Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Casbah and Prantl's, Pittsburgh PA

For our last lunch in Pittsburgh we decided to return to the Big Burrito Group; Eleven was quite good and both Gayot and Pittsburgh Magazine compared the experience at Casbah favorably to that of Big Burrito’s crown jewel. Citing a mix of Mediterranean and Northern African influences with a bargain Piccola Gusto Menu for lunch and the option for indoor or al fresco dining it seemed as if Casbah was a can’t miss option…well, sometimes things don’t turn out quite as you expect – almost everything that transpired from the moment we arrived until the moment we left was a failure.

Taking a step back and trying to be objective - arriving around noon it was evident from the start that Casbah was a “happening” sort of place – power lunches in suits, couples dressed as if they were out for an evening, ladies gossiping and exchanging gifts – the outdoor patio (reminiscent of Spago) was full and the inside just short of packed. With that noted, we had reservations and there were open tables – we were seated promptly by the hostess…and then we waited upward of 7-8 minutes for menus or a staff member to arrive.


When our server, a young woman named Amanda L who would prove quite inept and inefficient from start to finish, finally did arrive our menus were delivered with a brief hello before she wandered away – another server later stopped by to fill our water and drinks were never even offered. When Amanda finally did return she was capable of answering a couple questions about portion size and our orders were placed. With my mom and sister opting for the two-course Gusto lunch and myself choosing two courses a la carte we sat and sipped our water.

Waiting approximately 10 minutes another ancillary server arrived with bread and butter – a light and airy white bread with a hefty crust paired with a sweet and salted cow’s milk butter – decent, but nothing to write home about compared to the myriad bread options at Eleven. After this point we would not see another staff member for 30 minutes…well, we would see them, they just wouldn’t be walking anywhere near our table – instead bussing tables and running around while the hostess flirted with a man at the bar…I’ll note that my water glass remained empty for greater than 15 minutes.

When our first courses did arrive they were not delivered by Amanda but instead by the man who had brought our bread. Left without a description but with a full glass of water we dug in, finally freed from the culinary prison of bread and water. Starting with the soup du jour, ordered by both my mother and sister, Mushroom Soup, ramp pesto, walnuts – earthy and aromatic, some contrast from the walnuts, but actually quite bland and served lukewarm…mom actually considered asking for salt but deferred – I’m not sure if that was because I commented about her blood pressure or because she assumed it would take an hour.

My first selection would prove much better than the soup, but certainly not as nuanced as I’d expected for a dish with so many ingredients. Titled Potato Gnocchi, asparagus, sun-dried tomato, rosemary, greens, braised chicken, Landaff cheese I will first note the dumplings themselves were very nicely done – toothsome but dissolving on the tongue. Tangy and nicely melted the Landaff was a great addition to the plate and served to nicely compliment the gnocchi. Where the dish faltered, unfortunately, was the exact opposite of the soup – the combination of braised chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, and cheese simply overwhelmed the more mild flavors of the other vegetal constituents and spices. A competent dish with great texture and giving me the impetus to look into Landaff the next time I decide to make Macaroni and cheese; it was just too salty.

Finished with our first courses approximately 10 minutes would pass – long enough for me to actively collect each and every plate and stack them at the empty seat of our four-top – before Amanda would finally return to collect the dirty plates…we’d not see her again until 15 minutes later when she filled our water glasses and told us our main courses would be “right out.” While I guess she didn’t define “right out,” what this actually meant was “in 25 minutes.” Starting first with my mother’s combo - Jumbo Lump Crab, pepper bacon, avocado, radish sprouts, on a paesano bun and Orecchiette Pasta with grilled chicken, dried cranberries, Riverview Farms goat cheese, sage cream – all I can note from my single bite of the sandwich was that the bacon was excellent (mom notably liked the sandwich a lot.) While the sandwich may not be memorable, the pasta was actually quite impressive. Using a less salty cheese and mild cream to flavor the al dente little ears of pasta worked wonders while the sweet/savory mélange of craisins and grilled chicken were a nice match.

