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Munch goes to Walnut Grill

Friday, January 04, 2002

By Munch

Out with the old, in with the new restaurants!

If you're hankering for a new place to try in this new year, here's one that Munch stumbled into over the holidays and now recommends. It definitely would have been one of the Top 10 for 2001 had anyone asked Munch to make such a list.

This new find is called the Walnut Grill, and it just opened in October above Shadyside's Walnut Street in second-floor space that used to be an outdoor gear store. It wasn't easy to remember that, so chicly has it been designed and decorated. Upon reaching the top of the stairs, Munch and a friend were "ahhhed" by the twinkling trees and other funky light fixtures that cast warm glows on the yellow walls.

An equally stunning, legs-up-to-here hostess led us to a two-top beside one of the big windows overlooking the street, and we eagerly peeked into both the menu and the appealingly open kitchen. The food looked to be just what we'd been hungering for: A modern mix of casual but quality appetizers, sandwiches and entrees, with an extensive drink menu to boot, and at not-too-pricey prices.

We ordered from the list of eight draft beers a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale ($3.50) and from the 13 wines available by the glass a Spanish tempranillo recommended by our laid-back server ($7). It may have been because it was inexplicably boxed on the menu, but we immediately decided on an appetizer of steamed mussels in a tomato horseradish broth ($8). For dinner, it was another boxed item -- the Wild Mushroom Chicken in a light cream sauce -- plus the 12-ounce Strip Steak au Poivre with a brandy cream sauce. For $15 and $18 respectively, these came with salads and two sides, plus, we soon learned, the most unusual croissant-like rolls, which were fine for sopping up the beautiful broth from the mussels.

The shellfish seemed a tad undercooked, a problem that also applied to the mixed vegetable side dish and the steak as well. But the fact that the veggies were fresh clearly outweighed that they were a little crunchy. We both liked how the server brought the salad dressings and the steak sauce on the side. The garlic mashed potatoes could have used a little more zip, and the steak fries could have been a bit more crisp. But otherwise, everything was quite delicious, and in such Pittsburghesque quantity that we took enough chicken home for two more meals.

There are many more interesting dishes to try, such as the grilled hummus and mushroom with provolone sandwich ($7) that some acquaintances there that night heartily recommend.

Other "different" sandwiches include veal meatloaf ($7) and walnut-crusted salmon ($9). There are several salads including "D's Caramelized Walnut" with raisins, apples and black olives ($6) to which you can add grilled meats and vegetables.

Walnuts don't seem to appear among the appetizers, which include a grilled vegetable plate with portobello mushroom, zucchini, squash, tomato and feta ($6) and a cheese and fruit "palette" with Stilton, brie, chevre, Cheddar and honey ($9).

Entrees range from Vegetable Napoleon ($10) to Pan Roasted Salmon (with that walnut crust for $16) to Jumbo Lump Crab Cakes ($23).

Nothing crazily unusual, as Munch's friend pointed out, but not just the usual fare, either. And the service was quite warm and friendly at this place, which is the new venture of the owners of the nearby and also cozy Pittsburgh Deli Co., who wanted to bring back the neighborhood-gathering-place feel of the late, great Balcony.

They seem to be succeeding already, as much of the neighborhood seemed to be gathered into the dark bar in back, which sometimes features entertainment.

The Walnut Grill also fixes up a wonderful-sounding Sunday brunch, judging from that menu on our table, which described treats such as lamb shank and eggs ($12) and seafood quiche ($7).

Munch pocketed a copy of that, but couldn't get a paper copy of the main menu because they were all out. No problem, said the hostess, who handed Munch one of the laminated regular menus to take, saying, "Just bring it when you come back."

Walnut Grill, at 5500 Walnut St., serves food from 11 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Tues.-Sat. and brunch from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Sun. (the bar is open later). It's closed Mondays. Call 412-688-8220.

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