Posted by mike | Filed under Reviews
A few weeks back, a member of the meetup posted a suggestion for an event at La Casa. I had heard of the place in passing and was always a little interested but hadn’t ever made it out there. That made for good meetup material, so—for the second time in a single month—I scheduled a meetup without knowing what I was getting into. Thankfully, it worked out (both this time and last). La Casa served up good food in a comfortable environment—and even did a great job of accommodating the meetup.
Review: La Casa
5884 Ellsworth Ave
Pittsburgh, PA 15232
La Casa is one of those places with a bit of backstory. According to the Tribune-Review, owner/executive chef Omar Mediouni ran a restaurant downtown just a few years ago (in 2003). Located in the downtown cultural district, that venture was successful but a lot larger than the kind of place that Omar really wanted to be. When he caught word of a smaller space opening up he jumped at it and opened La Casa in 2005. Not to long afterward,
China Millman Elizabeth Downer reviewed them for the Post-Gazette. Digging a little further yet, China Millman just pointed out in her blog that he recently opened a restaurant just up the street: Brasserie 33. It seems Omar has a mix of Moracan, French, and Spanish roots—his various ventures all play on different aspects of that background.
All the way up the street. Pittsburgh foodies are all familiar with the rest of Ellsworth Ave, but I bet not everyone has walked all the way up the street—past Fajita Grill. Those that do, would be greeted by La Casa. The entrance is a little more subtle than most other Ellsworth destinations, but still fairly hard to miss. Parking, of course, is limited to the street—one of Ellsworth’s only downfalls.
Between fancy and not. It’s a house. Inside, the restaurant starts with a somewhat narrow space consisting of a bar, waiting area, and just a few tables. The space is well lit with maroon walls and somewhat retro cusioned metalic chairs. The look is nice with a fair amount of style but not so over-designed that it feels too fancy; it really does give the feeling of a home. If you keep walking back, there’s another similarly decorated room with more tables, and eventually doors leading out to a fairly large covered patio. That patio is where I spent most of my evening.
Sitting out on the patio somewhat late into the evening gave me the impression of a outdoor dinner party. Between the dangling Christmas lights and the pond/fountain combo, it really felt like I was hanging out at a friend’s house—a friend with a much nicer patio than my own.
Tapas and more tapas. The menu has a few sections, the largest of which are hot and cold tapas (listed separately). Sections for soups, salads, and even a few entrees make an appearance, but the central theme is tapas. All but one of the “specials” section…are basically tapas as well. So tapas is just what we ordered.
Our order: a parade of Tapas. Continuing a pattern that we started at Aviva, each person in the group “sponsored” 2-3 plates, but we fully intended on passing everything around the table. That was a nice way to simultaneously work around La Casa’s unwillingness to split a check and try just about everything on the menu. I’d say it worked out well.
Here’s what we ordered…
- Tchoutchouka (tomato and sweet peppers dip)
- El plato de Quesos (three Spanish cheeses)
- Patatas bravas (potatoes in a spicy tomato sauce)
- Tortilla de Patatas (potato and onion omelet)
- Gambas al Ajillio (sauteed shrimp in a garlic white wine sauce)
- Chorizo de Crianza (chorizo and potatoes in red wine sauce)
- Lleno Champinones con Congrejo (stuffed mushrooms with crabmeat)
- Tortitas del Cangrejo (pan seared Crab cake with spicy mango salsa)
- Pulpo a la Plancha (sauteed octopus in a garlic-paprika sauce)
- Ratatouille (sauteed vegetables with tomato)
My favorite plates. By far, my favorites were the octopus, ratatouille, and sauteed shrimp but most everything was very good. The octopus has just the right balance of texture with a suble paprika sauce that worked out very well. The ratatouille served up some much needed vegetables in quarter-inch chunks with balance coming from the acidity of the tomato. The shrimp a buttery-garlic taste early on that quickly made way for the shrimp without leaving beyond a greasy aftertaste. Really, everything I tried had a certain balance to it: no single flavor overwhelmed any given dish.
(I also uploaded the full collection to the site’s Flickr account.)
Minor nitpick. If I had a single complaint, It would be about the pita. More than half the plates came with wedges of pita bread that really didn’t stand up to the rest of the dish. Sure, the wedges were all artfully ranged in a sunburst pattern around several plates, but they were cold and too thick for the tiny dishes they were meant to complement. If you used them to dip into any of plates, the bland, thick wedges overwhelmed the subtle flavors on the plate. It was kind of an unfortunate detraction.
On another bread-related note, I noticed a few members of the group asked for bread a few times early on but it seemed like our server was stalling in bringing it out to us. I’m not sure if he wanted to make sure we actually ordered something something else was holding it up, but I suspect some of others in the group were a little frustrated—though I wasn’t really the one asking.
Something different: wine flights. It’s been a while since I’ve gone to a place that has anything to do with wine. For our La Casa meetup, that was a big motivating factor. La Casa actually has a fairly nice setup with wine flights. You can pick 2, 3, or 4-glass flights (either all red or all white). Each glass gets a 3-oz pour. They keep 4 open bottles each night and basically choose your wines for you. If you get two glasses, you get the first two wines of the night; three glasses lands your the first three. There’s a little lack of freedom, but I just appreciate not having to make a decision.
I ordered a 3-glass flight of red and picked up a wide range of flavors among the three. The first had some the most tart acidity but still some floral hints. The third was less tart and brought forward some oak flavors with even a few hints of smoke. The middle (almost by necessity) was the most balanced. My wine analysis is out of practice, and there’s no chance I’d be able to match names with each glass anyway; the real point of my descriptions is to note the variety. It was nice to try three very different red wines. If I went back more often, I might even start to remember a favorite among some standard menu options.
I really liked La Casa. Sure, I had some nitpicks about the bread, but I really get the feeling that the ownership gives some individual attention the place. Despite Omar’s growing restaurant “empire,” La Casa still feels like a one-off place. The staff was great, the atmosphere wasn’t too stuffy, and the food showed off a wide range of flavors and textures. I wouldn’t put it in the genre of casual fine dining—they did aim to be a nicer (but comfortable) place, the restaurant maintained a sufficiently laid back attitude to keep it approachable.
In terms of a rating, I’m leaning toward calling it must-try, but also feel like I need to explore a few more local tapas destinations before that carries any weight. For the time being, let’s call it my tapas pick so far.