The only thing reliably less promising than airport food used to be airport hotel food. But for the discerning clientele of Pittsburgh International Airport’s on-site Hyatt Regency, neither rubber chicken nor room-service steak will cut it. The hotel’s management knew that more than 10 years ago when it opened the Olive Press, a continental restaurant that was, itself, a cut above. But after a good long run, it was time for a refresh. Bell Farm, named for the airport’s predecessor in once-rural Findlay Township, brings the 21st century’s locally-sourced ethos to Pittsburgh International.
The results are impressive. Even given that late winter is a tough time for working the farm-to-table angle, we found a suitable representation of local purveyors name-checked, and a menu that balanced comfort with sophistication.
Or more accurately, menus. Bell Farm supplied two — one appended to the bar list and aimed at the (large, stunning) lounge, the other a traditional dining menu. The lounge and the dining room, together, achieved the approximate size and proportions of an airline hangar, but deft design touches made them both feel warm and welcoming. These included: an earth-tone color palette punctuated by shots of citrine; a host-station credenza and banquettes placed horizontally across the space to break up its length; and an enormous tabletop seemingly carved from the single trunk of a 1,000-year-old tree. For smaller groups, semicircular couches provide booth-like seating around round tables, corralling the vast space into intimate nooks.
The lounge menu was a bit more snack- and sandwich-focused, but the dishes were far from disposable. In fact, one of the evening’s highlights came from it: chicken and waffles, whose name radically undersells it. In traditional Southern cooking, this dish consists of fried chicken sitting atop a waffle. At Bell Farm, strips of Gerber’s Amish chicken breast were dipped in a batter made from Golden Malted flour — a product patented in 1937 specifically for pancakes and waffles — and deep-fried, combining the chicken and the waffle into one sweet and savory skewer of perfection. The chicken was wonderful, its moisture locked in by its batter jacket during cooking, and the coating was light and crisp, its subtle sweetness reminding us of funnel cake. To palates accustomed to salty fried-chicken coating, this sweetness came as a surprise, but it was light enough that we still wanted to dip these irresistible chicken sticks in maple syrup.
Plucking from a completely different culinary culture, Thai noodle salad was available from the dining-room menu in either a side or entrée portion. Supple slices of filet mignon gave this dish the substance of a main course, while diced mango, avocado and fresh herbs reinforced its salad side. The combination of flavors was bright, sweet and a little bit spicy. Our only complaint was the odd choice of noodle, a lo mein-style wheat noodle where a lighter rice noodle or bean thread would have seemed less out of place in a dish named “salad.”
Not a thing was out of place in the pork quesadilla. House-cured, heritage pork belly was layered with smoked cheddar and topped with a vibrant cilantro-pesto aioli. The pork was rich, closer to roast shoulder than ordinary bacon. This, and a bed of greens and mixed grape tomatoes, turned a common, often childish, dish into an almost elegant entrée. A turkey burger, on the other hand, was bland and firm bordering on dry and tough.
A pair of pasta entrees both featured glorious ingredients and surprisingly inglorious noodles. In the seafood orecchiette, succulent shellfish sang in a liquid more reminiscent of moules broth than pasta sauce, but the clusters of cup-shaped pasta had nested and fused into tough, chewy lumps. Similarly, in the tagliatelle with lamb and Swiss chard, we expected to find these ingredients carefully apportioned among a plateful of noodles; instead, a towering heap of chard, perfectly wilted and flavored with slow-cooked garlic, dominated this dish, pressing the small skein of tagliatelle into a congealed mass at the bottom of the bowl. The proportions of the dish were not a problem for Angelique, who would just as soon eat a meal of delicious sautéed greens as pasta anyway. Besides, there was plenty of tender lamb and perhaps a surfeit of ricotta salata cheese scattered on top; despite the plentitude of chard, it all added up to an indulgent dish.
Bell Farm strives to create a sense of Pittsburgh’s booming local food scene in a context of business travelers and overnight layovers, and its best dishes are as good as anything Downtown has to offer.