Location: 134 S. Highland Ave., East Liberty. 412-362-5800
Hours: Mon.-Sat. 5-10 p.m.; Sun. brunch 10 a.m.-7:30 p.m.
Fare: Sophisticated small plates
Atmosphere: Swanky and clubby
Liquor: Full bar
When Red Room opened at the corner of South Highland and Penn Circle South a presidential term ago, it was a definitive statement that East Liberty -- or at least the part nestled up against the busway and Shadyside -- was back and better than ever. Enriched by deep wall colors and even deeper leather couches, the restaurant offers upscale eats in swanky surroundings, but what we loved most was the lounge area. While the cushy club seating suggested settling in with a cocktail or aperitif, the staff was happy to serve a full meal there, making dinner an experience as relaxing as it was luxurious.
This summer, Red Room upped the stuffing on this experience, adding more sofas, a handsome bar and some capacious booths in a large space next door to the restaurant, creating a sister establishment called 2Red Lounge. Oversized glass garage doors let loungers see and be seen, while for those who do not require visual access to flat-screen TVs at all times, a roof deck nestled between taller buildings on either side provides sought-after outdoor seating, not to mention glorious views of the East Liberty skyline. Our recent spell of Indian summer was the perfect time to take advantage of this, and take advantage we did.
2Red's opening was timed to coincide with the arrival of chef Kevin Sousa, perhaps Pittsburgh's up-and-comingest young chef, making his first move after finding acclaim at Bigelow Grille Downtown. Sousa brought molecular gastronomy -- that edgy trend that plays around with liquid nitrogen and other substances not conventionally associated with food -- to create foamed flavors and crispy creams at Red Room and 2Red alike. But he moved on before we could sample the goods, and in his wake, the kitchen returned to a more traditional menu. You can order dinner from Red Room, but we were more interested in 2Red's own menu of small plates tailored for lounging and drinking, noshing and nibbling.
This menu -- a single card -- offers distinctly international riffs on a few selected themes. Thus, shellfish maki are available with Caribbean mango and mint or Asian ginger and lime, tacos with tempura shrimp or fish. This leads to a certain logic in ordering. We'll have a fondue, a maki and a slider; now which ones?
It turns out you don't need to be too selective. Portions are small, even by tapas standards, and if your wallet is willing, your stomach will be ably filled. The good news is that, for the most part, flavors are intense, so a few bites can make a big impression.
What kind of impression? Frankly, a mixed one. We've long held that appetizers tend to be the best parts of a menu -- adventurous without needing to be too ambitious, and free of any big slab of protein to wrangle into comity with its entourage. But with great potential comes great responsibility, and on a small plate, everything must be just right. Salmon tartar, with avocado and pineapple chutney, was surprisingly bland, with the underwhelming flavor of farm-raised fish and no counterpoint to offer zing. The salmon slider, with the same ingredients, worked better, presumably thanks to a crusty bun that held the drizzle of sauce that was lost on the plate.
The other sliders were also tasty, although it seemed a shame that famously marbled Kobe beef was squandered on a burger dominated by its (excellent) bacon topping. Surprisingly, the lentil slider, a substitution for shrimp, was the best of the bunch. It was spicy in a way that would weary the palate at a larger scale, but on a four-bite burger, left us wanting more.
A blue-cheese and port fondue, served with bite-sized chunks of seared beef and crostini, was also superb. The tangy, nutty, creamy notes of the cheese were rich and well balanced with the fullness of the port, while the meat was tender and savory. Our only regret was that there wasn't more of it. The charcuterie was perfunctory -- if there were more than a couple of different salamis, we couldn't tell in the dim light -- but fish tacos featured moist, mild grilled fish as a base for piquant red bean-and-corn salsa and sweet chili sour cream.
A couple of items we could not try because they were not available, quite a disappointment on a 15-dish menu. While some of what we did have was very good, the rest did not justify its price. The comfortably sophisticated atmosphere remains our favorite thing about 2Red Lounge.
- Heather Mull
- Pineapple-soy ahi tuna and jicama maki rolls with pistachio dust