Yesterday was a day of contrasts and comparisons. Jim and I made a trip to Pittsburgh so that he could revisit his college the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. He wanted to see how they are handling teaching art students to stay cutting edge at a time when digital and other technologies are advancing by leaps and bounds.
A huge storm blew through the morning of our visit. Although I had scoped out the riverside Eliza Furnace Trail for my 7 mile run, the rain was bad enough to force me into a first ever treadmill run. The hotel was dry and warm and I became terribly dehydrated for the rest of the day. It was a stark contrast to how my runs usually leave me feeling and I joked that maybe I would only ever run on a treadmill on Leap Day; once every 4 years is plenty for me.
While Jim toured the school and picked the brains of the instructors, department heads and directors, I took a little walking tour of the area. I soon didn’t need my umbrella and my hands were glad to take up my camera. The images that drew my attention became a theme of stark architectural contrasts. Old and new were side by side. Gothic spires, “no smoking” signs, modern busses and ancient massive chain link barriers all lived within this small section of Pittsburgh and I was charmed by their differences in such close visual proximity.
There were many fading ghost signs that Jim is fond of. I made sure to photograph them juxtaposed with the shining facades of Fifth Avenue and PPG Place. It was easy to get overwhelmed by all of the eye candy and I occasionally drew the attention of some locals who encouraged me to make sure to see some of their favorite buildings.
The time I had on my own just seemed to fly as I walked to different spots to align the gaps of the canyons of buildings so they would align just right for my photographs. I made my way back to the Art Institute to meet Jim for lunch at the restaurant run by the school’s culinary program, Pittsburgh Taste of Art.
Since the online menu was out of date, I called a few weeks ago to try to determine what we could look forward to as vegans. I was pretty excited to see how a culinary school would handle the challenge and received a message on our answering machine assuring me that their current menu had many items that could easily be made vegan. Jim also alerted his liason to our dietary limitations and was assured the kitchen would be able to accommodate us.
I was quite hungry when we met for lunch and was excited to see what the school would have to offer us. Jim introduced me to the staff at the school with whom he was meeting and I was glad to hear he was excited by all the Art Institute was offering the students. As they chatted about the programs, I took a peek at the menu. At first glance I couldn’t determine exactly what they could easily veganize. When our waitress came and shared the specials, I asked her for a bit of help in knowing what might be available.
Her look of surprise quickly clued me in to the fact that all of the assurances I had received on how simple it would be to accommodate us wasn’t going to be that easy. In spite of being told that if we gave advanced notice they could have something specially prepared, the heads-up seemed to have slipped through the cracks. None of the specials were vegan nor could be altered to be so. The salads could have things taken off of them to make them vegan but no protein was being offered to replace it and the one pasta dish could have to gnocchi taken out and made into a tomato based soup.
Honestly, nothing but the one salad sounded appealing with all of the cheeses, proteins and pastas taken out. I was really disappointed that a culinary school wouldn’t want to shine and please the palette of a vegan diner rather than just meet their needs. The Beet Salad was only going to be missing goat cheese and I was intrigued by how it would tasted with the thyme vinaigrette so I ordered that. Jim was thinking the same thing, we didn’t want to make trouble. It is why we had called ahead, and the visit wasn’t about the food.
The salad was presented in a fashionable way; a bed of mixed greens glistening with dressing and topped with wafer thin rounds of golden and red beets. It was garnished with a sprinkling of pistachio nuts. The colors and arrangement of the fresh elements were beautiful. The volume of what should have been and entreé was barely more than a side salad. No goat cheese had snuck onto the plate but there was also nothing added to bump up the meal and make it a little more rib sticking.
Despite knowing were were vegan, the waitress brought the table two plates of bread that was topped by the pattern of melted cheese that I recognized from many a focaccia. I asked about the cheese on the bread and the waitress agreed that it looked like cheese but then again offered no substitute. I was surprise to realize that they felt that serving a vegan diner seemed to mean more of what not to serve us rather than what we could eat. I had to offer the suggestion of serving any other bread and she brought out a nicely warmed ciababtta. It was very good but I don’t think it is the role of the customer to bridge the gap when the waitstaff has the knowledge of what the kitchen has to offer any dietary limitation.
