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Red Room Café and Lounge

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Location: 134 South Highland Ave., 412-362-5800
Hours: Mon.-Sat., 5 p.m.-midnight
Fare: Modern American fusion
Prices: Appetizers $6-13, Entrees $17-32
Atmosphere: Is this what the Duquesne Club is like?
Liquor: Full bar

Red roses. Red sports cars. Red lipstick. The strongest color in the spectrum draws connotations of passion and luxury to everything it touches. At the formerly drab corner of Highland and Centre avenues, the Red Room Café and Lounge now beckons well-heeled diners across the increasingly blurry Shadyside-East Liberty border for dinner and drinks in stylish surroundings.

It's not alone, of course; within a radius of a couple blocks, Whole Foods, Kelly's bar, and Abay Ethiopian restaurant all contribute to East Liberty's growing standing as a gastronomic showplace. Red Room breaks new ground by offering an upscale dining experience. The description "café and lounge" is an understatement; Red Room is less like the edgy, funky Shadow Lounge around the corner and more like a posh executive club. Its walls are painted a deep tomato red and hung with photographs of East Liberty that somehow make even the dingy, doomed high-rises look glamorous. An oak bar and classical moldings balance trendier touches with the trappings of tradition. There is table seating near the plate-glass storefront windows, but more than half the restaurant floor is given over to leather sofas and armchairs, clustered around occasional tables flickering with candlelight, all lending to an ambience of lavish comfort.

If you're looking for comfort food, though, take heed: Red Room's menu, with ingredients such as candied bacon and blistered grapes, presents a novel take on traditional cooking. Even the breadbasket was accompanied by butter infused with caramelized onion and grenadine -- an appealing preparation, if a little reminiscent of flavored cream cheese.

Jason started with an appetizer of wild mushroom fondue with herbs and a splash of kirsch. Served with crusty bread, the fondue was mild, rich and creamy, and included a variety of mushrooms, some tender, others toothsome. Perfect as the weather turns chill.

Angelique's appetizer of salmon and avocado mushrooms was not really mushrooms at all but small strips of salmon wrapped around morsels of avocado, served warm in a "Japanese aioli" of soy sauce and sesame oil. While the combination of the fatty fish and rich avocado was luxurious, the aioli overwhelmed rather than complemented it with its strong single-note salty flavor.

Three Tomato Salad featured plum, grape and yellow tomato slices which were firm but not bursting with juicy flavor, clearly the last of the season's pick, over greens. Here the dressing was, appropriately, light and barely noticeable. Thick stalks of asparagus, sliced lengthwise, were an outstanding touch, adding substance to an otherwise slight dish.

Nothing resembling slight was Jason's entrée, which brought to mind the image of Andrew Carnegie ordering steak and eggs with home fries. For Pittsburgh's favorite robber baron, nothing would be quite so simple: The steak is filet, the egg is a quail's, and the potatoes are French -- not fries, but thin slices melded together in oil to make a bed for the beef. A deferential veal reduction helps pull the dish together, and a small arugula salad brightens things up. Think of it as a meat-and-potatoes meal for when you hit the lottery.

Angelique's seared ahi tuna was easily more than an inch thick with a warm and meaty exterior surrounding the soft, still-cool interior, like sashimi wrapped in steak. The fish was served on a bed of coconut jasmine rice and topped with a nest of seaweed salad and a tobiko buerre blanc sauce, with tender, buttery young carrots radiating like spokes from the tuna at the hub. The sweetly tropical rice, chewy seaweed, crunchy tobiko and creamy sauce all came together in a harmonious crescendo of flavors and textures.

Like the rest of Red Room's menu, the dessert list offers variety and creativity within a manageable number of options. We indulged in a dark chocolate croissant topped with banana bread pudding and crème Anglaise. We were surprised to be served a disk, which turned out to be the pastry molded together with the pudding. Yet the croissant remained crisp, not soggy, and the presence of a few banana slices kept the rich pudding fresh.

With its inventive menu and uniquely cozy, clubby atmosphere, Red Room demonstrates that sophisticated food, professionally served, is not the sole province of foreign cuisines, and that you don't need high-rent real estate to paint the town red.

Jason: 3.5 stars
Angelique: 3 stars

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