Hours: Tue.-Sat. 5-10 p.m.
Prices: Entrees $15-29
Fare: Contemporary American and European
Atmosphere: Tuscany in a box
Liquor: Full Bar
People talk about restaurants all the time, but when they get to raving about them, it's usually one of two types. There's the fine dining establishment, which you anticipate. You dress up. You expect every aspect of the experience, from décor to dessert, to be thoughtfully created. The meal is expensive, but -- hopefully -- you get what you pay for. Then there's the neighborhood place, where there's no pressure on either your wardrobe or your wallet. You go as you are, expecting the food, like the atmosphere, to be as comfortable and familiar as your own home.
The Mighty Oak Barrel, up the Allegheny in Oakmont, is one of the very few restaurants we know of that combine these seemingly polar experiences. Set in a renovated former bar in a neighborhood of tiny houses, the location doesn't portend a high-end dining experience. The intimate space is split between a nondescript bar area and a small dining room densely packed with tables, all beneath an acoustic-tile ceiling festooned with autumnal garland. The place has the close-knit feel of a high school homeroom: Even as first-time visitors, we happened to know some of our fellow diners.
One look at the menu, however, and it was clear that this was no ordinary local hangout. Italian in sensibility without hewing overly to tradition, the list changes seasonally, the specials weekly, and dishes never repeat -- so if you like something, you'd better hurry back. And it's pretty likely that you'll like something. The inventive array of dishes runs the gamut from veal tenderloin porcini to a game platter with elk patty and venison flank steak. Co-owners Grainne Trainor and Lisa Rusak combine their expertise on wine and food to develop the menu, so that most offerings come with a suggestion from the brief but interesting wine list.
Jason was intrigued by the appetizer of smoked trout timbale, a cylindrical tower of sweet, slightly smoky fish, pungent herbed goat cheese and mild mashed Peruvian purple potatoes. A bright Vidalia vinaigrette complemented the blend of flavors in the timbale, and the bed of mixed greens was a light accompaniment.
In truth, Jason didn't even get as far as the menu in selecting his entrée. He knew from the moment he saw it on the specials board that he would have the Octoberfest Plate, featuring wild boar-duck sausage, spätzle (German noodle-dumplings made with egg, flour and milk), and red cabbage with apples. The sausages, skins grilled to a crisp, were juicy and richly flavored, the strong tastes of game and fowl in uniquely delicious balance. The sweet-tartness of the cabbage provided counterpoint to the otherwise heavy flavors. The only letdown was the spätzle, which were chewy, more like true dumplings than the more delicate noodles we prefer.
The fall weather gave Angelique an appetite for a tart of Stilton cheese, dried figs and cranberries with toasted pecans. Drizzled with aged balsamic syrup, this savory-sweet, luxuriously gooey appetizer bore a decadent resemblance to dessert.
The Mighty Oak Barrel's homemade salad dressings gave us another portent of sweet things to come. Roasted pear shallot was a mildly tangy but not-too-tart complement to the plate of spring greens, tomatoes, dried fruits, toasted walnuts and crumbled bleu cheese which comes with every entrée. We admit we were hesitant to try the cappuccino toffee vinaigrette, but it surprised us with its complex blend of sweet, bitter and acidic flavors. Both varieties had a depth of flavor rarely found in salad dressings.
Angelique's entrée of salmon steak was rosy and flaky, belted with a broiled leek and served atop a plump pile of crabmeat-and-grilled-leek ravioli seasoned with minced herbs cooked right into the pasta. Roasted garlic chardonnay Béarnaise sauce clung to every bite, adding complex, creamy flavor and velvety texture. All this was accompanied by straw-thin stalks of asparagus whose vegetal tenderness brought the dish down to earth.
Finally, dessert itself: Jason's pumpkin cheesecake was subtly spicy with the airy texture of a fluffy pumpkin pie, while Angelique's chocolate mocha roll was dense in both crumb and cocoa flavor.
The good people of Oakmont are fortunate to eat, drink and be merry at the hands of such a careful and creative team. For the rest of us, too, a visit to The Mighty Oak Barrel is a taste of fine dining at its friendliest.
Jason: 3.5 stars
Angelique: 3 stars