I love the food at Soba. It was the first restaurant in Pittsburgh to do Asian fusion, and for my money, it still does it best. Relying on upstairs neighbor Umi to provide Japanese authenticity, the Soba kitchen never leaves well enough alone. Instead, its chefs prefer to use crawfish in their futomaki, and red curry in their creamy butternut-squash soup.
But when I think back on past meals at Soba, I mostly recall not what I ate, but where I sat, who was with me, and how the light and shadows played on our table. Soba's beautifully detailed, mellowly lit interior creates an intimate environment more like a day spa than a fine restaurant. Far from a place to see and be seen, here is a place for absorbing yourself in your food and your companions.
Which is all the more impressive considering its location: Ellsworth Avenue in Shadyside is Pittsburgh's home for Beautiful People, and they love Soba. The bartenders know the regulars, and friends meet casual in the lounge. But the restrained character of the space keeps these familiarities at arm's length, so that ostentatious greetings don't intrude on your own scene.
So how is this magic achieved? With decor, for starters. Black slate provides the texture for the full-wall waterfall in the main dining room, as well as much of the other wall surfaces. Dark-stained tropical woods lend an exotic feel to the modernist stair in the center of the main room, while nubby upholstery on the lounge ceiling deadens clamor and adds to the sense of enclosure.
But it all comes down to the lighting. Big windows onto Ellsworth brighten the space during the day without obliterating the material effects. Yet it's nighttime when Soba really shines. Harsh orange light from the street is softened and transformed as it enters the space, especially when it filters through silvery strands of curtain in the dining room, which create long, stripy shadows on the table linens. Meanwhile, in the lounge, mahogany tables inlaid with brass fish glisten beneath candles and an array of electric lights that brilliantly mimic the bright/dim dynamic that makes candlelight so essential for mood-setting.
If you can, snag one of the low sofas near the fireplace, order yourself a ruby-red Indian Summer or something from Soba's spectacular wine list, and cozy up. If intimacy is the order of the evening, you've found the right place.