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Poli's: Squirrel Hill institution keeps its seafood tradition strong

Friday, April 05, 2002

By Mackenzie Carpenter, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Long before there was such a thing as seared tuna with a peppercorn crust or Chilean sea bass with kiwi salsa, long before there was Asian-fusion or Vera Cruz regional cuisine or even "gourmet cooking," there was Poli (or Poli's, as everyone calls it).

Executive chef Dave Conley, owner Larry Poli and a lobster. (Gabor Degre, Post-Gazette)

Sitting at the top of the Squirrel Hill exit ramp off the Parkway East in the same spot for the past 80 years, this venerable Pittsburgh institution has weathered the winds of change in the food world very well, even if some of its menu selections are a bit well-worn.

This is your father's seafood restaurant -- maybe your grandfather's, too. There's lots of butter and bread crumbs on the menu here, on the sole and the Boston scrod and the fried shrimp; there's still the same "She-crab" soup Pops might have ordered during that special occasion dinner he celebrated after his promotion to chief engineer in 1963 or after you graduated with high honors from Pitt in 1975.

But there's also meltingly tender salmon glazed with lime miso sauce ($18.50) accented with a side dish of whipped sweet potatoes; a perfectly cooked slab of mahi-mahi crusted with lump crab meat and macadamia nuts ($19.95); and coconut fried shrimp that disappears on the tongue with a light crunch ($8.95).

It may not be nouvelle cuisine -- "We don't do architectural food here," says chef David Conley -- but it is good cuisine, with ample proportions and the freshest fish available, expertly cooked (how do they broil that macadamia-crab meat filling to such a nutty golden brown while not overcooking the mahi-mahi, especially on a Saturday night when 700 customers file through?).

And while the ambience isn't exactly cutting-edge -- what did you expect, Nobu? -- it is plush, comfortable and capacious, thanks to a 1995 remodeling -- more like the interior of a Lincoln Town Car than a Maserati. Poli's is clearly a favorite of the senior crowd (but I spotted a few dot.com-types in the booths, dressed in telltale black and sporting those tiny glasses). The adjacent bar is sleeker and racier looking and it apparently attracts a younger crowd on Saturday nights.

In a bid to attract customers who may be intimidated by its image as an expensive, "special occasion" restaurant, Poli's is introducing a newer menu later this month with more appetizers and more pasta side dishes, so that diners can have "more flexibility," said Conley, who started here 18 years ago in salad prep and worked his way up to head chef.

Actually, that's where Poli's could use some work -- at the start and at the end of the meal.

While an appetizer special I had on one visit -- the grilled portobello topped with artichokes, shrimp and crab meat ($8.95) -- was excellent, the ever-popular spinach salad with bacon dressing was a dud, its dressing a gelatinous, sweet-sour mess that had no discernible taste of bacon.

And what is all this fuss over She-crab soup (a cup for $3.25)? Poli's makes gallons of the stuff and people down it with gusto, but I found it sweet, soupy, one-dimensional -- utterly uninteresting. I don't blame Poli's: I have had this dish in other places and had the same reaction, so maybe I'm just missing something.

The lobster ravioli ($14.50 entree; $5.95 side) looked machine made, and tasted it: rubbery pasta with a bland filling that could have been lobster, could have been anything, and was completely overpowered by the drizzle of ginger oil and sun-dried tomatoes (which were delicious on their own; I found myself sopping it all up with my bread).

But those fish entrees! The aforementioned mahi-mahi and the salmon were sweet and juicy, not to mention huge, and on another visit, red snapper in a potato "jacket" ($19.95) was an interesting take on fish-cooked-in-paper. Topped with spinach and encased in a paper-thin sliced potatoes, then broiled to a golden brown, the fish was tender, although its delicate taste was a little overpowered by the strong flavor of the potatoes.

On the regular menu, which included plenty of old standbys -- sole and haddock and lobster tails, shrimp stuffed with crab meat -- I tried a single crab cake ($11.95 from a la carte; $14.95 as an entree), which was almost pure lump crab meat, with bread crumb filler: always a good sign. It could be ordered fried, broiled and with or without a spicy "Baltimore" seasoning.

I asked for the spicy version, but somehow only received the plain crabcake, which was also underbroiled. And therein lies a problem at Poli's: the occasionally less than elegant service. Besides getting one order wrong, at the end of our meal our waiter stacked our empty plates into a pile and hauled them away. Another waiter sort of dropped our check -- a flimsy piece of paper -- on the table, without taking the time to place it in one of those leather envelopes. It wasn't a big deal, but not exactly what you'd expect in a fine dining establishment.

And while Poli's has its share of showstopping desserts (some of which are made in-house, some not; be sure to ask) it would be nice to choose something light to end the meal. Too many restaurants just pile it on: You've eaten practically all you can hold, and they expect you to eat a large slice of Prantl's burnt almond torte ($4.50) or a big brownie with hot fudge and ice cream ($4.95). The "lighter" selections on the menu were disappointing: I had Key lime pie ($2.95),which was fine, but nothing extraordinary; my companion had the peach and praline pie, which tasted stale.

These are little things -- the big thing is still the seafood, which shines so brightly you can forgive all else. And there's something to be said for a restaurant that's still in the family after three generations (soon, maybe, even four. Larry Poli, its current owner, says his high-school-age daughter may start working there during summer vacation).

In a tradition-bound town with more family-owned restaurants than most places -- and not always very good ones at that -- it's saying a lot that Poli's is still a wonderful place, after all these years, to eat seafood.

Poli
521 Murray Ave.
Squirrel Hill
412-521-6400

Hours: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays until 11 p.m., Sundays, 1-9:30 p.m.

The basics:Entrees range from $11.95 to $54.95 (for the surf 'n turf). Wheelchair accessible. There is a smoking section in the balcony of the bar. The wine list comprises about 85 selections, including high-end pinot noirs and cabernets as well as more affordable wines ranging from between $10 to $20 over cost.

The last word:

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