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Best chef

Chris Jackson, Six Penn Kitchen
146 Sixth St., Downtown. 412-566-7366

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Chris Jackson jokes that his chicken wings take four days to make it to your plate. That's because they are first brined in sweet tea, "confit-ed," then smoked over fruitwood, before being finished with homemade hot sauce in the wood oven of the restaurant's large, bustling kitchen. Besides making sure theatergoers get to their seats by curtain time, Jackson isn't in a rush when it comes to planning and executing his daily-changing menus.

Jackson culls small local suppliers for the best quality produce, meat and fish, trying to reduce "food miles," and arguing that the most satisfying meals come from our backyards, not from the chilly depths of a refrigerated big rig driven from a faraway land. In the summertime, the commute to diners' plates made by heirloom tomatoes, squash blossoms, lettuce and fresh herbs, often only involves a short elevator ride -- from the Downtown restaurant's scenic rooftop garden to the ground-floor kitchen.

A practitioner of Slow Foods thinking, Jackson is the consummate do-it-yourselfer, making as much of his menu in-house as possible. This includes everything from the entrée ingredients (slow-cured meats, such as the brisket for corned-beef hash) to the fruit- and herb-infused mixes used in the bar's cocktails. (If it's summer, try the strawberry-basil mojito; if it's Sunday brunch, try the house Bloody Mary with fresh horseradish, citrus, capers, olives, sriracha sauce, chipotle and black pepper, garnished with pickled vegetables.)

Jackson even makes the -- gasp -- ketchup (mango) served with the shoestring-cut Haystack Onion Rings. "It's not to save money," he says. "It's just me being very particular and wanting to create the whole entire dish from scratch. Plus, it gives my guys something better to do than open a bunch of cans."

For lack of a more precise characterization of Six Penn's cuisine, Jackson simply calls it "American." In fact, he credits his cooking style to having grown up (in Yorktown, Va.) with a native Plains Indian father and a Croatian mother, sampling and learning to cook from both traditions.

Professional transience is also a factor, as Jackson has worked the galleys of celebrated restaurants all over the U.S., including New Orleans' Andrea's, owned by Andrea Appuzzo, and San Francisco's Bix. More recently, Jackson worked at the renowned Jake's in that "other" Pennsylvania city -- the eastern one from whence hail those sammiches -- before being recruited by the Eat'n Park folks to build Six Penn. Each stop in his culinary coming of age made new additions to Jackson's arsenal of flavors and techniques.

Eat'n Park and Jackson have made Six Penn Kitchen an emblem of Pittsburgh's current restaurant scene: comforting (the Cracklin' Pork Shank served with sauerkraut-bacon mashed potatoes), yet adventurous (homemade goat-cheese citrus ravioli); unafraid to mix it up a little (chai-spiced bread pudding), but still loyal to older, sometimes "rustic" techniques (plank-roasted red trout from an organic farm in Asheville, N.C.).

Jackson elevates oft-unappreciated sides, such as Native-American-inspired succotash (fresh corn and peas cooked with house-cured bacon, shallots, cream and fresh thyme) and Brussels sprouts (gratineed with that same cured bacon). These he transforms from something you used to "accidentally" drop under the table for Fido, to dishes you'll daydream about and wouldn't share with your own mother.

With all that bacon and cream, figure-conscious ahtta-tahners had better learn to relax and eat like the rest of us. Or they might consider riding their bikes to Six Penn, as Jackson does each day from his South Side residence. And yes, there are very nice vegetarian options (for brunch, try the yellow-curried tofu "mess"). If you ask, Chef Chris will happily improvise something special for you. He's just that kind of guy.

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