The Porch at Schenley - Oakland
The University of Pittsburgh did the opposite of what Joni Mitchell lamented in the song Big Yellow Taxi. They took a parking lot and transformed it into a paradisal green space that gives the Oakland co-eds a charming place to sun tan and catch frisbee. Irrespective of the positives, this bucolic transformation is a little bittersweet for me. I matriculated at Pitt as an undergrad in the late nineties back when the campus amenities were meager and the scenery far from picturesque*. But I guess I can’t get too upset since when I was a student back then, I was seventy pounds heavier and frequently wore camouflage cargo pants paired with Wu-Tang Clan t-shirts. It’s a good thing that both my alma mater and me have both gotten so much better with age or else I’d be really jealous.
My wife and I had our first up-close experience with Schenley Plaza a few weeks ago. We spent an evening lying around in the grass during WYEP’s Summer Music Festival. Between the majestic view of the Cathedral of Learning, the plethora of talented hula-hoopers, and the semi-hipster indie folk music, it was wonderful event. Along with all of that entertainment, I found that the park itself was beautiful. The grounds were litter-free and the grass is like a friggin’ golf course. The Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy is doing one helluva job maintainin’ the sh*t out of that place.
One of the most noteworthy additions to Schenley Plaza is The Porch. It is an attempt by the Eat’n Park Hospitality Group group to enter the trendy-restaurant scene burgeoning in the Steel City. We recently made plans to meet up with a couple friends there on a beautiful Friday summer evening. The Porch does not take reservations, but there is something online that you can use to put your name in and get an idea of how long the wait is. Though I usually detest the dining inconvenience stance of “no-reservations”, the beauty of the park and the abundant bench seating made this un-accommodation acceptable. Unfortunately for us, our table was ready as soon as we arrived and we didn’t have much chance to enjoy the scenery.
Though notoriously late, we actually beat our friends to the restaurant and headed to our table to wait. As we passed the bar area, the heavenly smell of rotisserie meat reached out of the semi-exposed kitchen and grabbed me by the nose. This beefy bouquet made for a great first impression. The décor of The Porch could best be described as contemporary country. Inherent trendy-restaurant design elements such as huge windows, blown glass light fixtures, exposed overhead ventilation ducts and an open floor plan were all present. What was atypical was the white wood paneling and agricultural watercolor paintings. These touches, along with the tabletop milk bottle water pitchers and cloth napkins, added a comforting rustic vibe which is fairly uncommon. These dichotomous details made the space ascetically pleasing to both to my inner-hipster and my inner-nature boy.
We were ultimately seated on the perimeter edge of the roofed part of the restaurant, with a nice view of the namesake porch and concomitant park. Our Don Rickles-esque waiter quickly engaged and entertained us with some corny yet amusing jokes. The soothing vista inspired me to embrace the vacation-home ambience and I ordered a Pineapple Sage Margarita. It showed up right after our friends did and was wonderfully muddled. The fresh pineapple really made the normally unpleasant tequila taste* quite palatable. My only complaint was the amount of booze in the heavily-iced drink didn’t really justify the haughty price tag. Typically, eight dollars worth of margarita fills up a glass as big as my head. I guess they don’t call this place the classier Eat’n Park for nothing.
Keeping with my recent gastronomic ostentatiousness** streak, I ordered up a Calamari appetizer and the Bianca Pizza for dinner. The calamari arrived shortly and I quickly dug in. The squid was cooked to the proper amount of chewiness, but the major highlight of the dish was the breading. Though it didn’t exactly stay adhered to the unlucky cephalopod, the crispy coating of fry batter was deliciously sweet and lacked any overt greasiness. The side of marinara dipping sauce was rendered superfluous due to the great flavor of the breaded calamari itself. This squid did not die in vain.
I was really chowing down on the calamari at a pretty quick pace, but was still unable to finish it before my main course was delivered. It’s always an inconvenience when the dinner selection quickly follows the appetizer, but it was made more egregious in this case since my pizza came served on a rather large metal baking sheet. What was intended to add authentic charm just frustrated me as I attempted to make room on the table in front of me without letting anyone take away my beloved calamari. I hurriedly finished my appetizer and moved straight onto the pizza. Well, “pizza” probably isn’t the best term to describe it. It was more like flatbread topped with fig jam, goat cheese and a heaping helping of arugula. The figs’ earthy essence dominated the flavor profile and unfortunately wasn’t quite up to the task of being featured front and center. It tasted a little milder the next night upon reheating, but it still won’t be anything I’d order again. Everyone else at my table loved their meals, which were the steak and meatball selections, so I can only blame myself for the less-than-delicious dinner. Next time I’ll skip the ostentatiousness and go with the meatballs.
Final Call: Much like Schenley Plaza itself, The Porch is a much needed and wonderfully attractive addition to the University of Pittsburgh’s Oakland campus. The menu conveys a sense of innovation without getting too far away from Pittsburgh’s comfort food favorites. The prices seem a little steep for the surrounding college student crowd, but I have a feeling that much like their tuitions, mommy and daddy are probably going to get stuck with the bill.
* I drank way too many margaritas at Mad Mex on May 5, 2010 and ended up having to take a vacation day that next morning** since I was deathly hung-over and throwing up everywhere. Me and tequila haven’t been friends since.
** Nothing conveys ostentatiousness better than using the word “ostentatiousness”. I’m not even sure if it’s a real word or not. #YOLO
*** This particular situation highlights what it means to be in your early thirties. Namely, I was still young enough to make the bad decision to get blinding drunk on a weeknight, but I was also mature enough to correctly use a vacation day and not a sick day since my pain was self-inflicted. It doesn’t get much more responsible than that.