing drinks and little plates and assorted plastic silverware as best you can. I took this guy’s picture because he had the fortitide to do all that with a sling on! “You’ve been here before,” I said, “and knew you had to come with or without sling.” “No,” he told me, “it’s my first time, but I’m loving it.”
There’s obviously a lively social scene at this food festival too, and lots of folks from WQED come out to attend this event. The man with the impressive play-off beard (Go Pens!) is our CFO Steve Reubi. He wanted me to take his picture.
And then I ran into screenwriter/professor/filmmaker/Pittsburgh-booster Carl Kurlander who I now know could play the young Bilbo Baggins. I can’t remember what we were tasting there. A soup?
Over Memorial Day weekend, I took my crew up to the Rachel Carson Homestead for their Sustainable Feast event, and we met and interviewed Trevett Hooper from Legume as he was handing out beautiful little plates of ricotta cheese topped with purply beets and lentils. He’s being honored here at BEST RESTAURANTS (and in this month’s Pittsburgh magazine) as Chef Of The Year! His dish tonight is lamb rillettes on slices of baguette, and it’s excellent, flavorful and meaty, a great bite or two.
Also at that Rachel Carson event (which will be featured in our new program called RIGHT BESIDE THE RIVER) we interviewed Bill Fuller, the Executive Chef from Big Burrito, the group of local restaurants that includes Mad Mex, Kaya, Casbah, Umi and Eleven, among others. He’s always bright and funny and opinionated.
I say he should have his own TV show. His reaction to that? “Hook me up.” I was parched as I passed by the Mad Mex table and was glad that they still had a few margueritas to pass out. (I think they made Bill a couple of special BIG ones.)
Not enough of the chefs had their toques on, but this lively lady who was handing out spoonfuls of roast ox tail (from the award-winning Toast, I think) didn’t leave her hat at home. The ox-tail was good, but I wish it were spicier. Zingier.
All evening long I kept seeing friends and familiar faces from Yum Wok (AKA Lulu’s Noodles), one of our regular lunch spots along Craig Street, not far from WQED. All the Yum Wok folks wore these dramatic black t-shirts that had Lulu’s emblazoned on them, and everybody told me they were at the one end of the concourse, and I kept working my way that way, but by the time I got there, they were boxing up and getting ready to leave. But David Chen and Ping and all the lovely waitresses agreed to pose for a picture or two with me (I’m happy to be in the way back.)
I will have to stop at Lulu’s soon for more Asian Greens with shrimp (made spicy spicy), my favorite thing there right now.
As the evening wound down, and restaurants started giving away the last of their samples, I met this crazy couple, Tom and Brandi Patterson, who brought a digital photo booth to the party tonight. It’s a cool concept. It’s a booth that folds up, but it’s like those old booths (think Penny Arcade at Kennywood or in a train station or maybe still in the basement of the Warhol) where you got 4 almost-instant-but-not-polaroid pictures on a strip. But I think this “shutter booth” as they call it is all up-to-date and state-of-the-art and equipped with high-quality printer, and Brandi asked if I would get my picture taken with them. Sure. We quickly decided to do a progression of expressions from solemn to wild and crazy: no smile, then slight smile, then big smile, then goofy! It’s a very cool machine. I think a fun way to get a photo souvenir of an event like this, and the bottom of the strip included the logo for the night. Brilliant.
I haven’t mentioned how hot it got to be in the Convention Center concourse. The setting sun through the glass warmed everything up, and I was carrying my blazer for most of the evening.
I was often thirsty. And the drinks tended to be at the two ends (although the Mad Mex margueritas were about halfway along the concourse.) At the eastern end of the hall, across from where Lulu’s had been, I stopped at the table with the interesting bright blue bottles. It’s Bluecoat, a gin made in Philadelphia, and I liked it. Like Boyd and Blair vodka (at the other end of the event) they proudly proclaim that they’re the first distillery in Pennsylvania since Prohibition.
The woman who was extolling the virtues of the stuff was Meredith Maciolek, and she poured me a shot over ice. Very nice. She poured me a second one. Better yet. This could be my drink for the summer. Martinis with Philadelphia gin. Who’d a thunk it? Discovering new stuff, new tastes, new ideas. That’s why I love BEST RESTAURANTS.
Last Friday we learned that WQED has sold Pittsburgh Magazine, the traditional sponsor of this BEST RESTAURANTS event, and I’m not sure if or how WQED will be involved in coming years. I’ll still want to be there.