Passport Café | Dining Reviews | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
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Location: 12087 Perry Hwy., Wexford. 724-934-3663
Hours: Tue.-Thu. 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun. 10 a.m.-3 p.m.
Prices: Starters $7.50-10; entrees $15-29
Fare: Global cuisine, local harvest
Atmosphere: A little bit rustic, a little bit refined
Liquor: Full bar

 

When Angelique was in graduate school, it was a given among her peers that any thesis worth the pages it was printed on had not only a descriptive title, but a pithy subtitle as well. Lately, it seems, the same is true of the restaurant menus we read.

The subtitle of Passport Café, a year-old restaurant in an upscale strip mall on Perrysville Highway, is "Global cuisine, local harvest." Worthy, to be sure, but ... not to put too fine a point on it, but lately every other restaurant we visit seems to tout a variation on this theme. What then, we wondered, would distinguish Passport Café?

Let us count the ways. Instead of ostentatious fusion or an "It's a Small World"-style tour of international clichés, Passport Café offers an enticing array of dishes that reflect both title and subtitle in unpredictable ways. Executive chef Shawn Carlson, a Western Pennsylvania native attuned to local tastes and sources, judiciously focuses on core foods and flavors, borrowing ingredients and preparations from an array of cuisines. Put another way: Some restaurants have a soup of the day. Passport Café has the surety to offer a risotto of the day.

All of this takes place within a space that brings a strip-mall storefront as close as humanly possible to a European country villa. Instead of art hung on the walls, the walls themselves are artistic, stenciled with flowers in painted gold "frames." A couple of freestanding walls with window openings, their plaster surfaces subtly evoking the Old World, create more intimate spaces within the expansive dining room. The kitchen is visible from almost every seat, but the best views -- not to mention delectable-looking tasting menus -- are available from the large, country-style chef's table.

With the water glasses, a basket of Portuguese cornbread arrived at our table. Unlike the cake-like cornbread of American Southern tradition, this was almost as light and airy as French bread, barely sweet and with a tender, toothsome crust.

Lamb sliders -- miniature burgers of ground Shelter Farm lamb -- were taller than they were wide, presenting a challenge to the average jaw clearance (and even to our big mouths). But with creamy grilled haloumi cheese and bright, herbal tomato pesto, they were worth the stretch.

Stuffed calamari consisted of firm tubes of medium-size squid filled with crumbly, mildly spicy pork sausage. The subtle contrast of tastes and textures created a blend of surf and turf more complex and, to our taste buds, more appealing than the traditional beef and lobster.

Jason's pork entrée exemplified what a seasonal menu can deliver. Cheese and ham-stuffed pork loin with gnocchi sounded pretty good, but when the cheese is sage derby, the ham is prosciutto and the gnocchi are squash, the result is autumn on a plate. The pork was excellent, as if slow-roasted for moistness and finished over high heat for charred edges, and the flavors of meat and seasonings blended beautifully. The gnocchi were also exceptional, parboiled and lightly sautéed in butter for a little browning. Preparing gnocchi is famously tricky, but when a kitchen has mastered it, as this one has, there is no need to obscure the gnocchi with sauce.

Angelique almost missed a dish of mussels and reginetta pasta because it was at the bottom of the list, but a dish this extraordinary belongs at the top. The combination of salty pork, succulent mussels, sweet caramelized leeks and mild pesto -- not overly basil-y or sharply garlicky, as some can be -- bathed the reginetta pasta, whose long, ruffled fronds made it seem like a sea creature itself, and settled in unexpectedly harmonious balance in our mouths.

Finally, we savored every bite of our dessert, a chocolate tart paved with hazelnuts and gilded with coffee-caramel gelato. We've had these tried-and-true flavors together countless times, but never quite like this: creamy and crunchy, warm and cold, sweet and earthy, all at once. Like the meal that preceded it, it managed to be rich, bordering on decadent, without being heavy.

Passport Café has a genius for the little details that make a meal beautiful -- a copper wine bucket, for example, and flower vases carved from autumn gourds -- and the vision, not to mention the skill, to make the marriage of global cuisine and local harvest a happy one.

 

JR:

AB:

Penn's Corner stuffed pork loin, with asparagus and gnocchi - HEATHER MULL
  • Heather Mull
  • Penn's Corner stuffed pork loin, with asparagus and gnocchi

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