Last Saturday evening, SP & I made the nearly hour long drive (there was Steelers pre-season game traffic) from Robinson to Oakmont for a long awaited dinner at notion. We met up with our friends D & J for a wonderful evening of food & friendship.
I had read a lot about notion before we went. I knew Chef Dave Racicot had previously worked at several Nemacolin Resort restaurants, perhaps most notably at Aqueous & Lautrec. In December 2010, he opened his own restaurant, notion, at 314 Allegheny Boulevard in Oakmont. The notion site says he strives to focus on 'modern techniques,' which to us, right or wrong, loosely translates to 'molecular gastronomy' experience, although it seems many chefs are not fond of that term for what they do. Perhaps I should instead repeat what J said, which was that we should probably expect some kind of foam to arrive on one or more plates!!! And that many items would be cooked sous-vide.
However you wish to categorize the style of food at notion, it is different from that which Pittsburghers are accustomed. Sorry, no fried zucchini or stuffed banana peppers followed by a pound of pasta covered in a gallon of red sauce - not that those foods cannot be yummy and don't hold any appeal to me - I love a good fried mozzarella stick doused with marinara sauce! This blog is my personal opinion, and to me, notion is very refined, elegant, high quality ingredients, meticulously prepared & presented. Service is attentive, never intrusive, personable & friendly but not overstepping.
And to be perfectly frank, our meal at notion was, in our opinion, one of the best dining experiences we've had. But you need to go in understanding what notion is and what it isn't. It is, by Pittsburgh standards, a pricey meal. It is not, by Pittsburgh standards, enormous portions that yield leftovers for your next 2 meals. It isn't a 'basic meat & potatoes' kind of place. It is a lot of flavors blended in unique ways. It's a place where you need to be open - and I'll be the first to admit I am in some ways very conservative in what I will/will not eat. As much as I wanted to try notion, I was also very nervous - my picky palate, my sensitive stomach - but I took a deep breath as we got in the car and thought, stop being such a food wimp! Time for something new.
Like the lime amuse bouche we were served to begin our meal. Tasted like lime. But the feel/texture was like latte foam (to me). Everyone scraped their bowls clean.
Before I go on, I should remind readers that while I am obviously OK with photographing food in restaurants, I draw the line at using a flash. I don't. Ever. If my flash goes off, it's because I goofed. Since it was 6:45 pm and notion is softly lit and the walls are shades of gray with some red highlights, my photos are dark and fuzzy as the camera struggles with a long exposure time.
Also, before I go on, while we all thought about doing the Chef's Tasting Menu (which can be enjoyed with or without wine pairings), we opted for a la carte. Menus are presented inside black envelopes. You withdraw your sheet of paper on which are printed 4 appetizer options, 4 entree options, and 2 dessert options. There is a separate binder with cocktails and wine. Each of us had 2 glasses of wine, all white. I cannot remember the specifics, but we ordered by the glass. There were 3 kinds we ordered - a sauvignon blanc (the receipt says Magneau Graves), pinot grigio (Lechthaler), and a blend of whites called a Mittnacht Gyotake (I think, I remember there was a fish on the label!).
Also - keep in mind I didn't take notes or steal a menu and the menu currently posted online is different from the menu last Saturday evening - so I cannot remember all the ingredients in each dish.
On to the first courses! All four made appearances on our table. D ordered the Tartare.Of course I kept thinking tartare = raw, and I got that part right, but I was surprised to see raw ground beef. Turns out I was confusing tartare with carpaccio. Whoops! There was a lot of 'stuff' around the tartare for flavoring and some lettuce leaves in which to scoop the tartare & accompanying goodies:D & J enjoyed the tartare. SP doesn't eat beef and I never eat raw meat, so we did not try any.
SP & I shared the Quinoa:That's sassafras foam and the green liquid is green apple. I think there also was sesame. This was delicious! I like quinoa, but I'm not a huge fan. This, however, was really tasty. It seemed light. That's the only way I can think to describe it. The quinoa was light, not like our at home quinoa which seems heavier compared to the quinoa at notion.
J ordered 3 first courses as her entire meal. She started with the same quinoa that SP & I enjoyed and then was served the English Pea. It listed manchego as an ingredient - and that white squishy stuff visible in the photo is the manchego! There also might have been banana.J's third first course, served when we were served our entrees, was the Risotto with sweetbreads and the large black thing that looks like seaweed but is really a blackened Parmesan crisp.For my second course, I chose the Chicken with almond custard, Parmesan, arugula, and maitake:
Oh my gosh. So good. The chicken on the left is chicken breast, I think, while the chicken on the right is wrapped in fried chicken skin. I try to not eat chicken skin, but this was so crispy and tasty and not especially greasy. It tasted simple, and yet also complex, no one ingredient outshining the others, just meshing together in delicious harmony.
Both SP and D chose Fluke for their second courses:Fluke is a white fish, also known as summer flounder. I cannot remember the other flavors in the dish. They both enjoyed it.
There are 2 desserts from which to choose. D and I both chose Chocolate and shared with our significant others:It might be juvenile of me, but I kept thinking the blue blob was minty toothpaste! It was mint flavored, and quite tasty. I was happy that there wasn't a strong, overwhelming coconut flavor since I don't like coconut very much, and SP sampled the white/coconut part of the plate. Light, airy chocolate cakey bits and denser, creamy milk chocolate dollops, cocoa sprinkled about - very tasty and a nice textural contrast between the elements on the plate.
SP & J both chose the Blackberry dessert:I think it involved honey and a yogurt cake but I can't fully remember. I tried a pinkish/purple chunk and it was yummy.
We all enjoyed our meals.
I have to say I'm a little... saddened by some of the reviews I've seen on urbanspoon. As far as several reviewers who mocked/questioned the 'guy in the suit pouring the wine,'... ummm... you mean the sommelier? That's his job. A professional sommelier is supposed to be pouring the wine and interacting with the customers.
Our service was excellent. I can see why some people would complain about the prices for the quantity of food, but again, that's the kind of place notion is, and the portions are in line with portions we've enjoyed at similar 'fancy' restaurants in other cities. At restaurant like notion, we never think we will have leftovers and we never do - but we also never leave hungry. We were 'comfortably full' after our meals. Quite honestly, given the amount of information/reviews/apps/food blogs/restaurant sites out there these days on cell phones/ipads/netbooks, etc., I find it inconceivable that someone would walk into notion without knowing what kind of restaurant it is. It has been reviewed in 4 Pittsburgh based publications (see links for those reviews at the bottom of this post).
We would definitely go back to notion. For us, given the budget we've set for ourselves and the number of times we like to dine out in a month, notion will remain a special occasion place. For four people, including tax & tip, the bill was a tad over $400 (5 first courses, 3 second courses, 4 desserts, 8 glasses of wine, 1 coffee, 1 iced tea). Of that, I'd say 25% was wine.
As much as I'd like to say otherwise, I'm not sure I would enjoy this kind of meal more than a few times a year. For me, it's not a weekly or monthly kind of place. But it's definitely a special place.
Pittsburgh Magazine Review here
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette review here
Pittsburgh City Paper review here
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review review here