Yue Bai Wei
I had planned to meet my buddy Keith for dinner at Everyday Noodles earlier this week, but the restaurant was closed due to an ongoing power outage due to the massive storm that devastated the city. As an alternative, I suggested we move across the street to the Rose Tea Cafe – but to my surprise, another restaurant, Yue Bai Wei, is now operating at this location.
“It was a pretty sudden decision to do this. They planned to open a restaurant but hadn’t thought of opening it here. But that location opened up and they decided it was time to do so, ”says Eric Chung. His mother Alice Fu owns the restaurant with Zhiyuan Tang and Li Tang. All three were previously associated with Sichuan Gourmet.
On a trip to Sichuan Gourmet in 2019, a smashed eggplant dish piqued my interest and seems to hint at a refinement in the restaurant. It was then that I learned that Zhiyuan Tang, a sophisticated chef who began his cooking career in Chengdu, China, in 1987, had taken over the kitchen a few months earlier and updated the restaurant’s menu.
A similar dish, mashed eggplant with hot paprika, caught my attention while eating at Yue Bai Wei (before I learned that Tang had left Sichuan Gourmet and was now running this kitchen). Soft, supple aubergines are served with a garlic-like pepper sauce mixed with sesame oil, which becomes spicier when eaten. It’s a convincing dish and one that is difficult to eat (and its taste evolves while it sits). It was one of my favorites at Sichuan Gourmet and it’s even better here. “This is a dish that isn’t afraid to be what it is,” said Keith.
“This whole restaurant is not afraid to be what it is,” was the general impression I drove home after my first meal. I was impressed with Tang’s update to the Sichuan gourmet menu from one that was more oriented towards well-prepared Sino-American offerings to one that was more rounded when he was hired as the chef at this restaurant, and it seems even more unbridled here. Its menu features a wide variety of Sichuan dishes, and all four I tried were exceptionally balanced, with great attention to detail and complexity.
Of the more popular Sichuan offerings, I found Tang’s Chongqing chicken well done, with the crispy chicken and gaudy flavor you would expect from the dish (although I wouldn’t have minded the more numbing Sichuan peppercorns); the addition of peanuts added a contrasting texture. A huge lion’s head meatball (shi zi tou, 狮子头), well browned on the outside and velvety inside, was served with glass noodles, crispy bean sprouts and al-dente pak choi, all in a sauce rich in five spices. It’s a complete meal in itself.
The dish I kept coming back to was soybean paste noodle with broth, a famous version of a dish called zha jiang mian (炸酱面), which originated in northeast China but is spread across the country. It’s home cooking, and once again everything was nicely balanced.
I have not yet learned why the Rose Tea Cafe closed so quickly; Fu says the three, all previously associated with nearby Sichuan Gourmet, had already discussed opening their own restaurant. Even so, it all went much faster than expected, and the opening is still in progress. So expect the menu to change a bit as you get a feel for what’s working and the plain dining room gets more decorated as time goes by.
“It’s a competitive area. There are already some really good restaurants here. But they are convinced of their abilities, ”says Chung. After my first visit, I am confident that they will succeed too.
5874 Forbes Ave, Squirrel Hill; 412 / 586-4813, yuebaiweipgh.com
Brothers Christopher and Anthony Castine have extensive experience in the Pittsburgh hospitality industry. Anthony was head chef at Burnt Orange Restaurant Group (Sienna Mercado, Sienna on the Square) for the past seven years and prior to that as Sous Chef at Cure. Chris was last chef at Sienna on the Square; He previously worked in both front and back-of-house at Union Standard, Cure, Spoon and Avenue B.
When Sienna on the Square closed last summer as a victim of the COVID-19 pandemic, the brothers decided to strike independently. Last month they opened the LeVia Trattoria in the former Cure room in Upper Lawrenceville.
“Our main goal is to be a mainstay in the neighborhood,” says Chris Castine, who runs the restaurant’s front-of-house.
When I visited earlier this month, I found a neighborhood restaurant that was convenient enough to visit more than once a week if they wanted a quick bite – but also a worthwhile attraction for people in interested in good food. It’s in line with newer establishments like Oak Hill Post and Fig & Ash; Attention to detail in the preparation and presentation of the dishes with service and ambience that allow you to relax while eating.
Anthony Castine is the head chef and offers a low key menu of Italian-influenced dishes. His handmade pasta is a real highlight – I was particularly impressed with the spinach and ricotta ravioli with kale, asparagus and cherry tomatoes with bubbles. “Yes!” I exclaimed after digging into the chunky ravioli that were skillfully prepared and cooked. To go with the vegetables, it was hearty, but not too heavy; It felt like a dish to eat at the end of spring, when the days are warm and the evenings are still a little chilly.
I also liked some of the starters. Beef Tartar had a lot going for a small plate menu item. And although I would like Castine to cut the roasted cauliflower into slightly smaller pieces, it was an exciting and balanced dish with the accompanying Taleggio cream, honeycomb, crispy capers and roasted fennel. If pork belly is your thing, the LeVia version with braised napa and creamy polenta is so outstanding from start to finish that you (like me) wish it were available in large format.
Look for small menu changes every week or two, and expect larger seasonal changes every few months.
5336 Butler Street, Lawrenceville; 724 / 247-3160, leviapgh.com
Galley bakery space
A new location for The Galley Group has now opened in Bakery Square. It works the same as the Federal Galley on the North Side and the now closed Smallman Galley in the Strip District – four restaurant owners operate food stalls and the Galley Group runs the bar program.
GG’s Cafe is owned by Meredith and Christine Galloway. It offers a convenience food-forward menu with sandwiches, side dishes like macaroni and cheese, and specialties like fried chicken and baby back ribs. I really enjoyed the ribs which were gritting my teeth.
Bubba’s, an offshoot of radio personality Marc “Bubba” Snider’s Bubba’s Burghers, based in Canonsburg and Triadelphia, WV, is showing – you guessed it – hamburgers. The burgers are made from New York strip steak, ground daily for 28 days, with ribeye, sirloin and brisket. Bubba’s original, now-closed location in Bridgeville was on my 2017 hamburger list – I loved the meaty patties that were seared on a flat top and cooked under a grill. In Galley Bakery Square, headed by Chef Christina St. Clair, the burgers are served smashburger style and will be a real crowd-pleaser in my opinion. I definitely enjoyed mine.
Somi is run by Hoa Le, who also runs Shaka at the Federal Galley and previously ran Banhmilicious at Smallman Galley. Their Galley Bakery Square concept is branded as “healthy Asian comfort food” with a focus on microgreens. Finally there is City Fresh Pasta. The eight-year-old company, which also runs a café and a food truck, offers a variety of homemade pasta as well as a small selection of sandwiches, soups and salads.
6425 Bakery Square Blvd., Larimer; galleybakerysquare.org