Archive | March, 2011

Soba: a Touch of Zen, and Creative Pan-Asian Offerings

29 Mar

After hearing one of our fans mention their positive experience at Soba in Pittsburgh, we thought we’d find out a little more about this dining spot to share with our readers. This review is from Pittsburgh Magazine, which has named Soba “Best Restaurant” and praises its design, selection, and service.

Have any of the rest of you been to Soba? If so, what did you order, and how was your own experience? We always love to hear from local diners like you!

Something About Soba

With a touch of Zen, creative Pan-Asian cuisine and a dedicated staff, this East End dining destination continues to build on its success.

By Valentina

For many of us, Soba is like an old friend. We can rely on this restaurant to be there for us when we want to celebrate a special occasion, meet friends for drinks after work or just have a nice night out. Moreover, who can resist a restaurant self-described like this?: “A dark and sexy Zen garden with sleek acolytes silently attending to its guests, Soba offers a distillation of Asian daydreams grounded in the hearty Earth.” And let’s not forget the food—its Pan-Asian cuisine remains consistently grounded and innovative.

A fixture in the East End for 13 years, Soba continues not only to survive, but also to thrive, despite the ups and downs of the economy.

So what has been the secret of Soba’s success through the years (besides the Zen and daydreams)?

As for the present and future, one promising portent was the appointment of Danielle Cain to executive chef in May. Soba, as you likely know, is part of the locally based big Burrito restaurant group, which has brought us the celebrated restaurants Casbah, Eleven, Kaya, Mad Mex and Umi. As a large restaurant group, big Burrito has the luxury of being able to hire, train and rotate staff between restaurants, nurturing talent into leadership positions.

Cain truly is a product of this system. After finishing culinary school here in Pittsburgh at Pennsylvania Culinary Institute (now Le Cordon Bleu), she did her apprenticeship and was a line cook at Casbah before she was promoted to sous chef. Then she moved to Soba as sous chef. And she spent one year as executive chef at Kaya before returning to Soba in her present role.

Cain talks about a terrific camaraderie among the big Burrito chefs, who dine at each other’s restaurants and share ideas. She has a special affection for Soba because she feels it’s very “communal” in terms of fine dining: Soba customers like to share their dishes and pass them around; the lively bar scene is its own community within the restaurant; and the staff, which includes sous chefs Andrew “Red” Jacobson and Dustin Gardner and pastry chef Shelby Gibson, enjoys a genuine esprit de corps that makes working there fun. All the positive energy in the kitchen, Cain contends, leads to “happy food.”

Asked to comment on how she addresses the need to produce consistent food, Cain is confident in her managerial methods of hiring and maintaining a strong staff, making sure everyone in the kitchen has trained at every station and could trade jobs in a pinch, procuring quality ingredients that are interesting and insisting on the importance of the kitchen staff tasting the food before it is delivered to the customer. Soba’s interior is sleek and dramatic with its two-story waterfall, tiered dining spaces and second-floor deck.

The menu has many old favorites and some new dishes designed by Chef Cain and comprises “Small Plates,” “Soup and Salad,” “Entrees,” “Noodles,” “Sides” and “Wine Features.” There’s also a dessert menu.

For many people, myself included, the “Small Plates” are the best part of the restaurant. Highlights include the Blue Bay mussels ($9)—a dozen or more complemented by a white-wine garlic broth with chunks of spicy Thai sausage and doused with homemade aioli. Other notables are the crispy tofu ($7), which features a large helping of sweet, spicy and crispy cubed tofu tossed with cashews and lemongrass sauce and the fried and salty calamari ($9), which is seasoned with chilies, toasted garlic and an uni emulsion drizzle. Less impressive are the fried pork dumplings ($7), lobster maki ($11) and crab cakes ($11). All of these can be somewhat bland either in flavor or texture.

Among the soups, Thai corn chowder ($7) with crabmeat is always a winner. Although it has varied in texture, cream and spice levels through the years, my most recent tasting amounted to perfection—nicely pureed, a small but ample amount of crab and not too much cream.

An unexpected treat under “Sides” was the house-made pickled vegetables ($3). It turns out that sous chef “Red” Jacobson loves to pickle. The pickled vegetables—beans, cucumbers, cauliflower and carrots—were fresh and crunchy, each with a slightly different accent provided by garlic, orange or onion. Look out for his new batch of kim chi, made in November and currently pickling for release this May.

The chopped salad ($8) is a refreshing mix of papaya, mango, daikon, coconut tempura, cucumber, avocado, iceberg lettuce, mint, basil and cashews with a spicy miso dressing. It’s more like a palate-cleanser than a salad and can be a great intermezzo between courses.

