Monday, February 27, 2006

 

Six Penn Kitchen

The review that launched the blog! My experience here was such a mixed bag, it actually gave me the brainstorm to start “edible pgh” in the first place. Located at 6th and Penn, downtown.

So the husband and I went to Six Penn Kitchen Saturday 2/25. It was our yearly sojourn out for “Valentime’s” always done a few weeks after, because dining out on the actual day is for amateurs. Inevitably, the restaurant has some special “Lover’s Menu” which means there are only 3 or 4 choices, and the dessert is usually middle-of-the-road, so as to please every palate. And the whole thing is overpriced, and you leave feeling ripped off.

I had read two good reviews of this place, so was expecting a pretty great meal, in a space that was described as cutting-edge and trendy. By all accounts, I figured it would be a great night. I had watched over the summer as the place came together, walking across the Clemente Bridge to the Pirates game. It looked cool for want of a better word, and I was eager to try it.

I always grade a restaurant on three things: Layout/Ambience, Service, and Food. I do think the combination comes together in the most ideal of circumstances to create something wholly wonderful on its own. This can be magical. But when one thing is missing, the whole thing can fall apart. At the same time, one aspect can “hold up” what is missing in the other two. For example, great service can make up for mediocre food.

Layout/Ambience = C

Pluses:
The space is huge, and they are planning to open a rooftop deck soon. In a city lacking al fresco dining, this is always a plus. The mixture of glass and wood throughout gives it a “city” feel. I kept thinking it would be a great place for after-work drinks, or to bring the girls for a night out. Windows completely line the entire restaurant, which I bet makes it very bright on sunny days. A big plus.

The seats and tables are comfortable and large enough for your appetizer, wine, and beverage. The fireplace upstairs is a nice touch, and on the night we were there it was lit and welcoming. The artwork is pleasant, not too distracting for the space, and the lighting was very nice. I could actually read my menu without the “granny glasses” which always puts me in a good mood.

Minuses:
The place is huge. Yeah, I know, make up your mind. But I kept thinking that the largeness of the space might contribute to its lack of choreography in service (see below). The front entryway is way too crowded. There is a huge lounging area beyond the reception desk, but reception itself is crowded into such a small space that I found it difficult to push past the people waiting for tables to even get to the lounge area. There is no coat check (big no-no in a place so upscale). Instead, there are numerous coat racks throughout the restaurant, which made for an awkward moment when I went to put my coat on later that night. My sleeve almost ended up in a guy’s soup! The tables are way too close together for this kind of arrangement.

Also, the TINY bar is directly in front of the reception desk. It’s all just way too crowded. There is another tiny bar and lounge upstairs, which just made no sense to me. Why not have one large bar to accommodate everyone? Who wants to go up all those stairs or wait for the elevator (also right in front of the reception desk) to stand at an identically tiny bar? Blech.

And not to split hairs, but sitting upstairs and gazing out at the beautiful parking garage next door did not add to the romance of the evening. There has got to be something the designer could do without sacrificing all the light and airy feelings those windows bring.

Service = C

Pluses:
We were seated quickly, only waiting at the bar for a few minutes. As the bartender made my husband’s martini, he made a point of telling us about their specially-marinated olives. As we walked upstairs, a hostess carried our drinks on a tray. The host who was seating us made a point of telling about all the special cocktails on the menu. Our waiter, Dominic, was attentive and friendly. Our water glass was kept full, and our cocktails were brought promptly (yes, we had two). I had to laugh, at one point a male waiter ran past us so quickly he threatened to run into a waitress. He threw up his hands, laughed, and said, “Hey, why don’t we just crash and make a baby!” Everyone working here at least seemed to be having a good time.

Minuses:
This wait staff seems very young and inexperienced. The whole night, I felt like maybe the restaurant had just opened that week. The whole “choreography” was off. It wasn’t anywhere near busy, but the whole staff appeared harried or unprepared.

For example, the bartender didn’t have cocktail onions, which my husband enjoys in his martini, and no oranges (for my orange vodka, chilled, straight up). He had also run out of Bombay Sapphire. As a former bartender, I understand the importance of keeping the bar stocked on a Saturday, especially at a bar so near the theater district. In my head I was thinking, “Maybe it’s the layout of the place?” After all, the bar is so damn small; it may be hard to keep backstock.

They gave us one of those glowy, red things that looks like an overblown coaster, so we’d know when our table was ready. Ewwwww. God, I hate these things with a passion. I never know what to do when that damn thing starts going off. Is it going to explode? Or did I just win a prize? I suppose in such a cavernous place they need to keep track of everyone, but good grief. I’ve been to restaurants where the hostess makes it her business to know where her customers are, and doesn’t depend on contraptions. It’s a little thing, but it adds to the service when they know your name and where you are.