Vastly less well done than my mother’s plate would be my sister’s option – the Grilled Vegetables, portobello, zucchini, eggplant, arugula, chickpea hummus, on baguette and Maccheretto pasta with wild mushrooms, white beans, sun-dried tomatoes, rapini pesto, fontina, walnuts. Beginning with the sandwich, the bite I had was good in taste but rather mushy in consistency – too many similar vegetable textures and the hummus spread too thickly. Moving on to the pasta – first Erika tasted it. Then I tasted it. Then my mother tasted it. Honestly, to this point I’m still not sure what we were supposed to be tasting – it tasted like watery cheese…no spice, no salt, and certainly nothing resembling pesto or tomatoes. For the first time in the meal Amanda actually opted to check on us approximately 10 minutes into our main courses and when told of the watery pasta she did apologize and offered to replace it with something else – another order of the Orcchiette would prove as good as the first.

For my main course I received a simple side salad – fresh greens, crispy onion strings, and a pleasant vinaigrette. The salad, of course, was served alongside Elysian Fields Lamb “Mac and Cheese”, tubetti pasta, mascarpone, cheddar, Pecorino-Romano, and bread crumbs. Piping hot and browned with crispy bread crumbs the dish was a decent Macaroni and Cheese, but honestly the lamb was so scarce and thinly cut that it added little. Additionally confusing – these “tubetti” pasta…like a macaroni noodle cut in half…personally, I’d have opted for something with more size and body.

Completing our mains approximately 110 minutes after entering Casbah we again waited nearly ten minutes before anyone would stop by to collect dirty plates – a different ancillary server this time. With my mother and sister already deciding enough was enough they stood up to use the restroom before leaving – by the time Amanda would stop by to ask if anyone would care for dessert our two course meal had lasted 2:05 and I skipped on a menu entailing bread pudding, carrot cake, and panna cotta with “just the bill.”


As a man who wears his emotions quite prominently I’ve no doubt I looked pissed at this point – no apology was offered, however. Settling the bill via credit card no tip was left because no tip was deserved – in reality Amanda may have actually be the worst server I've encountered at a fine dining establishment in the last 2 years. I will note that when I wrote to Big Burrito (something I rarely do) I was met by a (seemingly) sincere apology without excuses – the Manager stated things don’t’ normally happen like that and he’d be sure the issue was addressed. He closed with “I hope you will join us again in the future.” I will not.

Driving away from Casbah we set the GPS to the Warhol museum…dessert could be cupcakes at Dozen in the Warhol Café, we figured. Driving though the streets of Pittsburgh up to Walnut Street the GPS alerted us that a programmed destination was close and our plans changed – Prantl’s would be dessert, instead. Ever intrigued by restaurants, shops, bakeries, and cafes that become infamous for a single item (see Haydel’s in NOLA or Patisserie Claude in NYC) I felt it necessary to see if the Burnt Almond Torte lived up to the hype.

Parking at a Premium at this time of day I hopped out while the others circled the block. Entering the small shop and finding no less than 7 people waiting in line I grabbed a number and browsed the selections – 5 full cases ranging from whole cakes to single iced cookies and everything in between. With 5 servers behind the counter the line moved quickly and it would be a matter of minutes before I had to make a decision – opting for three items that spanned a wide range I paid the modest $6 tab and made my way outside.

Opening the string-tied box the smell of cinnamon quickly filled the air announcing to everyone my first selection – a still-slightly-warm Cinnamon roll. Ample, yeasty, and loaded with butter and Cinnamon I quite liked that the pastry was not overly-iced, instead focusing on the more nuanced flavors and natural yeasty flavor of the roll. While my sister contested it would have been better hot (I can’t say I disagree) it was an excellent pasty none the less.

The second selection was ordered more out of tradition than out of necessity – a chocolate cupcake with colorful sugary frosting. Having not yet indulged on a cupcake in our Pittsburgh trip I can’t say this option looked particularly interesting, but tradition is tradition and surprisingly it was actually quite good. Simple white on black cake, moist and sweet – nothing new, but certainly an adequate cupcake for $0.99.

The final choice was obviously the Burnt Almond Torte – a single “Bar” for $3.25. Large and heavy I was expecting to have my mind blown given the reviews all I can say is that the rumors are true. Somewhat Twinkie, somewhat Pound Cake, smooth and complex custard plus whipping cream, and sugar laden almonds cooked to just short of scorched. Crispy, creamy, crispy, creamy - layer upon layer of home style decadence. Sharing the bar around the car (and making a mess) everyone agreed that this was one of the best baked goods we’d ever experienced - and an absolute bargain at that. Really, much like King Cake in NOLA and Pizza in Chicago I can’t imagine going back to Pittsburgh and not getting a slice of Burnt Almond Torte from Prantl’s.

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