Among the entrees, the beef short ribs ($26) are dreamy—savory and spicy with the meat falling off the bone. Sea scallops ($26) are wok-seared on the outside and soft on the inside with a limey broth; they’re served with seasonal mushrooms, fresh wasabi ponzu, root spinach and udon noodles. The popular seared rare tuna ($27) is a colorful delight. The dish begins with a single large slice of tuna with a bright-pink center and is finished with a sesame crust topped with a generous dose of Korean barbecue sauce. It’s served with a light cucumber and red-onion salad, ginger fried rice and a side of kim chi.

The “Whole boneless crispy bronzini” ($26) came through as promised: fried whole, complete with head and tail, with plenty of fresh white meat. Unfortunately the dish was diminished by a butternut-squash and potato-hash filling that was more mush than hash and did not complement the fish. A boneless pork chop ($22), although attractive, was so salty that I couldn’t eat more than one bite.

A creative dessert menu brings together Asian and American themes. Among four desserts I tried—huckleberry crème brûlée ($7), Soba banana split ($8), chocolate caramel bombe ($8) and a chocolate maki ($6)—the maki was my favorite to look at, and the banana split was my favorite to eat. The maki offers lovely sushi rolls made of chocolate-pistachio crêpes filled with dark-chocolate mousse; they are accompanied by pistachio cream, shaved melon and chocolate sauce—stand-ins for wasabi, ginger and soy sauce, respectively. The banana split comprises three scoops of house-made ice cream—dark chocolate, huckleberry jasmine and black rice—sitting on a fluffy banana cake with a side of brûléed bananas.

When talking about Soba’s success, the bar must be mentioned as an essential component. The dark slate walls and crackling fireplace make it a cozy spot, perfect for chatting and people-watching. (Yes, it’s somewhat light-challenged, but just ask the bar server for a tiny big Burrito flashlight if you need one!)Pacific Rim: Absolut Vanilla, blue curacao, grenadine and pineapple juice. Bangkok Tea: Green-tea infused with Absolut, fresh sours and honey-ginger syrup.

The bar menu—an impressive 16-pages long—includes a full page each of martinis and cocktails ($8-$12), wines by the glass ($8-$16), sakés ($9 carafe to $150 bottle), bottled beer ($4-$17), an extensive menu of wines by the bottle and after-dinner drinks. Looking at the “Small Plates” again as bar food, a nice selection of flavors, textures and temperatures—sweet, fried, spicy, hot—complements whichever beverage you choose.

The kitchen and bar staffs work together to infuse mixed drinks with interesting house-made ingredients—including pickle juice, a delightful component in Red’s Dirty Martini ($10), which, thanks to a recommendation by a server, I decided to try. I discovered a light, dry martini made of cucumber-infused vodka and the pickle juice. What’s more, there’s even a house-made pickle slice floating where you might typically find an olive or twist. Its subtle, vinegary edge was an especially welcome contrast to the richer appetizers. Bangkok Tea ($9.50)—green-tea-infused Absolut, fresh sours mix and homemade honey-ginger syrup, all served in a tall glass over ice—was lightly sweet and refreshing.

You can take it for granted that the service at Soba will be good. The servers here, some of whom have been with big Burrito for years, are competent, well-trained and knowledgeable about the food and drinks. In fact, another factor in this restaurant’s success can be attributed to the emphasis Soba places on the customer. As Ryan Burke, general manager since 2005, explains, the Soba team knows regular customers by name and remembers exactly what and how they like to eat. (No wonder it’s best to make a reservation. You can expect a good turnout any night of the week.)

Although the décor has remained mostly the same through the years, the environment at Soba is still inviting with the sensual water wall, zebra-wood accents, Asian-influenced artwork and more intimate upper floors as well as a second-floor deck, a harbinger of warmer weather ahead.


5847 Ellsworth Ave., Shadyside; 412/362-5656,
Dinner: Sun.-Thurs., 5-10 p.m., Fri.-Sat., 5-11 p.m.
Small Plates: $7-$11
Entrees: $16-$36
Desserts: $6-$8
Full bar, major credit cards, reservations suggested, parking lot next door and off of Fisk Street, wheelchair-accessible, no smoking.

This article appears in the April 2010 issue of Pittsburgh Magazine


Light Roast vs. Dark Roast Coffee: Which Has More Caffeine?

24 Mar

Have you ever wondered how much difference there actually is between light and dark roasted coffee? We have. Take a look at this article from Excelle to get the scoop on what’s in your cup!