I’m not sure why we had to wait at all, since we had a reservation, and when we reached our table upstairs, almost the entire second floor was empty! This was at about 8:30. Even though there were several tables for two available, the host seated us between two other couples. Not very intimate. Okay, maybe they were being held for reservations, but they were never used until shortly before we left, and the “after theater crowd” began to arrive. That was at least 2 ½ hours later.

Not only that, as we were leaving and said “crowd” was arriving (really only about a dozen people tops), I saw several people waiting around even though most of the tables for four were empty. Are you telling me there were reservations at 11pm? Okay maybe, but please! There is no excuse for tables to sit empty while people crowd into an already tight space waiting. They really need to step up their hostess/seating skills.

During the meal, even though the waiter took our silverware after the appetizer course, he never brought us new, and we had to ask. Big no-no. The entrée was brought out while my husband’s appetizer was still on the table. Again, the “dance”, the choreography that is the hallmark of great service just wasn’t there. When the people next to us left, we pointed out to the busboy that a napkin had been left on the floor. I wouldn’t have wanted to sit down and find that at my feet. Yuck.

Food = B+

Pluses:
Finally I can say more good things than bad! This is where Six Penn Kitchen is at its strongest. Chris Jackson used to work at Millie’s in my hometown of Richmond, so I expected great things the minute I walked in the door.

The drinks we had were terrific. That bartender pours a tasty, soft martini. He talked about how special the olives were, and although they tasted like regular ‘ol green ones to me, they were huge, and the drink itself was mixed and poured perfectly, as was my orange vodka with a twist (yes, he did manage to find some orange peel behind that teeny bar). What do you call orange vodka straight up anyway? Someone let me know so I can sound like a cosmopolite! (half-kidding).

My crab cake appetizer was crabby, not mixed with too many fillers, and had a great taste of cilantro. The accompanying mash of avocado and pico de gallo was light and a great complement. My husband’s noodle salad was a HUGE amount of rice noodles mixed with sliced red peppers, zucchini? pineapple, herbs, and other delicious nibbles in an asian-inspired dressing accompanied by a sliced spring roll. It was yummy; I kept thinking it would be the perfect lunch.

I ordered one of two fish specials: Mako shark served with a garlic hummus, wood-roasted fennel and a tomato compote with roasted potatoes alongside. It was succulent, peppery, and the fennel gave it a delicious licorice aftertaste. The hummus and roasted potatoes set off the meatiness of the shark in a nice way. I loved all the flavors together. It’s so hard for restaurants to cook fish to doneness, and not overdone. This was deliciously done.

My husband got the wood-grilled bone-in New York strip with potato gratin and grilled asparagus. A standard, but it was prepared completely, totally, perfectly. Medium-rare, juicy, tender, astounding in its simplicity. The buttery gratin and nutty grilled asparagus were a comfort to this dish. It’s like one of those things you see on the menu and think, “Oh, it’s steak, big deal.” But this was just simply scrumptious. I’d rather have this combination of woody, meaty tastes than anything I could order at some overrated chain like Ruth’s Chris.

Minuses:
Minor quibbles, but quibbles nonetheless. I found the menu strange. Lobster Mac ‘N Cheese right up against an exotic risotto? Asian Noodle Salad next to Pork Chops next to some exotic fish like Mako Shark? Pizza? Burgers? No matter how “upscale” they may be, they seem out of place next to Jumb Scallops. I have a feeling they are trying for “upscale comfort food” and since they advertise themselves as a bistro it would make sense. But the menu just seems all over the place to me, like they’re going in too many directions. Kind of like the service.

I wanted to order the porkchop, which sounded awesome, but they were out. At 8pm on a Saturday? And I discovered this from the couple next to us, not the waiter (Oops, maybe that’s a quibble with the service). The “Cracklin’ Pork Shank” just didn’t speak to me as a substitute.

The Pumpkin Brulée just tasted like pumpkin pie to me with carmelized sugar on top. I have had this in the past where it tasted like a custard, a true brulée, and not just whipped-up pumpkin pie filling. I’m not saying it didn’t taste good, it did, but it wasn’t custard.

The focaccia bread and flatbread they served with the meal were tasty enough, but the tomato purée accompaniment literally tasted as if they had spooned tomato paste out from a can and plopped it in a ramekin. That or some purée of sundried tomatoes. I’ve just tasted better.

I do think Six Penn Kitchen has the potential to be a really great meeting place, they just need to redesign the layout and work on their choreography. As we were leaving, my husband mentioned they were owned by Eat N’ Park, which would explain how anyone could afford such a huge space. It has a friendly atmosphere, and would be a perfect place to get a good meal after work with friends. It had a real trendy, “Seattle-like” feel. It’s a good gathering place for large groups or for people meeting up after a show. I just think that for a more intimate, romantic meal, I’ll head somewhere else.

Overall Grade = B-

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