Nine on Nine

Last night, I enjoyed perhaps the best meal I’ve eaten in Pittsburgh. I probably shouldn’t be surprised by that, as the restaurant where I was eating, Nine on Nine (corner of Ninth and Penn, downtown), was named Pittsburgh Magazine’s Best Restaurant of 2007.

The restaurant’s format allows diners a chance to sample from each of three menus. Three courses will cost you $45; six will cost $78. Each course is plated in an artistic style, in an arrangement that complements the shape of the platter it is served on. The courses are Amuse bouche, Second, and Third.

Aurora and I agreed that we could have crafted a three-course meal out of the Amuse bouche menu by itself. Surprisingly, though, our three courses would have been different–an accomplishment for an offering of eight selections. Were I to have a selection of three options from this portion of the menu, I would have gone for the Pot Au Feu (braised veal shank), wild mushroom and truffle Risotto, and Veal Piccata; Aurora would have opted for Grilled Quail, Ostrich Carpaccio, and Rabbit & Dumplings. Instead, we each chose our top selection, and neither of us was disappointed.

Though my first reaction to the Pot Au Feu was that’s a small portion, I should have expected as much based on the name of the course (amuse bouche indicates small portions to amuse your mouth and tempt it to want more). The quality of the preparation was unmistakable: the venison was melt-in your mouth tender, in a rich reduction sauce that was evidently the result of the dish’s long, slow cooking process. It was accompanied by pearl onions, carrots, and (I believe) parsnips that had been cooked just long enough to be tender but not long enough to be mushy. When the waiter visited our table to ask how we were enjoying the first course, I made the unusual decision (for me) to, rather than just nod my enjoyment, lavish praise on the extremely well-prepared braised dish.

Aurora’s quail was served on a bed of cheese grits. Its legs had been trimmed of skin at the end for a more refined presentation; Aurora’s immediate reaction upon being presented with the plate was, “it’s waving at me!” The grits were creamy and well seasoned. The shavings of country ham that accompanied them provided a subtle salinity to the dish.

My second course was the Escargots. They came on a long, slender plate, arranged on a bed of puff pastry. The menu lists their accompaniments as leeks, carrots, and chanterelle mushrooms. Quite honestly, I don’t remember any of those as being on the plate, unless they were in the sauce; but the snails were tender and the presentation was quite a bit more elegant than being put in a multi-sectioned dish and drenched with garlic butter as standard continental cuisine would dictate.

Aurora’s Oyster Chowder came in two separate pieces: one dish housed the poached oysters; the other a creamy potage of leeks and potatoes with wild boar bacon. The server poured the potage over the oysters at the table. There were only a couple of oysters in the soup, so I did not get to taste one; but the quality of the potato and leek chowder was undeniable. It was delicately seasoned but not bland, and would have made an excellent soup by itself.

For my third course, i opted for Kurobuta Pork Tenderloin wrapped in Nueske bacon. I had never heard of Kurobuta pork before, and so asked the waiter what it is. He described it as being “the Kobe Beef of pork,” a description that is backed up by the research I did after the meal. Also known as Berkshire Pork, it has finer marbling than most pork, and has shorter muscle fibers, which makes for a more tender piece of meat. It was cooked just a shade more than I would have preferred–though it still displayed slight evidence of pink, it could have had a rosier hue. Be that as it may, the pork was indeed tender and flavorful. The bacon wrapping (Nueske is a brand name) was a complementary touch that provided a bit more seasoning for the meat. The pork medallions were served over a slightly sweet puree of apples and parsnips.

Aurora opted for the Sauteed Barramundi. Barramundi is another food I hadn’t heard of before last night. A white fish with a subtle flavor, it was accompanied by an herb peppardelle pasta, shaved fennel , dried tomatoes, kalamata olives, and a saffron sauce. As I only had one bite of her fish, i have a tough time describing it in much detail beyond that—though I can easily say that I would have enjoyed the opportunity to have more than one bite. The fennel was very light on anise flavoring—in fact, even after having verified with the waiter that it was fennel, I don’t think I could really recognize the taste. I’m not sure if that was a byproduct of having been sliced so thinly, being sliced in advance and held in water so it wouldn’t oxidize and turn brown, or just the flavor profile of the particular bulb that was used for that plate of food.

Aurora didn’t have much interest in dessert after finishing the three courses, but I felt it was my duty to indulge, especially after hearing a different waiter describe two of their featured desserts to the next table over: a chocolate tart that was served on an avocado anglaise sauce and accompanied by candied jalapeno peppers and beet ice cream; and a trio of cremes brulee including green tea, ginger, and adzuki bean custards. I know adzuki beans from shopping at the East End Food Coop, and I wasn’t sure how they would translate into a custard; not to mention the trio of curiosities accompanying the chocolate tart. When our waiter asked us if we were in the mood for dessert, I ordered immediately without even glancing at a dessert menu: the chocolate tart and, if possible, could I also try just the adzuki bean creme brulee?

It was possible. The adzuki bean creme brulee had a subtle nuttiness to it, and an off-red color that I attribute to the beans. I’m not certain, though, whether there was a small amount of beans pureed into the custard, or if the beans were cooked in the milk that went into the custard and strained out. Either way, it was a tasty curiosity.

The chocolate tart, also a tasty curiosity, was served ina somewhat awkward manner. It came out on a very long plate. The avocado anglaise sauce was drawn in stripes across the length of the plate. The tart was on one end, topped by three small pieces of candied jalapeno peppers. The beet ice cream was way across the plate, at the opposite end, topped with a crispy maple sugar wafer. The flavors did indeed work well together, but combining all of the flavors into one bite was more of an effort than I thought it should have been. The dessert would have tasted the same and been easier to eat if served on a smaller, less concocted plate.

The quibbles with the meal were minor and few. The service was impeccable and the decor of the restaurant was elegant without being ostentatious. I believe that much of the restaurant’s success likely flows from its intimate size: it is happily of an intimate and comfortable size, such that I intuit the kitchen staff is able to pay adequate attention to every plate that goes out. I look forward to dining at Nine on Nine again, as soon as possible.

Rating: 4 Oranges (out of a possible 4)

Nine on Nine is located at 900 Penn Avenue Pittsburgh. 412.338.6463

Please note that the menu at Nine on Nine will be changing next week, according to our waiter–so don’t be surprised to find that the selections you are offered are different than the ones I describe.

2 Responses to “Nine on Nine”

  1. SamChevre Says:

    Was the Pot au Feu veal, or venison?

    I am very envious–that sounds like an awesome menu.

  2. Troy Says:

    Barramundi is an Australian fish. I remember learning about it years ago on “Survivor Australia.” See reality television isn’t completely mindless?

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