Light Roast vs. Dark Roast Coffee: Which Has More Caffeine?

Allison Ford | Divine Caroline
January 18, 2011

Millions of Americans begin each morning with a cup of coffee. Some people are coffee connoisseurs, obsessing over the origin of the bean and the method of brewing while shunning any additives that would adulterate the natural flavor; other people just grab whatever’s available and dump in loads of milk and sugar.

Besides the bean itself, the biggest factors that influence coffee’s flavor, color, and chemical makeup are how it’s roasted, for how long, and at what temperature. Roasting can bring out certain flavors while removing others. It can alter the caffeine content and even change how the coffee affects sensitive stomachs. Contrary to most people’s perception, thick, black coffee isn’t the strongest or most bracing brew. In fact, it may be the kindest, gentlest choice of all.

The Bean Basics
All coffee beans start out green. The roasting process imparts the burnished brown color we all recognize, and it also affects the finished characteristics of the coffee. In general, the less a coffee bean is roasted, the more that bean’s natural flavors will shine through—both the good flavors and the bad ones, which can include bitter, sour, or acidic tastes. Dark roasting covers up the not-so-desirable elements of the bean, but in eliminating the undesirable tastes, it also burns away the chemicals that impart the delicious flavors particular to the bean’s region, soil, and growing climate—the ones that coffee lovers prize so much.

Dark-roast coffee (sometimes called French, Italian, or Viennese roast) is by far the most popular type sold today, owing to the quality of the beans available for purchase. The coffee industry is large, and huge coffee companies generally offer coffee of a much lower quality (the kind available in tins at the supermarket) than what’s available at specialty shops or coffee bars. The manufacturers make up for the inadequacy of their beans by roasting them longer, eliminating the natural flavors in favor of the taste of traditional dark-roasted coffee: sweet and highly caramelized. Much of the hype over dark-roasted coffee is a mere marketing trick to sell subpar beans. Once a bean has been roasted so much, it can be hard to tell a poor-quality bean from a high-quality one. Imagine two steaks: one a tenderloin of Kobe beef, and one a lump of tough shank. If both were cooked beyond well-done, it would be hard to tell the difference between them.

Prepare to See (and be) Green in Pittsburgh!

15 Mar


St. Patrick’s Day falls on Thursday this year, and whether you’re Irish or not, it’s a day full of fun, food, friends – and of course a good Irish stout! So why not make an Irish pub or restaurant one of your stops along the celebratin’ way? Check out the list below (originally published in, and shared here for your Irish planning purposes) and add your own favorites to the list!

Pittsburgh Irish Pubs and Restaurants

Enjoy true Irish food, fun and hospitality at these Pittsburgh Irish pubs and restaurants. Listings include Irish restaurants and pubs from Pittsburgh and surrounding neighborhoods.

1. Mullaney’s Harp & Fiddle

Enjoy good Irish music, food and beer at this true Irish pub with Irish owners. Mullaney’s Harp & Fiddle Irish pub is located in the Pittsburgh Strip District.

2. Finnigan’s Wake

Pittsburgh’s largest Irish pub, Finnigan’s Wake is a popular spot before and after Steelers and Pitt football games and Pirates games due to its North Shore location.

3. Paddy’s Pour House

Paddy’s Pour House, located in Carnegie, is everything a neighborhood Irish bar should be. They have live Gaelic music on Friday and Saturday; a great selection of traditional Irish fare; and a huge assortment of Irish Whiskeys, Irish creams and liquors, and Irish beers on draft. Formerly Sullivan’s Pour House.

4. Piper’s Pub

East Carson Street on the Pittsburgh South Side is home to Piper’s Pub, a comfortable British football (soccer) club with British, Scottish and Irish food and drink. They offer a full menu for brunch, lunch and dinner, plus extensive beer & Scotch lists.

5. Monterey Pub

Located in the historic Mexican War Streets, on Pittsburgh’s Northside, The Monterey Pub is a fun place to relax with a cold beer and good food in a little piece of Ireland in Pittsburgh. They offer a good selection of draught and bottled beers, plus traditional, and not-so-traditional, Irish food.

6. Molly Brannigans

A Pennsylvania chain with three locations – Pittsburgh (Mount Lebanon), Erie, and Harrisburg – the Molly Brannigans Irish pub features interiors designed and assembled by Irish carpenters for a traditional Irish dining experience. You’ll find Guinness, Bass, Smithwick’s, Blue Moon and Boddington’s on tap, plus some traditional Irish and American pub fare.

Working Late? Cook Like a Star Chef!