The salad was fresh and fine but nothing special. I couldn’t taste any thyme in the vinaigrette and my serving was mostly oil so it might not have been well blended. Though the beets were pretty in an chef’s version of what could be overlapping magenta and yellow printer’s circles, they were barely substantial enough to taste. I was still intensely hungry at the end of lunch.
The company and conversation filled any void that would have made the lunch hour feel like a complete washout. My time at the school was quite enjoyable but I cannot recommend the restaurant for all of the extra work I went though to try to get more than part of a meal.
We drove across town to fill the big empty in our bellies somewhere along Penn Avenue. The place I was shooting for, Brillo Box, was closed so was glad to have a few back up plans. My navigation required me be careful not to take any bridges that would get us too far off track. In Pittsburgh, there are plenty of bridges that crossed rivers, railway lines and cavernous gaps that make the area beautiful but a challenge to navigate. Since we had come from a different direction than we ever had before, it sure was cute to see Jim’s excitment as he realized that we were pulling up in front of Quiet Storm.
Regardless of some of the reviews that have complained about the service or snobby waitstaff, we knew we could get plenty to eat at Quiet Storm. We had seen very little of anything less than professional attitude… until yesterday.
We entered and waited where the sign directed us to stand if waiting for a table. Some people came in as we stood there and I assumed it was to pick up take out. They were tended to first. Eventually the one of two waitresses said she would be right with us. We stood for almost another 5 minutes before another waitress, who looked like a young Samantha Morton, told us to sit at the table by the window. Another 2 minutes passed before she brought us menus and told us that our waitress would be with us soon.
The place wasn’t slow but still I noticed that our waitress was avoiding us at all costs, she would deal with anyone who seemed to be a regular even if they came in well after us. She would dwell, chatting with customers who came in for take out then spend time chit chatting with the kitchen staff rather than come out front. She never did come over to our table and another 5 minutes passed before young Samantha Morton returned to take our order.
By that time, we knew exactly what we wanted. I had warned Jim that I had read a review saying that the Green Chile Dip was not too different than the hummus so we started with the Vegan Queso and nachos Jim ordered the Albuquerque Jerky with a side of corn and bean salad and I ordered a the Banh Mi with a side of slaw. I had just made another of my own Dutchified Banh Mi Chay they day before but still in the mood for this kind of sandwich.
Our appetizer came our right away and was warm and satisfying. We realized that this dip too was something like hummus mixed about 50/50 with something much like Food for Lovers’ Queso. We really were starving but made a note to ourselves that we could made something like this very easily at home sometime.
The sandwiches came out before we had even eaten half of our appetizer. They were fine portions and were made with fresh ingredients but I ended up putting my slaw in the sandwich to fill it out a bit. Jim’s was more corn and beans and smoky Lightlife Fakin’ Bacon mortered together with more hummus and wrapped in a lightly grilled flour tortilla. We agreed that any Banh Mi I make at home is about 100% better; their tofu was flavorless and tough after having been frozen then no benefit of seasoning it. The meal was filling and good but not great.
We wanted to get back on the road and Jim took our check to the cash register. The waitress that had been avoiding us did so again by making a phone call and the younger of the two eventually came to tell Jim that he would have to wait until the phone line was free to use our check card. As I went to rummage up the right amount of cash, Jim could hear the other waitress on the phone trying to engage the person on the other end, “Talk to me,” she kept saying, “Talk to me.” She knew Jim was waiting to pay and was doing nothing to cut the call short and it seemed as if she was actually trying to prolong it. The moment I came over with cash, she got off the phone and went into the back. It made me wonder if she was talking to anyone at all or just getting perverse pleasure out of making us wait more.
I don’t know if I have spanned the gulf between finally making good vegan food at home rather than being inspired by getting it out or not. I do know I am so over Quiet Storm, they would have barely gotten a BiNaH Rating of 3 today. I was wrong to have rated them after just 2 visits and I think I need to amend their over all score. My original 4.5/5 was a leap of faith in the wrong direction and I need to think carefully to make sure I balance out each experience.
Leap Day in Pittsburgh was special because I was with Jim in what I consider to be his city. Next time we return, I look forward to exploring some new places to fill the gaps of disappointment some of the old ones have left in their place. It is a city of beautiful contrasts and investigating it with Jim always makes my heart leap with gladness.