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SOBA

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Like the proverbial phoenix, Soba is back. Soba -- and its sister restaurant Umi -- re-opened last month after a fire last spring put both places on the disabled list. (Soba's newly expanded lounge is still under construction and is expected to open later this month.) In the year that Soba's been on hiatus, a couple of sleek Asian restaurants have opened nearby, but Soba -- now with its decidedly adventurous and quirky Pan-Asian menu -- can only benefit from Pittsburgh's expanding palates.

The appetizer menu (or "small plates" that can be ordered in lieu of full entrees) spans several cuisines from maki rolls to satays to dumplings and even Pan-Asian-inspired caviar. Unfortunately, that night's special appetizer of grape leaves stuffed with homemade Thai lamb sausage and served with mint crème fraiche and melon, which sounded exotic and wonderful, had already been consumed by the intrigued diners who had come before me. Foregoing the complex, I went with two seemingly straightforward appetizers, one meaty, one veggie: barbecued ribs and crispy tofu.

The six grilled ribs with a dark Korean sauce arrived as a mini-slab. A sharp knife was provided, but wasn't required as the meat was soft, and the bones easily separated. (The extra napkins were necessary, though I couldn't resist old-fashioned finger licking.) A pleasant surprise was the mizuna salad tossed with a spicy vinaigrette that lay underneath the ribs. The ribs were on the petite, albeit tender side, and this would be a good appetizer for one, but the portion of crispy tofu was certainly enough to share. One-inch cubes of tofu were fried until perfectly crisp and topped with mild green onions. After the cubes had been immersed in the tangy clear sweet-and-sour sauce, they were almost candy-like -- crunchy sweet candy with a warm moist interior. This is probably not the healthiest way to eat tofu, but still irresistible.

My companion ordered the pork tonkatsu ($20): breaded pork loin cutlets sautéed with Japanese barbecue sauce, served sliced over jasmine rice and steamed sugar snap peas. The pork was lean and juicy, its exterior quite crispy -- perhaps too crispy. I tried one of the "bowls" which are curries and soupier specialties. In a low-slung bowl was a dark, smoky sweet lamb curry (fresh lamb from Elysian Fields) with a pleasing kick and jasmine rice topped with petite red mustard greens and spiced cashews ($17). Tucked into the meal were several points of whole-wheat chapatis. I was maneuvering the lamb through the rice, when a lucky forkful also snagged some greens and a few cashews. This was one of those delightful dishes where the most unlikely flavors and textures meet in wonderful harmony: the spicy curry, the sweet soft lamb, the slightly bitter greens and the crunchy nut. Though it took extra effort, I made sure each subsequent forkful fully represented each taste and sensation.

Still, I saved room for dessert. What Pan-Asian sweet delights awaited? Naturally there was the requisite tropically inspired cheesecake and crème brulee, but when I heard "chocolate maki" I knew this would be a more daring dish. What an amusing and scrumptious dessert: a thick, spongy chocolate and ground pistachio crepe had been rolled around hazelnut mousse creating a small Swiss roll. This roll, about two inches in diameter, had then been sliced into six substantial disks, the coils of mousse and crepe resembling the Japanese maki portions. The illusion was highlighted by the cake's presentation on a sushi tray upon which was also shaved cantaloupe (mimicking sliced ginger), a dab of minty-green whipped cream (standing in for wasabi) and a shallow dipping dish of chocolate sauce. It was artfully presented, and it made me laugh. I would only recommend that they bring a second set of chopsticks when serving this dish. I ate it with my fingers, but chopsticks would have only further the witty illusion.

Soba's interior seems darker than ever, but it's not an unpleasant darkness; it manages to be sleek but not confining. Perhaps those magnificent three-story shimmery and semi-sheer copper curtains with beaded valences toss back what little light there is. Shiny black is a popular motif here: Besides the flat stream of water flowing down a wall of black tile, there's another wall made from highly polished large black stones, and echoing this in miniature are the small black stones at one's table upon which the chopsticks rest. Perhaps the stones and the water -- and the restaurant itself -- are elemental reminders that some things are impervious to fire. * * *

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