Saturday, July 28, 2007

Bona Terra

While searching for new restaurants in Pittsburgh, I happened across Bona Terra, in Sharpsburg. Being vegetarian, I am always leery of new places, so I called to see if they had anything for me to eat. They said that as long as we called a day ahead, they could make sure to have something delicious. I was reassured, and vowed to get there soon. I recently found the opportunity to go while I was moving apartments. I made a reservation (which is, apparently, necessary, if you expect to eat there) for 8pm on a Saturday night.

The restaurant itself is impressively difficult to find, but we called the restaurant from the road, and they helped us find it. From the outside, it looks unassuming but charming.

From a vegetarian's perspective, my first time here was unsettling. Nothing on the menu was vegetarian-friendly (for a non-fish vegetarian), but the wait staff kept reassuring me that anything on the menu could be made vegetarian. I didn't, however, understand how a "Sirloin" or "Filet of Sole" could be made vegetarian. When it came time to order, the waiter recommended that I just ask for the chef to "do his vegetarian thing," and I went with it. I was asked about my preferences for sauces and items on the menu, and was left without a clue as to what was coming.

My girlfriend and her mom had a much easier time, ordering a filet of sole and a sirloin steak, respectively.

For appetizers, we ordered a communal gnocchi (without crab to please me), and a soup and salad. When they came, I got to the gnocchi first. I cannot say this any more simply, but this dish was sublime. One of the most amazing things to pass my lips in a long time. The sauce was fresh and sweet and piquant, and the gnocchi was soft, velvety and luscious. I don't know what Faustian bargain the chef has made to cook this stuff, but I am glad he did.

Subsequently, we were served an amuse and some bread. The amuse was a little peach slice with raspberry coulis, mint, and some blue cheese. It was quite refreshing, but nothing spectacular. The bread was a rosemary-infused challah, I believe, which was tasty, but a bit weak on the rosemary. During this period, we suffered a pregnant pause in the arrival of food, which may have been unintended, but we did not mind, as we were tired from moving, and enjoying the discussion.

Eventually, the entrees arrived. The chef decided to make me some polenta triangles, covered in an olive-relish, and drizzled with a basil oil. Alongside, it came with an assortment of sauteed veggies, including some beans and baby bok choy. The baby bok choy was a bit oily for my taste, but the rest of the dish was, once again, sublime. The polenta was light and creamy and unlike any polenta I've made before (perhaps a high cream content is the secret?). The beans and the olive-relish were beyond-heavenly, and again, unlike anything I've ever cooked. I have something new to strive for. Although I did not partake, my girlfriend and her mom thoroughly enjoyed their meals as well.

In gustatory Elysia, we decided to continue with dessert. We ordered two desserts --- I believe they were a chocolate torte with hazelnut ice cream, and a strawberry parfait with peach ice cream. Unlike my companions, I had prepared myself for this moment throughout the evening, by pacing myself and not stuffing myself on bread. Thus, I was prepared to eat quite a bit of both desserts. The parfait was quite refreshing, although when I go for dessert, I want it rich and decadent. The torte, rich and decadent, was more my style. Sadly, I thought that the torte and the ice cream did not complement each other well --- both were too dark and chocolatey to accentuate each other. I thought that the peach ice cream from the parfait would have been a much better foil for the torte, and ended up spooning from both dishes.

The waitstaff at Bona Terra are pretty much exceptional. They were warm, friendly, and welcoming throughout the entire meal. The service is a little formal --- our waiter continually refilled our wine and water glasses throughout the meal, and presented us with tiny silverware just before they were necessary. For a special occasion, however, it makes one feel quite rich.

It is fortunate that the service makes one feel rich, since the prices at Bona Terra are not cheap. Our dinner for 3 ended up costing somewhere around 150$, which is definitely no bargain. I daresay, however, that I do not regret spending a dollar of that tab: the service, and more importantly, the food was well-worth it. I can't wait to go back for my next special occasion, if only for the gnocchi.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Light in the PLCB

Yesterday, I found myself in the PLCB store in Robinson Towne Center. It takes me about 30 minutes to drive there, and I pass by no fewer than 10 PLCB stores to get there.

I stopped by since I was in the area anyway, and I needed some Wine Preserver. Wine Preserver is an ingenious little bottle of nitrogen and noble gases that one sprays into opened wine bottles to keep them from oxidizing and going bad. It works a lot better than those vacuum stoppers.

This trip was particularly notable since it gave me my very first pleasant experience at a PLCB store. The staff were extraordinarily helpful, friendly, and knowledgeable. Even though the store didn't have any Wine Preserver in stock, the store manager (I believe) chatted with me for about 10 minutes as he helped me figure out where to get some. He answered a number of my questions about the SLO wine ordering process, and convinced me to try the (archaic) system again. I am tempted to make this my one and only PLCB store, despite the 30+ minute drive, if only to be nearer to its staff.

Eventually, the manager gave me a stock printout for the Wine Preserver, and told me that I could just take that to my local (East Liberty/Penn Circle) store, I could give it to them, and they would order some from the manufacturer, or from another PLCB store, and I could pick it up at my convenience.

Happy, I went back home. On my way home, I stopped off at the East Liberty PLCB store, and gave the printout to the cashier, and told him what the Robinson Towne Center manager had told me. The E. Liberty cashier looked at me like I was speaking a foreign language, and had me explain it again. He looked at the printout, and saw that a store located 15-20 minutes away had some in stock, and he asked me "why don't you drive out there to pick some up?" After explaining that I wasn't keen on driving out to the THIRD PLCB store of the day, he told me that I could pay 5-10$ to get it shipped to the local store. I agreed to it.

He had me write down my credit card information on the back of a piece of paper. I couldn't believe it was possible, but it was true: the PLCB really does still live in the early 1960's, long before credit card fraud, credit card swipers, and even computers had become common knowledge. Ahhh. Those simpler times. I left without even knowing the total that the PLCB was going to charge to my credit card, and without knowing when I could expect to hear anything from them. Whoever thought that this was a reasonable business practice in the freaking 21st century needs to be drawn and quartered.

Even worse, I learned yesterday that the PLCB was going to stop selling all of its wine-related accessories, including Wine Preserver. Why? Apparently something to do with a "bunch of suits" in Harrisburg thinking that "they weren't making money fast enough." Apparently, individual store managers are even forbidden to carry wine-accessories even if they think it will be profitable or beneficial for their customers. This is a prime example of the near-negligent bureaucratic failures typical of the PLCB.

This story illustrates a few major beefs I have with the PLCB system. First, is that while some employees are surely quite spectacular, somehow, the system apparently lacks any quality control to get rid of or retrain employees that give PLCB a bad name. Second is that the PLCB exhibits the classical monopolistic drawback of detached disservice to its consumers. Why bother improving service if customers cannot go anywhere else, and more importantly, if there is no quality control to ensure that stellar employees are rewarded accordingly?

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