9 Mar

Clarissa Cruz gives us the scoop on what star chefs make for themselves at the end of a long work day, when all they want is a meal ASAP.  What’s your favorite late-night food?

Working late? Some chefs share their favorite late-night, post-work menus.

Posted by Clarissa Cruz @clarissanyc1
Originally published in
.They helm the kitchens at some of the finest restaurants in the world and have a gaggle of Michelin stars among them. But what do chefs make when they come home late, tired, and starving, and they simply want to get a meal on the table in 10 minutes or less? Hint: Foam is not involved.

Alain Ducasse, Chef at Mix, W Hotel, Viecques. “Pasta with olive oil, tomato paste, olive paste, and pesto. The three are a classic combination of Mediterranean tastes: olive, tomato and basil. No cheese.”

Nate Appleman, Menu development Chef, Chipotle, New York City. “Eggs of some sort. Generally just scrambled eggs, sea salt, and olive oil—that’s my favorite. It’s so quick and easy.”

Francois Payard, Owner, FPB, New York City. “We made beautiful vegetables in the oven just simple like that, with a little rice. A pumpkin, a zucchini, a little olive oil, a little spice and we bake them in the oven. Food doesn’t always have to be complicated.”

Joel Robuchon, Chef, L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Paris.”Spaghetti al dente—six minutes and it’s ready. With a little cheese a little bit of olive oil.”

Brandon Sharp, Executive Chef, Solbar, Calistoga, California. “If you asked me this question 10 years ago, it would be fried bologna, American cheese, barbecue sauce and potato chips wrapped in a tortilla. But now, rice, vegetables and gravy is something that’s really soothing to me whether it’s Thai coconut curry, chili verde or ratatouille.”

Ben Pollinger, Executive Chef, Oceana, New York City. “Grilled cheese. Maybe if I have some kind of leftovers like steak or chicken that my wife and kids ate I might slice them up and put it in there too.”

James Botsacos, Partner/Chef, Molyvos, New York City. “Two eggs over easy seasoned lightly with oregano, granulated garlic, salt and pepper, topped with melted provolone cheese, drizzled with Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce, (a condiment I always have) on either crusty Italian bread or Potato Bread (lightly toasted). Served with an ice cold beer!”

And, saving the best for last—from someone who apparently has a lot of late nights:

Josh Blakely, Chef, Macao Trading Co., New York City. “Lots of sandwiches.  Pastrami and cheese or sardine and mayo are my two favorites.  All four of those things are always in my fridge.

“Egg salad for one: hard boil two eggs, smash, [mix in] mayo, dijon, capers, cornichons, smoked paprika. Ten minutes, and all of those jars are in the door of my fridge all the time. Usually eaten with potato chips.

“Waffles, every conceivable kind.  The classic, but also sweet potato with beef stew, parmesan with chicken salad, corn meal with black beans and Mexican cheese. I’ve made maybe 20-25 different late-night waffles over the years.
“Sausage gravy on biscuits.

“Hot steel-cut oats with fruit, yogurt or milk.

“Soft scrambled eggs with cheese and sausage or bacon or pork chops or chorizo or…whatever leftover cooked meat is in the fridge. Always a winner.

“A quick saute of sliced potato, stinky cheese, and slices of speck or country ham, all in the same little cast iron pan.”

Don’t End Agricultural Subsidies, Fix Them

3 Mar
This article (originally printed in the NYT) addresses the issues that face agricultural subsidies. In Bittman’s opinion, these subsidies have enabled unhealthy products, such as high-fructose corn syrup, and irresponsible agricultural practices, such as factory farming and dwindling family farms, to prosper. Yet, he says, we should not end agricultural subsidies, but rather reform them. Give this article a read, and then tell us what you think.
Opinionator - A Gathering of Opinion From Around the Web

March 1, 2011, 8:53 pm

Don’t End Agricultural Subsidies, Fix Them

By Mark Bittman
On food and all things related.

Agricultural subsidies have helped bring us high-fructose corn syrup, factory farming, fast food, a two-soda-a-day habit and its accompanying obesity, the near-demise of family farms, monoculture and a host of other ills.

Yet — like so many government programs — what subsidies need is not the ax, but reform that moves them forward. Imagine support designed to encourage a resurgence of small- and medium-size farms producing not corn syrup and animal-feed but food we can touch, see, buy and eat — like apples and carrots — while diminishing handouts to agribusiness and its political cronies.

Farm subsidies were created in an attempt to ameliorate the effects of the Great Depression, which makes it ironic that in an era when more Americans are suffering financially than at any time since, these subsidies are mostly going to those who need them least.

