Location: 212 Sixth St., Downtown. 412-434-1422
Hours: Lunch Mon.-Fri. 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; dinner Mon.-Sat. 5 p.m.-1 a.m.
Prices: Appetizers and salads $7-12; entrees $18-30
Fare: French fusion
Atmosphere: Tastefully trendy
Liquor: Full bar
Smoking: None permitted
We'll let you in on a little secret: We're not really qualified to do this job.
Now, that doesn't mean that we don't know what we're eating. It just means that there are no formal qualifications to being a food reviewer -- no license to employ adjectives in the service of gastronomical depiction, nor post-graduate Studies in Salad Dressing.
That used to be the case for chefs, as well. Most chefs, whether short order or executive, developed their craft through old-fashioned apprenticeship, learning by doing. Over the last few decades, with the proliferation of high quality restaurants, cooking schools like our own Pennsylvania Culinary Institute have supplied the more typical credentials of budding chefs.
Ryan Racicot, the young executive chef at Palate, bucks that trend. Having first learned to cook from his grandmothers as a teen-ager, Racicot went on to work in kitchens from Pennsylvania to Nevada before returning to Pittsburgh. He was executive chef at Trilogy (owned by CP's parent company) when he caught the attention of Palate proprietor John Valentine, and the two have become partners in one of Downtown's most distinctive and desirable dining destinations.
The restaurant was bustling, even on a weeknight; we recommend reservations for one of the candlelit, white-clothed tables. Not having taken our own advice, we enjoyed our meal in the comfortable lounge on a mezzanine overlooking the main dining floor. The food is French heavily inflected with Italian, Mediterranean and American. The menu's vocabulary alone made us wonder whether CCAC has a course for us after all. What, we wondered, is a galette? (Answer: a cake.) And gnudi? (Sort of like gnocchi, but without potatoes.) And although the individual words made sense, we stretched our imaginations to comprehend the ingredient listed as "candied walnut dust."
We ordered the sheep's milk ricotta gnudi as an appetizer. Smooth, round orbs weren't smooth within -- the slightly crumbly ricotta gave them more of the character of cheeseballs than of gnocchi. And while the menu identified this dish by the gnudi, the two jumbo shrimp at the center made a big impression. Tying things together, a brothy cherry tomato sauce added rich flavor without being heavy or overpowering. Small strips of meaty-crispy pancetta and juicy halves of cherry tomato completed this varied, yet cohesive, success.
Racicot's signature dish, tuna tartare, was a perfectly formed puck of sweet yellowfin tuna mixed with juicy cucumber and topped with a dollop of chickpea puree. Jason thought the earthy flavor of the chickpeas overwhelmed the oceanic tang of the fish, but Angelique liked the textural contrast of grainy chickpeas and silken tuna. Middle Eastern notes extended to the finishing of the dish; instead of the predictable soy vinaigrette, Palate's was based on harissa, a Tunisian red chili sauce. On the plate next to, but not on, the tuna, a comma of tangy, creamy yogurt made for an optional dressing.
With seafood duly represented by our starters, we turned to meat for entrees. Jason chose "naturally raised" veal strip loin, wrapped in Wisconsin bacon. The rosy medallions of meat were succulent, if a bit scant, and the bacon, like the pancetta above, was wonderfully both meaty and crispy. Polenta cake was superb, still soft and moist within, but just crisped on the outside. Unfortunately, the baby bok choy tasted a bit harsh alongside these other, milder flavors, and the sauce Madeira was jus-thin and hardly noticeable.
Angelique chose short rib ragout over wide, flat paparadelle noodles made just up Penn Avenue in the Strip. The meat was falling-apart tender; delicate strands of it clung to the pasta, and the sauce was a deceptively simple one of jus and gremolata, an Italian sauce of parsely, garlic and grated lemon peel which Racicot borrowed from its traditional partner of osso bucco and jazzed up with horseradish. The result was a subtle symphony of bright, hearty, piquant and herbal flavors which suffused every bite.
For dessert, we were treated to one of the best cheesecakes we've ever had (and we've had quite a few). Ethereally creamy, authentically cheesy and dense without being heavy, it was served with a mint sauce whose lively notes contrasted with the mild cream. Instead of a berry, it was topped with a wedge of date.
We've never been hung up on credentials, and at Palate, Chef Racicot shows just what talent and experience can do.