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Roland's Seafood Grill

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Location: 1904 Penn Ave, Strip District. 412-261-3401
Hours: Mon.-Thu. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat. 11 a.m.-midnight; Sun. 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Prices: Pizza, $8-10; pasta, $12-17; entrees, $16-30
Fare: Seafood, pasta and pizza
Atmosphere: Indoor/outdoor, meet & greet, surf & turf
Liquor: Full bar

One of life's simpler pastimes is people-watching. Whether speculating about the lives or marveling at the fashion sense of others, who doesn't enjoy surreptitiously amusing themselves by regarding passersby as actors in the dramas (or comedies, as the case may be) of their own lives? Perhaps Pittsburgh's greatest venue for this activity is the Strip District, that unique urban amalgam of wholesalers, street vendors and partiers. Day or night, watching the Strip scene play itself out is a pleasure. Add a cold beer and something to eat, sit back, and hey, that's entertainment.

Roland's Seafood Grill -- and its sister establishment, Roland's Iron Landing upstairs -- have been feeding the Strip District crowd for years. The Iron Landing supplies balcony seating with a bird's-eye view of goings-on on the ground. Now Roland's provides front-row seats as well with the transformation of its downstairs from a dim, work-worn bar and grill to a sleek, open space with sidewalk seating beneath the second-floor deck (or iron landing, we suppose), which offers both shade and shelter from the inevitable Pittsburgh rains. Indoors, two rooms have been joined to create drinking and dining areas divided only by a large bar faced in shimmering blue glass tiles. Exposed brick walls enhance the urban-industrial vibe, while the raw bar offers a modern, tasteful place, tricked out in wood and steel, to enjoy oysters, clams and other fruit of the sea. A wall of sliding glass doors completes the makeover by blurring the boundaries between inside and out when open on beautiful summer days.

While the Iron Landing continues to offer traditional bar and seafood fare, the bar and grill downstairs has an updated, more extensive and upscale menu. Which is to say, you'll find foods that beg to be washed down with something other than one of Roland's famously dizzying selection of beers, along with a wine list and the suggestion of a martini or cordial with your meal. A couple of popular staples of the old menu, such as the hot lobster roll, have migrated downstairs, but otherwise, the menu consists of the seafood bar (with an emphasis on shellfish); seafood-oriented pastas; meat, poultry, and fish-based entrees; and wood-fired gourmet pizzas.

Most local seafood houses pride themselves on offering a variety of exotic fishes, elaborately prepared. Roland's is more of a throwback, with shore-style favorites like Maryland crab chowder. But there are posher classics as well, like the oysters Rockefeller that we ordered as an appetizer. Four big oysters arrived at our table seconds after being removed from the grill. Smothered with spinach, they sizzled when spritzed with fresh lemon juice. We could hardly wait until they were cool enough to eat. The oysters themselves were fresh, meaty and saline, with the greens providing a toothsome contrast to the tender shellfish.

We both got house salads. Described on the menu as mesclun, the salads were actually a mix of old-school ingredients and new: iceberg lettuce and field greens, canned black olives and grape tomatoes, pepperoncini and red pepper rings. Unfortunately, Jason's hot bacon dressing had the consistency of grocery store-pancake syrup, and the bacon flavor was limited to the flecks of meat rather than suffusing throughout.

Angelique was intrigued by clams arrabbiata -- a spicy pasta sauce that is one of her favorites -- but went with a pizza this time. Her 12-inch pizza margherita, with fresh tomatoes, basil and buffalo mozzarella, was comprised of excellent toppings, but the homemade crust, though crispy at the edges, became somewhat soggy on the bottom.

Jason craved surf and turf, so he had the New York strip and Alaskan king crab. The steak was tender enough, but the cooking was a letdown. He asked for it Pittsburgh rare, that legendary charred-on-the-outside, cold-on-the-inside preparation invented by steelworkers using an 800-degree ingot for a griddle. Most restaurants can't provide the heat for this dish, but our waiter assured us that Roland's could. Alas, it couldn't. The crab legs -- four big ones -- were delicious as king crab cannot help but be. Redskin roasted potatoes bathed in butter were a fine accompaniment, but the vegetable medley was a washed-out mélange of overcooked carrots, cauliflower and broccoli. There's no excuse for such sad vegetables at the peak of summer's growing season.

The dessert menu was limited on this night by a shortage of carrot cake and a kitchen mishap that left the chocolate cake too mangled to be served. As a result, the amaretto biscotti torte, which would ordinarily have been our third choice among these options, was our only one. We'd like to try the other desserts some other time, and we liked much of our dinner enough to want to sample other items from the menu. But we enjoyed Roland's most for the inimitable experience of lingering on the bustling sidewalks the Strip District, watching the world -- and its weirdly, wonderfully varied inhabitants -- go by.

Jason: 2 stars
Angelique: 2.5 stars

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