December 15, 2008

One-Bite Review: Dinette is Awesome

It didn't take very long to get comfortable at Dinette, a very new restaurant in East Liberty. In fact, it took until the first sip of wine -- my first-ever, to my knowledge, of a Dolcetto di Dogliani (an Italian from Piedmont) -- to be perfectly cozy.

My wife's wine, a Toscana Zingari, was unlike any wine I've ever smelled or tasted. I'm fairly terrible at describing wines, and I also feel particularly pretentious trying to do so, so the most I'll say is that the Dogliani was a light red, fruity but not sweet in the least. I could have had 3 more. The Zingari had a dominant plum flavor, and wasn't something that could be consumed as quickly as the Dogliani. Aside from being astounded by the smell, my wife was initially unsure what to think about it, but by the last elbow tilt she pretty much loved it. Based on my two sips, I believe she was right.

Dinette on Urbanspoon

The reason I'm spending a paragraph on the wine is because it's apparent pretty quickly -- from a glance at the menu or the first bites of an appetizer -- that this eatery believes in the idea that every single drop or herb or bit of protein that goes into a customer's mouth is important. And considering that no bottle (all of which are available by the glass or bottle) is over $44, considerable effort must be expended looking for affordable but exceptional wines.

"Fresh" is also a key theme at Dinette. Our fritto misto -- a small plate of lightly fried veg, of which ours included onions, sweet potato, portabello mushroom, and sage leaves -- case in point. Thin, airy, and crisp, with no need for a dipping sauce or even a squeeze of lemon to improve the flavor. The beef carpaccio, delicate and super-thin layers of beef (top sirloin, is what I believe we were told) dressed with shaved fontina, little shreddlings of radicchio, hazelnuts, and a bare drizzle of a sherrye vinaigrette, was even better. Going back and forth between bites of appetizer and swigs of wine, my wife and I agreed that -- had we not another obligation -- we could have easily hunkered down for the evening.

[The second glasses of wine to accompany our entrees, see below, were (mine) a Nero d'Avola-Cabernet blend, and (wife) Cotes du Roussillon. Both excellent.]

The stars of the menu are the pizzas. And, as my daily checks of the menu for the last week or so suggest, while they appear to stay fairly consistent in terms of the theme ingredients for each pizza, each day can bring little variations.

We got two pizzas. Pizza 1: fontina, walnuts, carmelized onions (the sweetest I've ever tasted), and escarole. Pizza 2: brussel sprouts (sliced), grilled leeks, fresh mozzarella.

The crust was not as heavily charred as what you might get from a brick-oven pizza in Brooklyn, but with a little char on the nicely raised crust, a great chew, and a superb blend of toppings that elevated each pie. My wife preferred the brussel sprout pizza. I thought they were both great. However, if I had to eat just one of them -- that is, the entire thing -- the brussel sprout would probably be the choice, because I could see the sweetness of the onions on the fontina pie becoming a little overpowering after the third piece.

Although the menu says the pizzas are for one, they are a good size. Two appetizers (I'm really hoping the romesco grilled wings happen to be on the menu the next time we go -- they were not on the next day's menu!), one pizza, and a bottle would be a sumptious meal for many couples.

The interior: The entire front is composed of huge windows. Lots of stainless steel, including the tables, with orange chairs and accents. An L-shaped bar hugs the petite kitchen, meaning bar sitters can pretty much see everything being prepared.

It felt like the Jetsons meet Ikea, and it works very well. And right in the heart of the reviving East Liberty -- just around the corner from Whole Foods, next to a huge Borders, and with the Red Room twin bill, cafe and lounge, visible from the large windows on the restaurant's back side -- the foot traffic should be helpful.

A few other side notes. The chef/owner, Pittsburgh-native Sonja Finn, did a stint at the fairly famous Zuni Cafe in San Francisco. Based on my limited forays with recipes from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook, the influence is pretty strong. Fresh ingredients, the frequent use of nuts, the focus on simplicity, among other things, really stand out.

Also, we had the pleasure of sitting next to the chef/owner's boyfriend (I coveted his romesco wings before we began talking to him!), and the decision to open Dinette in Pittsburgh, he said, was actually a competition between our beloved city, Raleigh/Durham, and San Francisco. Glad we won!

Finally, Dinette is also notable because of its focus on eco-friendly, sustainable practices, such as energy efficient equipment, lots of recycling and composting, and a heavy reliance on local/organic ingredients.

All in all, a great addition to the Pittsburgh dining scene. May it flourish for years to come.

NOTE: Image taken from Dinette Web site... because the pictures from my cell look like they're shot through night-vision goggles.

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