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Bona Terra takes dining out of this world

Friday, November 14, 2003

By Sarah Billingsley, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

There are many reasons to open a restaurant -- vanity, family, delusions of grandeur -- but few are opened for love. Bona Terra is a love story, that of a sure man, executive chef and owner Douglass Dick, and the good food from the earth he venerates. In Latin, "bona terra" means "good earth," and the restaurant's mantra is "All the good earth has to offer."

Torchon of foie gras with Concord grape aspic, Seckel pear, cippoline onion at Bona Terra in Sharpsburg. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)


BONA TERRA

908 Main St.

Sharpsburg

412-781-8210

HOURS: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays; 5 to 11 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays.

BASICS: New American bistro. Appetizers $7-$12; entrees $21-$28. All major credit cards. No smoking. Handicap accessible. On-street parking. Corkage fee of $3 per bottle. Seats 42. Reservations strongly recommended.

"It's all about the food and service," Bona Terra Manager Mark Towers told our table. So true: Both the food and the service are sterling.

But Bona Terra is not a snooty scene of foodies sniffing at avant-garde haute cuisine. Dining there is an ongoing conversation with the personable staff and ever-changing flavors, and appreciating the local produce and artistry that are the foundation of the Bona Terra concept.

Dick's approach to menu and decor are minimal, interpretive and fresh. He comes to Bona Terra after an education at Pennsylvania Culinary, and formal stints at the Duquesne Club and Lucca. At Lucca, Dick worked closely with Gino Croce: This relationship led him into the Sharpsburg space, which formerly housed Croce's Bocconcino.

After leaving Lucca, Dick ate his way through Europe, Spain in particular, where a close friend owns a restaurant in Tarragona. That restaurant is the prototype for Bona Terra. The classic tapas combination of figs and Serrano, plumped with nontraditional gorgonzola mascarpone mousse, is a sketch-of-Spain appetizer.

Dick's good shopping at the farmer's market is evident on the strong, well-rounded menu, and leads to intriguingly rare performances: Chestnuts are pureed and served with osso buco and tiny, perfect brussels sprouts ring a pork tenderloin.

Dick sends out the food he loves: roasted meats, leafy greens, first-rate, squeaky-fresh seafood -- flown in daily from a contact in coastal North Carolina, where Dick's family has a home. The menu is short and elegant, and changes daily.

By Dick's hand, the simplest concepts are invigorated by fresh ingredients. Filet, in a light thyme demiglace, is served with a healthful melange of squash, redskin potatoes and onion. It's both pleasurable and invigorating, like a long back rub.

A rich potato leek soup is topped with bacon and frazzled chive and leek. A lighter hand and herbal freshness are evident in the potato roasted-garlic bisque, with a cool swirl of liquid parsley.

Maverick flavors tickle the palate, like the pungent pulse of black sesame seeds on an arugula salad dressed with white balsamic vinegar and chevre.

The greenmarket salads are uncommonly good. Peppery arugula is tempered by sweet Cortland apples or caramelly warm plums. Spring Valley Gardens mixed greens snap with toasted almonds and tarragon vinaigrette.

Dick's appetizers reveal a love affair with peach and prawn: chubby shrimp brochette are sweetened with lush grilled peaches, and a drizzle of lemon verbena beurre blanc gives it acid focus. Tiger prawns on a palette of gritty polenta are mellowed by a buttery peach beurre monte and sharpened by a preserved lemon-microsprout salad. Dull duck confit could use such a tangy dance partner.

I was sold on sea squab, the dense tail of the blowfish, when the waitress dubbed it "high-class bar food." The description is right on, since the crisped meat has the look and silky texture of chicken wings, and is served with an unctuous slick of deeply spicy, deeply satisfying chipotle aioli.

More refined is the autumnal strudel of wild mushrooms and leeks. Rich, vigorous porcini cream offsets the delicate phyllo wrapper.

Dick excels in the Asian vernacular. His swordfish is convincingly Indian, a cube sizzling and caramelized as though it emerged from the tandoor, on a bed of wilted spinach, with a bright lemon pepper emulsion. Spiky mizuna cradles blue crab and mango; tropical snapper is sauced with red miso sauce and yam puree; and Dick's earthy miso, full of silky tofu and bok choy, was clean and pure as any I've tasted.

Rare ahi tuna, often the springboard for culinary leaps into Japan, is kept on this continent with a hot red pepper oil and the ferric saltiness of braised kale.

Trigger, a fish caught in the warm waters off the North Carolina coast, has a winningly firm, fleshy texture. On a bed of curried couscous, with a sweetly vegetal carrot-ginger sauce, it was sultry and savory. As with all of Bona Terra's presentations, the view on the plate is artful.

Misfires are rare. Seared foie gras is luscious and mousse-y, but soft rather than supple. A firmer slab would have stood up to cloying vanilla-scented pears.

Would we know it's autumn in restaurants without the ubiquitous osso buco? This is a dish that demands a deliberate, creative hand, like Dick's. His hefty, architectural example is flecked with dark trumpet mushrooms and cushioned with chestnut puree. It's beautiful.

Pork tenderloin, lavished with similar treatment, is so unctuously tender my father swore he tasted mustard in the chestnut puree, so gently sweet was the meat.

Simple desserts make an ideal end. Grilled pineapple topped with homemade coconut ice cream is perfect cold comfort. Cool vanilla bean creme brulee is top-notch. A ball of licorice-y basil ice cream, perched on an opulent tangerine souffle, is ringed by spare sections of citrus. The flavors, in harmony, are a subtle surprise.

There's also a nightly cheese plate. Past examples include Camembert with local honey and raspberry and warm Taleggio with apple and micro greens.

The caring service is headed by Mark Towers, formerly of Opus, who is genial and talkative. The young waitstaff is restrained, helpful, and convincingly enthusiastic about the food. You believe they love it, love you: Bona Terra bursts with its staff's energy of youth and newness.

The restaurant is little and intimate, sacrificing numbers for comfort: There are 13 well-spaced tables. What had been the very-white Bocconcino is now a much more attractive space -- arty and warm, tidy and sleek -- with ochre walls hung with paintings by local artists, a copper-topped bar and panels of handmade glass, all made locally by friends of Dick.

Bona Terra is BYOB. How, some may ask, could I award four stars to a restaurant that lacks a wine list? Simple: This restaurant hits all the marks. Service is first-rate. The dining space is arty and warm, tidy and sleek. The restaurant is principled, and, most of all, the food is so good.

The collision of these elements -- through discipline or serendipity -- make Bona Terra unique, and a place that can only exist right here, right now. Douglass Dick is giving Pittsburgh exactly what it needs.


Sarah Billingsley can be reached at sbillingsley@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1661.

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