That wasn’t the plan, of course. In the 1930s, prices were fixed on a variety of commodities, and some farmers were paid to reduce their crop yields. The program was supported by a tax on processors of food — now there’s a precedent! — and was intended to be temporary. It worked, sort of: prices rose and more farmers survived. But land became concentrated in the hands of fewer farmers, and agribusiness was born, and along with it the sad joke that the government paid farmers for not growing crops.

The farm bill, up for renewal in 2012, includes an agricultural subsidy portion worth up to $30 billion, $5 billion of which is what you might call handouts, direct payments to farmers.

The subsidy-suckers don’t grow the fresh fruits and vegetables that should be dominating our diet. Indeed, if all Americans decided to actually eat the five servings a day of fruits and vegetables that are recommended, they would discover that American agriculture isn’t set up to meet that need. They grow what they’re paid to grow: corn, soy, wheat, cotton and rice.

The first two of these are the pillars for the typical American diet — featuring an unnaturally large consumption of meat, never-before-seen junk food and a bizarre avoidance of plants — as well as the fortunes of Pepsi, Dunkin’ Donuts, KFC and the others that have relied on cheap corn and soy to build their empires of unhealthful food. Over the years, prices of fresh produce have risen, while those of meat, poultry, sweets, fats and oils, and especially soda, have fallen. (Tom Philpott, writing in the environment and food Web site Grist and citing a Tufts University study, reckons that between 1997 and 2005 subsidies saved chicken, pork, beef and HFCS producers roughly $26.5 billion. In the short term, that saved consumers money too — prices for these foods are unjustifiably low — but at what cost to the environment, our food choices and our health?)

Eliminating the $5 billion in direct agricultural payments would level the playing field for farmers who grow non-subsidized crops, but just a bit — perhaps not even noticeably. There would probably be a decrease in the amount of HFCS in the market, in the 10 billion animals we “process” annually, in the ethanol used to fill gas-guzzlers and in the soy from which we chemically extract oil for frying potatoes and chicken. Those are all benefits, which we could compound by taking those billions and using them for things like high-speed rail, fulfilling our promises to public workers, maintaining Pell grants for low-income college students or any other number of worthy, forward-thinking causes.

But let’s not kid ourselves. Although the rage for across-the-board spending cuts doesn’t extend to the public — according to a recent Pew poll, most people want no cuts or even increased spending in major areas — once the $5 billion is gone, it’s not coming back.

That the current system is a joke is barely arguable: wealthy growers are paid even in good years, and may receive drought aid when there’s no drought. It’s become so bizarre that some homeowners lucky enough to have bought land that once grew rice now have subsidized lawns. Fortunes have been paid to Fortune 500 companies and even gentlemen farmers like David Rockefeller.

Thus even House Speaker Boehner calls the bill a “slush fund”; the powerful Iowa Farm Bureau suggests that direct payments end; and Glenn Beck is on the bandwagon. (This last should make you suspicious.) Not surprisingly, many Tea Partiers happily accept subsidies, including Vicky Hartzler (R-MO, $775,000), Stephen Fincher (R-TN, $2.5 million) and Michele Bachmann (R-MN $250,000). No hypocrisy there.

Left and right can perhaps agree that these are payments we don’t need to make. But suppose we use this money to steer our agriculture — and our health — in the right direction. A Gallup poll indicates that most Americans oppose cutting aid to farmers, and presumably they’re not including David Rockefeller or Michele Bachmann in that protected group; we still think of farmers as stewards of the land, and the closer that sentiment is to reality the better off we’ll be.

By making the program more sensible the money could benefit us all. For example, it could:

• Fund research and innovation in sustainable agriculture, so that in the long run we can get the system on track.

• Provide necessary incentives to attract the 100,000 new farmers Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack claims we need.

• Save more farmland from development.

• Provide support for farmers who grow currently unsubsidized fruits, vegetables and beans, while providing incentives for monoculture commodity farmers to convert some of their operations to these more desirable foods.

• Level the playing field so that medium-sized farms — big enough to supply local supermarkets but small enough to care what and how they grow — can become more competitive with agribusiness.

The point is that this money, which is already in the budget, could encourage the development of the kind of agriculture we need, one that prioritizes caring for the land, the people who work it and the people who need the real food that’s grown on it.

We could, of course, finance or even augment the program with new monies, by taking a clue from the ‘30s, when the farm subsidy program began: Let the food giants that have profited so mightily and long from cheap corn and soy — that have not so far been asked to share the pain — pay for it.

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