THE PLATES | Dining Reviews | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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THE PLATES

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When my companion griped about not having the exact street address of this restaurant, I assured him he couldn't miss it -- "it's covered in plates." The exterior of this small restaurant boasts only about a dozen large plates, but inside, it's dishes galore. The walls are covered in plates -- from tacky souvenir plates from Las Vegas to tasteful tributes-on-plates to local Presbyterian churches, from small salad plates ringed in flowers to an oversized plate shaped like a chicken.

Surveying our seating choices -- stools at a counter, tables in the rear or the small booths opposite the counter -- I chose a booth, a booth I noticed coincidentally had already been set with two plates I owned myself: one with a Bicentennial-themed 1976 calendar and the other from Franciscan Pottery's "Autumn Leaves" line.

The Plates has a small dinner menu -- a dozen or so entrees (plus sandwiches). There are also series of goofily named specials that change regularly: The Hook, The Strip and The Extreme and a Mad Mix. To the uninitiated that's the fish special, a strip steak, a wild game choice and a selection of wild mushrooms.

I thought about The Extreme (that night, pheasant) or the beef with "wild turkey bacon." (Is that bacon made from wild turkeys or bacon made with Wild Turkey? Intriguing either way.) A Mediterranean-sounding dish of chicken with spinach, pine nuts, feta cheese and tomatoes in a white wine sauce also sounded good. But the evening's specials won out. My companion is partial to the strip steak, and this one -- topped with unusual mushrooms -- seemed both old-school comforting and newfangled exotic. I took The Hook -- that night, yellowfin tuna -- because it came with ferns, a plant I enjoy looking at but have never eaten.

We began with a pasta starter, small ravioli stuffed with butternut squash and roasted garlic. These were served in a bath of brown sugar cream sauce. The sauce was very sweet, like a dessert topping, and in theory, was probably too sweet and rich for these ravioli; in practice I was scraping every last drop of the sauce onto my spoon. A ravioli portion tasted without any sauce at all proved to have a rather quiet but pleasant flavor.

The entrees came with soup or salad. That night's soup was wedding soup, a chicken stock with large pastini and sausage portions. It was fine as a light starter, but it could have been zestier. The salad, served with a balsamic vinaigrette, had a bland base -- mostly iceberg lettuce with a few assorted greens mixed in -- with a little flare in the toppings: tomato, red onions, Kalamata olives and artichoke hearts. The big chunky croutons made from bread portions looked great but proved a little too big and hard to eat gracefully.

The staff had taken out some big plates for the entrees -- and filled them to the edge. I had a hand-sized piece of tuna, plus two big piles each of home-style grilled potatoes and sliced squash. Beneath the tuna were carmelized red onions, grilled red peppers and the fiddlehead ferns. About four inches long, the young fern was still unfurled, its leaves coiled tight in a little dense spiral that did indeed resemble the scroll at the end of a fiddle. The fern tasted a little bit like greens, though somewhat sweeter and with a firmer consistency. And it certainly tasted of the light soy vinaigrette that it had been cooked in: The little coil of nascent fronds had soaked up the dressing like a sponge.

My companion's strip steak was declared one of the best he'd had -- "perfectly grilled" -- and we both admired the lively (for the largely monochromatic mushroom family) selection of wild mushrooms: yellowfoot, hedgehog and maitake. There are mushrooms that seem to have no more flavor and substance than whatever sauce they're floating in; then there are mushrooms such as these, cooked with care, so that their own earthy, dusky flavors and unique textures remain intact.

Despite the surfeit of plates, my dessert came in a coffee mug. The "baked hot chocolate" turned out to be a mug filled with warm brownie cake and hot chocolate pudding, topped with whipped cream. Ergo, it did look like a mug of hot chocolate but a spoon would stand straight up in this dense "beverage." We also worked around the edges of a massive tropical fruit bread pudding -- virtually a small loaf of bread packed with pieces of pineapple, mango and papaya, all sitting in a warm puddle of creme anglaise. What we couldn't finish I took home despite some misgivings about the longevity of bread pudding. Even cold and soggy the next day, this dessert was still full of sunny, fruity flavor. * * *

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