If East End gentrification can be condensed into one address, this might be it. In 15 years, the storefront at the southwest corner of Penn Avenue and Graham Street has gone from nuisance bar to funky neighborhood café to fine dining.
At the helm is a man who’s gone through some transitions himself. Chris Frangiadis was a pioneer in Pittsburgh’s proto-foodie restaurant scene of the 1990s and early ’00s — Jason can still taste his lamb shank with black beans from Southwest Bistro — before taking off to spend a decade in the Caribbean. Now he’s back, at the seam of Friendship and Garfield, a stone’s throw from newly glam East Liberty.
His new venue is named for that all-purpose utensil of school cafeterias, and is the emblem of Frangiadis’ “approachable fine dining.” Like the tableware, the checklist-style menu attempts to keep things light, with all-lower-case type and headings such as “jars of stuff” (snacks such as almonds, olives and pickles, served in canning jars).
The rest of the menu is divided, not into small and large plates, but into charcuterie for sharing; salads; pastas; and sections titled “bites” and “composed.” All are small plates; the difference is in complexity, with bites being relatively straightforward dishes like arancini or ceviche, and composed dishes having entree-like intricacy, like salmon with pomegranate, guanciale (cured pork jowl) and gnocchi.
As a result, this is a menu that allows far more exploration than most. Only one dish, steak with egg and pancetta, exceeds $15, and portions were such that our family of four dined on seven dishes, plus a jar of house-made giardiniera and dessert, and left satisfied, with no leftovers.
Of course, that sort of plate-cleaning is also a testament to the quality of the food. Here was where Frangiadis’ decades of experience really shone. He knows when to keep something simple, when to take the sophistication up a notch and when to go all-out for a dish that would wow the finest of dining rooms. Across these approaches, the result was uniformly excellent. His take on the classic frisee aux lardons was to swap in arugula and chewy pancetta, add pickled ramps, and top the salad with a perfectly poached egg. Potato relleno, with mashed potato surrounding a bit of spicy beef, got a crispy fried shell and a brandy cream sauce that enriched and augmented this savory delight.
Each day’s menu is stamped with the date, but ingredients aren’t strictly seasonal, as attested by pork cheeks with apple and cider jus. Which is fine by us, since it was among the highest in an evening of highlights. The pork, in the form of two medallions, was spork-tender, utterly luscious and richly flavored. The jus, which was in truth thicker than the name suggests, soaked into creamy polenta. With a bit of flair, all of this softness was contrasted by the tempura-battered slice of apple, still firm, tart and crunchy after its quick bath in the fryer.
Another “composed” dish was mussels served in a tomato broth studded with Spanish chorizo. Though the menu termed it spicy, we wouldn’t go that far. It was rich with contrasting bright and umami flavors, just as good for dipping the fries alongside as it was coating the shellfish. Whether an imperfect batch or imperfectly cooked, however, the mussels were difficult to remove from their shells without tearing into pieces.
The pasta section had a half dozen options that tended towards the simple, like linguine with ramp pesto and grana padano, but still made room for special touches such as duck soppressata or chestnut gnocchi. Our plate of butternut ravioli was beautifully presented with sage, ricotta, prosciutto and pignola. The dough was tender and nearly translucent, and in keeping with the light approach to portions, the ravioli weren’t overstuffed.
Frangiadis’ garlicky lamb sausage was served on a flatbread that resembled naan more than a cracker or crust, with brie melted almost into a sauce, spiked with spoonfuls of mustard seeds and topped with pickled red onions and microgreens. The brie mellowed the piquant sausage, while the mellow, earthy mustard and onion cut the richness and added pungent top notes. Every element was prepared well, served a function and contributed to making each bite a delight. As a bonus, a little mango salad, with plenty of minced red onion to balance the fruit’s sweetness, came alongside. This was as good a $10 plate as you’ll find in the city.
Even with the slightly more expensive dishes, prices at Spork were extraordinary for the ambience and impeccable kitchen execution. Neighborhoods change, but in any neighborhood, good food at good prices is welcome.