It takes a special restaurant to soar to the top of my “favorite restaurants” list. Move over, old standbys. Make room for Avenue B. As a mother’s day treat this year, Big Friend reserved grandma’s care for Little Friend, and took me out to dinner. Let’s be honest. My expectations for dates are lower than they were pre-kids. Driving without a chronically dislocated shoulder from handing snacks to the backseat qualifies as the beginnings of a great date. Eating a carton of Arby’s curly fries and only needing to wipe my own chin qualifies as the end of a great date. With such stipulations in mind, Avenue B, without a single high chair in sight, blew my mind.
Avenue B has made its home in Pittsburgh’s East End, one of my favorite Pittsburgh neighborhoods. The local flavor is evident in bus stop patronage: take one Asian bike rider sporting a Carnegie Mellon sweatshirt, add one mom with baby in sling and bulging Whole Foods bags, and throw in a scruffy malcontent who may or may not be after pay day loans. East End. An exciting fusion of socio-economic extremes. With plenty of new shops and restaurants carving out trendy urban space in the East End grit, I’m always watching for new hot spots. Avenue B is hard to miss. It caught my covetous eye a few weeks ago when I was driving home from a Whole Foods run and saw the Centre Avenue sidewalk crowded with chic diners at black tables. The ambiance called to me, siren-like. I think I salivated a little. And that’s even before I saw the menu.
While Big Friend’s idea of a perfect meal involves double cheeseburgers from Burger King, I’m fortunate that he has some foodie friends to call upon for restaurant recommendations. One such reliable source turned him onto Avenue B. I am ever so grateful, oh foodie friend. Avenue B has all of the ingredients of my favorite restaurants: intimate atmosphere, locally-sourced menu, seasonal specials, and far too many appetizing dishes to make one visit suffice. Since date nights are rare, we didn’t hold back on ordering as many appetizing dishes as our guts could hold.
A variety of Mediterra Bakehouse breads arrived first at our table. Smeared with herb butter, the bread threatened to be the appetizer, entree, and dessert of our meal, but we somehow reigned in our carb loading. Luckily, the temptations just increased. Next up: the appetizer (or “Beginnings” in Avenue B lingo). For Big Friend, a creamy bowl of mushroom bisque with an onion compote accent. For me, the sesame-crusted BBQ pork belly with a mango and rice noodle salad on the side. Did you catch that? I ate a pig’s internal organ and relished every fat-dripping morsel on my fork. Granted, I had to banish all thoughts of stomach, porcine or otherwise, from my mind, and simply remember how pleased my own belly was at that given moment.
As we waited for our entree and chatted about work, life, my blogging efforts, I had the chance to observe our waiter in action. The wait staff was efficient, polite, and tidily clad in black aprons. Most impressively, though, they were knowledgeable. Our waiter knew the menu. And I don’t mean he had just memorized what the sous chef said about the evening’s special. He could, without consulting any culinary school textbooks, discuss the various methods of preparing rice noodles. Boil in chicken stock or water? He could offer his opinion. We felt pleased when he approved of our entree selections: for me, the evening’s special of swordfish steak with an asparagus risotto and goat-cheese and raspberry vinaigrette. (Can you read that and not squeeze out a mouthful of saliva?) For Big Friend, a chocolate chipolte shrimp with jalapeno cornbread.
Knowing the menu at Avenue B is not as easy as mastering the TGIFridays’ menu (and therefore reason why you should always, always, always choose a restaurant like Avenue B). The set menu, printed on simplistic slivers of card stock, contained a total of eight items. The daily chalkboard menu, representing the rotating, seasonal dishes, doubled that number. As if that weren’t enough, Avenue B offered a verbal nightly special. Because of my great love for all things local, I heart other locavores. Clearly, chef and owner Chris Bonfili shares my devotion to whatever seasonal vegetable is popping through the soil, because his menu paid homage to spring’s early bounty. If you want to graze on any of the dishes I’ve mentioned from our meal, dine soon before the chalkboard is wiped clean for the next slate of seasonal concoctions.
Bacon ice cream. That arrived with dessert. And it was amazingly, plate-lickingly delicious. When Seth the know-it-all waiter recommended we not miss the French Toast with bacon ice cream, we didn’t hesitate. (I might have told Big Friend rather sternly that sharing was not an option because I wouldn’t be willing to part with even one bite.) We tried to savor the last moments of our meal. Really, we did. It was just too mouth-watering not to inhale. So we sat with almost-licked-clean plates and soaked up the last bit of ambiance before heading back to our parenthood lives. The tables had filled around us, large parties and small, families young and old, dating couples and married. Waiters shot in and out of the kitchen curtains. The young Chef Bonfili arrived unobtrusively at the front to greet friends. Elegant meals arrived on tables, were speared by forks, and left as white graveyards of plate.
Here’s the downside to this restaurant: I want to go back. Now. I’m sitting in bed typing between sneezes and nose-blowings from a nasty cold, but I want nothing more than to jump in my car and prop my throbbing head up over a plate of whatever daily special Avenue B cares to share. I want some pork belly in my belly, I still have some Kobe meatloaf to try, and if that French Toast is back, well, it won’t be for long.
To read further reviews about Avenue B, consult the professionals at Pittsburgh Magazine or the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Make your reservations at Avenue B pronto. They are located at: 5501 Centre Ave. | Pittsburgh, PA 15232 | 412.683.FOOD. If you’re just interested in some bread to tempt your taste buds, Mediterra Bakehouse offers retail sales (check their website for locations) and makes weekly appearances at a number of farmer’s markets, including Sewickley, Mt. Lebanon, Robinson, and the Firehouse in the Strip.