Location: 422 Foreland St., North Side. 412-918-1496. www.serendipity01.com
Hours: Mon.-Wed. 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Thu.-Sat. 11 a.m.-10 p.m.
Prices: Starters, soups and salads $4-6; pizza and pasta $8.50-15; entrees $16-25
Fare: "Hip American Cuisine"
Atmosphere: Exposed brick and candlelight
Liquor: Full bar
As with so many other cultural touchstones, we have California to thank for the phenomenon of "contemporary American cuisine." This vaguely named style of cooking originated in the 1970s, with West Coast chefs celebrating their year-round access to fresh produce. It gradually spread across the country, bringing with it upscale revisions to such staples of the traditional American table as roast meat and noodle casseroles.
With the concept well-established -- an updated recipe here, an unexpected ingredient there, and a peppering of international influences throughout -- it's inevitable that chefs would want to differentiate within the genre. Thus we see an emphasis on local and/or seasonal ingredients -- or, occasionally, an effort at taking things to an almost baroque level of refinement.
Executive chef Joe Post, of Serendipity on the North Side, has opted to update the term itself, dubbing his creations, collectively, "hip American cuisine." As a pair of marrieds-with-children pushing middle age, we're not sure we have the cred anymore to comment on what's hip -- heck, we're not even sure if "cred" is still current slang. But we will say that Post has put together a genuinely intriguing menu.
The fare is also familiar in many ways: "it" ingredients like chipotles and Maytag blue cheese make coyly stylish appearances; distinctive cuisines from Italy to Thailand are represented; and the inevitable mac-and-cheese, truffled, has its place.
But the overall effect was successful, partly because it was not too fussy. While some of the menu descriptions were lengthy, most of the dishes were elemental, relying on grace notes, not wild invention, to carry them to success.
The grilled pork chop was served with squash risotto and asparagus, a combination that your grandma probably never made, but that even she would find unthreatening. And, unless she was more curmudgeonly than most, she'd also find it delicious. Because after all, modern American cooking is much more about execution than showy technique or rare ingredients.
The double-cut chop was magnificently grilled, juicy, and served with a rich but simple jus. (We can't imagine how you get a pan sauce with a grilled chop, but we're not complaining.) The asparagus was also fearlessly charred, but still bright-tasting. The chunks of squash in the risotto were distractingly large, and the rice was on the far side of gummy, but it was still a successful combination with the pork: a little sweet, a little savory.
Also off the grill, salmon with chipotle butter achieved a magnificent salt-and-pepper crust atop a firm, rosy, flaky filet. The pat of chipotle butter melted delectably, rendering the fatty fish even richer. But the smoky chipotle taste, if there was much to begin with, must have melted away, because we couldn't detect it. Accompaniments of lemon-thyme jasmine rice and wilted spinach, however, were cooked to perfection -- the first fluffy and aromatic, the second tender and flavorful.
Moving backward to our starters, we loved the "mélange" of chips, made in-house from not only potatoes but an array of other roots. Our favorite was beautiful, floral burdock, which dressed up the look and taste of Serendipity's chip basket like a Tiffany brooch. Horseradish cream was a zingy accompaniment. Chorizo-and-cream-cheese empanadas came in a pastry whose thick, flaky crust was so substantial that it distracted from the creamy filling, which we wished had a bit more kick. But the accompanying tomatillo-pineapple salsa was a great success, made tart, not sweet, by the fruit. Even Angelique, who does not like pineapple, wanted to eat it with a spoon.
The intriguingly named pizza we ordered was also very good. The Great Pumpkin featured pumpkin puree, blue cheese and fresh mozzarella, a combination of ingredients well beyond pizzeria regulation. But the creamy, sweet, earthy and tangy flavors worked well together. Crisped leaves of sage on top were a delightful touch, but the rosemary crust was a disappointment, neither crispy nor chewy enough. These days, we find that great pizza is easier to come by than ever, but it makes it hard for imperfect pies to compete.
Serendipity has chosen to compete in a crowded field. Ten years ago, this menu would have been a revelation in Pittsburgh, but now it walks a delicate balance between tempting and clichéd. We hope it will entice diners to the North Side, where Serendipity backs its contemporary American offerings with genuine creativity and skill in the kitchen.