When you think of the most international neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, you probably don't think of Brookline. But maybe you should.
Due to its ridgeline perch between Routes 51 and 19, Brookline Boulevard has never emerged as a bustling through route. Instead, it's held its own as a classic neighborhood main street, anchored by its handsome old fire station and populated by small businesses that cater to residents' daily needs and wants.
Yet among these banks, bakeries and beauty salons thrives an array of the city's most diverse international dining. There's an intimate Italian trattoria, a Greek restaurant, a Mexican grocery complete with sidewalk taco stand, and a venerable Lebanese market, which has just debuted a café. Now add to this mix a warm and welcoming Egyptian restaurant, run by a pair of young brothers and their mother, who cooks in her homeland tradition.
Isis' decor is a charming hodgepodge of mismatched tables and chairs — as though furnished by a thrift-shopper with a good eye — and Egyptian bazaar finds. The overall effect is casual and quirky. While Mediterranean cuisine from the pillars of Atlas to the Levant is a recognizable theme, we quickly realized that Isis' menu offers much more than just another rehash of hummus and kebab. Those stalwarts are present, but Egypt's ancient culture and millennia-old identity as a global crossroads comes through in dishes like stewed jute (the leaves, not the carpet fibers) and samboussa, the Ethiopian answer to samosas.
The samboussa came directly from the fryer, ultra-hot and still dripping oil. The phyllo dough was golden, flaky, thin and crisp, and when we bit in, we found lightly spiced ground beef, crumbly rather than formed into a patty. We passed over hummus for besara, a pureed fava-bean dip that was topped with slightly crisp caramelized onions. The legume purée had a family resemblance to hummus, but the greener fava beans had a less creamy texture and an earthier flavor than chick peas; the only drawback was that the onions were oversalted, and we were torn between the temptation of their rich flavor and the need to temper their influence.
Of the vegetarian entrees which comprise about half the menu, we sampled bamia, a tasty dish of okra stewed in tomatoes, herbs and spices, and kusharie masri, consisting of rice, pasta and brown lentils, topped with tomato-garlic sauce. The tomato-garlic sauce was astringent, pungent and delicious, but more lentils would have made this dish even more salutatory; the combination of pasta and rice outweighed the sprinkling of lentils and made the entire dish too heavy on carbohydrates.
We also ordered kusharie asfar, red lentils with rice and cauliflower, which came with a "fried egg." The egg was not fried in the American fashion — cracked into an oiled skillet — but was in fact a whole boiled egg that had been dipped in batter and fried to obtain a delicate coating.
Koufta, sausage-like grilled cylinders of ground lamb and beef, was neither dry like some we've had, nor juicy and tender like the best. Furthermore, the spicing was indifferent; not bland, exactly, but neither was it bold with garlic or pepper. The spices stepped up in macarona bechamel, which we took from the menu description to be akin to Greek pastitsio: beef and pasta layered with a creamy sauce. But Isis' version, using penne, had an intriguing flavor that we couldn't quite pin down. Perhaps it was warm, Middle Eastern spices (pastitsio often uses cinnamon but otherwise gestures broadly toward Italy with tomatoes and herbs), or perhaps the bechamel itself had uniquely Egyptian ingredients. We liked that even a dish we thought we knew could surprise us.
Ferakh mehamara, pan-seared chicken marinated in yogurt and orange spice, sounded more exotic than it tasted, but still delivered extremely good, grilled, boneless thighs. The marinade surely contributed to the meat's moist tenderness, but the spice was only hinted at where the flame had browned the edges, creating delicious peaks of flavor.
Isis brings the tantalizing nuances of the Nile delta to the landscape of Pittsburgh's Middle Eastern dining, even as it further broadens the already surprisingly varied menu of Brookline Boulevard. The vegetarian dishes in particular — which are all only $6.50 — stand out for rich flavors and distinctive combinations.