Hours: Tue.-Thu. 5-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 5-11 p.m.; Sun. 5-9 p.m. Lunch service starting in October.
Prices: Small plates and salads $5-14; big plates $17-27
Fare: Contemporary fusion
Atmosphere: Eat-in art gallery
Liquor: Full bar
Here's a Shadyside story about a favorite Shadyside pastime, eating out: A venerable, if not exceptional, restaurant closes. Its über-hip replacement fades within a couple years. Next up: An ambitious chef/owner takes over the stylish space, promising innovative "chef-driven" contemporary cuisine. What happens next? Tune in to Plate 736 to find out.
With its menu reading like a Prince playlist, full of "Small pL8s," "Big pL8s," and "m artinis," Plate 736 at first gave us some superficial reasons to wonder if there might not be much substance to its style. We found the linguistic gimmicks distracting, and the sleek space below Bellefonte Street -- its décor mostly left over from the restaurant formerly known as Bikki but newly adorned with paintings and relief casts of supine nudes in bright flame colors -- could have passed for an art gallery as easily as a restaurant. Don't get us wrong; we're all for fine art in restaurants, even if it's not what we would hang over our own sofa. We just wondered whether the food, like the menu text, would suffer from an excess of pretense, or prove to be an art unto itself.
The dipping sauce for the crusty bread began to break down our skepticism immediately. Finely pureed chives gave this chartreuse mélange of extra-virgin olive oil, garlic and balsamic vinegar a primarily herbal character, yet the other flavors each played essential roles. We sopped up our allotment with a single slice of bread apiece and unabashedly asked for more.
The Small pL8 Sampler for Two featured an irresistible quartet of tiny portions from the appetizer list. Crab bisque, served in demitasse cups with doll-sized spoons, was a little salty but luxuriously creamy. Four-cheese ravioli were big cushions of freshly made pasta, filled with a flavorful mix of chevre, gouda, asiago and feta, in a supple, sweet sauce that was the liquid equivalent of biting into a fresh red pepper. Asian-style samosas, deep-fried little triangles with a vegetable filling, were highlighted by a sweet, nutty sesame sauce. Crab "m artinis" consisted of succulent bits of crabmeat floating with some artichoke and half a grape tomato in tiny aperitif glasses of lemon-thyme infused olive oil. Although it was hard to take in all the flavors in the "m artini" at once, the miniaturized presentation made us appreciate each ingredient, no matter how small.
Plate 736's "big pL8s" are all updated takes on traditional main courses such as salmon, veal, steak and shepherd's pie (here, you'll find versions both vegetarian and bison-based). As with the appetizers, presentations were gorgeous; Angelique wanted to take a picture of her prosciutto and feta-stuffed chicken breast, which appeared to have been split by a quiver of pencil-thin grilled asparagus spears perfectly aimed into its center. The chicken was moist and tender with an herbed skin as crisp as potato chips, and a mellowly astringent sauce of roasted tomatoes and onion beautifully balanced the salty feta and prosciutto.
The tantalizing tastes of seafood in the sampler whetted Jason's appetite for more, and lobster cakes fit the bill. Two generously sized cakes were stacked high atop a mound of basmati-corn-bousin risotto, an incredibly rich confection that rivaled the natural richness of the lobster, whose crunchy exterior smacked of butter. The sweet-crisp corn was a welcome contrast to all that creaminess, while the curried cucumber relish -- reminiscent of Thai cucumber salad in its light, clear dressing -- provided a bright, spicy, yet cool balance.
Our chocolate tartine dessert consisted of a radial stack of planks of the densest chocolate cake, bittersweet with the taste of true cocoa, topped by whipped cream and a spiderweb of dark chocolate candy. It was beautiful to behold and decadent to devour.
In brief, we were seduced by Plate 736. Owner and chef Erik Cantine is a culinary artist intimately acquainted with his ingredients, creating combinations and preparations that play to the peak potential of every one. The ending of this Shadyside story is unwritten, but we hope the current chapter will be a long one.
Jason: 3.5 stars