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Pines Tavern worth trip from all points

Friday, December 06, 2002

By Mackenzie Carpenter, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Lucky are the folks who live in Pine, Wexford, Sewickley and beyond, for they don't have to drive far to eat at the Pines Tavern.

Executive chef Jason Culp and Mike Novak are co-owners of Pines Tavern Restaurant in Gibsonia. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

For the rest of us poor souls who live in the city of Pittsburgh, or south or east of it, getting to this lovely, comfortable restaurant -- located, unsurprisingly, in Pine -- can be a challenge on a wintry night, since it requires driving through the traffic gantlet of McKnight Road before being deposited onto a dark winding road that seems to go on forever.

But once the little tavern, cheerfully lit for the holiday season, comes into a view, any grumpiness vanishes in anticipation of what's ahead.

Like caramelized sea scallops in a smoked chile and lime cream sauce on potato pancakes.

Or a newly picked salad of field greens from the restaurant's greenhouse with roasted beets whose centerpiece is a little phyllo purse that packs a punch of goat cheese, bacon, dates and scallions, in a vinaigrette made from flat champagne and the juice of blood oranges.

Or Elysian Farms lamb, one of the most sought-after foodstuffs in this country, available only to five restaurants locally (the rest goes to places such as The French Laundry in California), on this night encrusted with pumpkin seeds in a fragrant wine sauce.

Oh, and if you need a drink after all that driving, but don't want to indulge in a bottle from the restaurant's much-lauded cellar, there are no less than 40 different by-the-glass selections to choose from -- or a red or a white wine "flight" of three selections for $9.95.

Since its opening in 1978, the Pines Tavern has become a mecca for people who love food, but owner Michael Novak and executive chef Jason Culp have moved beyond just running a restaurant to something bigger: ferreting out and promoting the use of fresh, local and, when possible, organic ingredients in the homes and restaurants of Western Pennsylvania.

As proof, consider the heirloom vegetable gardens, slowly expanding on the property's 13 acres (in the summer months, there are 300 varieties of tomatoes; in darkest days of winter, there's fresh mache and lettuce from the greenhouse); or stop by the North Star Market, the restaurant's retail outlet in Wexford, which sells wonderful food from local sources -- and gives classes on how to cook it.

But the restaurant is still the heart of the enterprise, and on two separate visits the meals ranged from almost-great to mostly very good, with enough glitches, though, to indicate a need for better quality control in the kitchen. Crab cakes ($21.95) were a bit fishy in taste, and with less lump and more backfin crab meat than I would have liked; and there was too much grainy mustard on the chopped sweet potato-and-smoked sausage salad, which otherwise nicely complemented the sweetness of a brined, grilled pork tenderloin ($17.95).

And a veal chop rubbed with pepper and a "dust" of wild mushrooms in a sumptuous shallot cream sauce ($26.95) arrived at the table looking lovely on the outside, but was, alas, raw on the inside. After sending it back, it returned, hot, sizzling, perfect.

Working with duck, crab, salmon, prime rib and other mainstays, Culp showcases them with the Pines Tavern's ingredients: a prime rib ($19.95) features the restaurant's own fresh horseradish sauce, and nearby Soergel Farms' apple cider is used to glaze the aforementioned pork tenderloin. A mixed grill featuring farm-raised quail, an Elysian Fields lamb chop and a small filet mignon ($24.95), provided a trio of savory tastes in a demiglace of pureed blackberry and good merlot.

The sides were sensational: Gnocchi in brown butter were addictive, nutty, satiny, as were the Rosemary Potatoes Anna accompanying the pepper-crusted, herb-marinated filet mignon ($23.95). Culp uses "Amish Maid" butter from Lancaster County -- a high-butterfat product that is so rich you don't need to use a lot, avoiding greasiness (one downside: when it's served with the bread at the start of the meal, it's as hard as a rock).

If you're on a diet, though, you won't get much help from eating the salads -- despite their newborn freshness, they are, with the exception of the house salad, as rich as any dessert, mined with goodies such as grilled figs, pancetta or candied lemon, with dressings such as fig port vinaigrette and light pear vanilla vinaigrette.

Pastry chef Nello Dreon's desserts are mostly extraordinary: the restaurant's signature Raspberry Pie ($4.50) lives up to its billing -- big fat puckery sweet berries in a flaky pie crust made with (oh, be still my heart) lard. The milk chocolate cheesecake with homemade caramel ($4.95) was another stunner, mingling cocoa, butter and liquor flavors as complex as a good wine.

There were two disappointments at meal's end: the raspberries perched atop a white chocolate mousse ($6.95) had traces of mold on them, and the Black Bottom Creme Brulee Cappuccino ($5.95) was rubbery, without that glassy surface that's so fun to crack open.

Our service was timely if not completely polished. When our otherwise efficient and friendly waiter dropped and shattered a crystal wineglass onto my friend's clothes, hair and into her just-served filet mignon, that meant a wait while a new piece of meat was prepared and rushed to the table. But it was too raw, which meant a longer wait, by which time the rest of us had finished our food.

There are restaurants that are more consistent, more chic, more correct than the Pines Tavern. At various times a speakeasy, a dance hall and a gas station, today the renovated facility is nonetheless gracious and cheerful -- attracting both grandmothers and artsy looking men in turtlenecks -- even if the busy wallpaper and Christmas decorations can overwhelm (and I wish on our first visit we hadn't been seated so close to the unlit fireplace, which was drafty).

It's a place that is always evolving: Novak has plans for more gardens, more award-winning wine events, more outreach to other regional chefs.

Ten years from now, the Pines Tavern will probably still be worth the drive.

Pines Tavern
5018 Bakerstown Road, Pine

Hours: Lunch, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays; Dinner, 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; Dinner, 5 to 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. The tap room features a somewhat smaller menu and is open from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays. Closed Sundays and Mondays. No-smoking sections available. Wheelchair-accessible. Seats 120, with 45 more during the summer, when the patio is open.

The basics: American contemporary and traditional, based on the seasons. Spring and summer feature herbs, lettuce, tomatoes, while fall and winter focuses on root vegetables, dried fruits, nuts and wild game. Entrees range from $17.95 to $26.95 (fish, pasta and lobster tail specials are market-priced). Wines range from $21 to $225; wine "flights" are $9.95.

The last word:

Mackenzie Carpenter can be reached at mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.

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