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THE PINES TAVERN

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As befits a former roadhouse, The Pines Tavern sits on the Red Belt, the outermost of those cobbled-together concentric networks of roads that sort of ring Pittsburgh. The restaurant is on the inner lane of the Red Belt, making it oh-so-barely "inside the Pittsburgh area." Still, it's worth motoring to the outer fringe for these farm-fresh meals. (Traveling north from Pittsburgh, the easiest route is to take Route 8 north to the Red Belt, then west toward Warrendale.)

I decided to begin with a salad of lentils, spinach and feta cheese in a dried sour-cherry vinaigrette. I must have said "spinach" louder than "lentil"; I received an altogether different spinach salad. But it looked so appetizing that I could hardly return it to the kitchen. Atop leaves of baby spinach was crumbled Gorgonzola cheese, slices of crisp red apples, sunflower seeds and pieces of candied lemon in a honey Dijon vinaigrette. The salad was soft, crunchy, sweet, sour, nutty, fruity, salty and sharp -- a wonderful salad, so a happy error.

My companion began with a cup of the turtle soup. It had a thick, flavorful, tomato-based stock with lots of vegetables. His first choice of appetizer -- the exotic sounding "pan-seared mélange of peppercorn-crusted ostrich" was not available that night. After debating the various seafood starters -- caramelized sea scallops, steamed mussels with chorizo and a seafood martini -- he opted for the simple grilled vegetable platter.

This turned out to be enough vegetables to satisfy four diners -- an enormous plate of grilled eggplant, red peppers, green pepper, plum tomatoes, yellow squash, zucchini and mushrooms. Gorgonzola cheese was melting over the hot veggies; in the center of the platter was a bowl of raspberry dipping sauce. Sometimes simple is the hardest thing to get right, but these vegetables had been lightly seasoned, were pleasantly smoky and none had succumbed to overcooked sogginess.

The Pines Tavern grows some of its own vegetables and herbs -- seasonally, and year-round in greenhouses; the remainder of the produce and meat comes from local sources, like the Amish butter -- with extra butter fat -- which sounds at once wholesome and sinful.

The menu listed a dozen entrees all described in tantalizing detail: grilled mushroom, pepper-dusted veal chop; filet mignon in a merlot-blackberry demi-glace; and cedar-plank roasted salmon filet. My companion opted for the pork tenderloin. The meat had been brined and was then grilled with a spiced apple-cider glaze (apples from nearby Soergel Farms). This was an extraordinarily tender piece of pork; we were cutting it simply with the edge of our forks and it just melted in our mouths. There was a side dish of soft sweet potatoes with smoked sausage and mustard that was a little overwhelming for my tastes, but my companion loved it. I preferred the apple and black walnut chutney.

I decided to see what the Pines could do with prime rib of beef -- a cut that gets a bad reputation from being gray and lifeless at too many wedding receptions. Not so here: I received an impressive inch-thick slab of prime rib, all pink and juicy. Its edge had been seasoned with herbs and cracked pepper. It was topped with the most divine onion rings  a little wisp of onion whose coating stayed crisp even in all the jus from the beef. The two sides -- sour cream and chive mashed potatoes and green beans -- were excellent, creamy and crisp respectively. Prime rib, mashed potatoes and green beans: It was the traditional wedding plate dinner after all, but executed with skill, so that really, its only relation was pure coincidence.

As I'm inclined to do, I ordered the "house specialty dessert": Here it's raspberry pie. And like the grilled vegetables, deceptively simple -- a respectable wedge of dense raspberries (no filler from sauces or other fruits) within a thick, more crunchy than flaky crust. The plate had been crisscrossed with vanilla and raspberry sauces, but this was no gimmicked-up dessert. It was just a delicious, simple well-made piece of fruit pie.

My companion's dessert made more noise -- a marscapone cheesecake with a crust made from dark chocolate biscotti, sliced strawberries, a side of whipped cream and drizzled with a balsamic vinegar sauce. I wouldn't have thought to pour balsamic vinegar over a dessert, but it worked: The sharp taste of the dark vinegar brought out the sweetness of the strawberries and gave an edge to the creaminess of the cheesecake. And marscapone does make a much lighter cheesecake -- a nice choice after filling and satisfying meal. * * * 1/2

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