Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

A Vibe for Vegetables at Dinette in East Liberty, the Main Course Often Comes from the Garden

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

A Vibe for Vegetables at Dinette in East Liberty, the Main Course Often Comes from the Garden

Article excerpt

In restaurants, vegetables are undergoing a transformation from good-for-you sides to center plates. They're less often overcooked or underseasoned. And they're no longer merely an afterthought, doctored by egg or cheese.

Cooks are finding inspiration in books such as Yotam Ottolenghi's "Plenty: Vibrant Vegetarian Recipes From London's Ottolenghi," as well as Deborah Madison's "Vegetable Literacy," which won a James Beard award this year.

Even a generalist has become an apostle. Mark Bittman has progressed from "How to Cook Everything" in 1998 to 16 years later, a veg-focused flexitarian in "VB6: Eat Vegan before 6:00 to Lose Weight and Restore your Health ... for Good."

It's this cultural shift that makes Sonja Finn's cooking of the moment, even though Dinette in East Liberty opened six years ago.

The dining room remains a fluid space of industrial design with pops of color and a terrific view of the neighborhood. Cooks assemble pizzas behind the bar as diners look on. The clientele includes singles lured by $1 Yuenglings and fresh fare, as well as families welcomed by Ms. Finn's openness as a pregnant chef on the line. Her son Miles, now 2, occasionally visits the restaurant with her.

Although the menu does include meat, vegetables stand out because Ms. Finn plays up their beauty and flavor.

Her cooking shows the range of her experience, which includes tenures at the esteemed Zuni Cafe in San Francisco and the now- closed Magnolia Grill in Durham, N.C.

The menu is influenced by Zuni Cafe in particular, with a display of high and low ingredients. Hard-to-find spices and heirloom vegetables meet sausage, chicken and onions.

Ms. Finn is also influenced by Ms. Madison, as she mentioned in an interview in Food & Wine in 2012.

Vegetables are especially memorable in shared plates and starters. Shishito peppers ($9) circle a plate drizzled in new-crop olive oil that's nearly iridescent. Tangy chevre and fried almonds alternate in between, adding body and fat.

Chilled zucchini soup ($8) wears a latte's tulip, a creme fraiche design in pale green. Infused with onion and thyme and garnished with arugula blossoms, the soup is velvety with cream.

Peppery watercress layers a salty watermelon salad ($9) dressed with ricotta salata, red onions and green goddess dressing, minus the anchovies so it's vegetarian-friendly.

I could eat a plate of fried lemons in the fritto misto ($11) although they usually join squid, chickpeas, scallions, vidalias or scallions. Squash blossoms have also made an appearance in the dish, an ingredient harvested from the rooftop garden.

The garden is her father Seth Finn's baby, a project he started with $600 worth of containers and materials. Today, the tomatoes, cornichons and herbs show up in several dishes, along with figs and arugula. …

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