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Bona Terra Review

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My husband I went to Bona Terra in Sharpsburg (Pittsburgh) for the first time last night. I was pretty excited because I had heard it was one of the best, if not the best, place in town.

We arrived about 10 minutes early. Our table wasn't quite ready so the hostess took our wine (BYO) and showed us to the bar. A note on the decor: The bar is an absolutely beautiful copper bar with a nice patina. Unfortunately, the walls are painted almost exactly the same color so it tends to blend into the one-color palate of the place. You wouldn't even notice it unless you're sitting at it (and there's really no reason to sit there as they don't actually have any alcohol to serve you). Anyway....the all-the-exact-same-color palate of the place is a bit off-putting. I'd go with a complimentary color on the wall - some shade of green - and that beautiful copper would really pop. Anyhooo... moving on.

We were seated. A little snafoo with the wine glass (dirty), but the waiter was great and quickly brought a new one. (Actually, most of the glassware and silverware had water spots - not sure what's going on in the dish washing department).

Waiter regretfully tells us that they are out of 2 out of 6 choices for the entrée. Big disappointment. They had 3 fish entrees on the menu that night and 3 “meats”, but 2 of the meats were gone. We were told it had something to do with being the “late” seating, but in my book 8:30 is not the late seating. 6:00 is the early-birds, 8:00 is the regular seating, and 10:00 is the “late seating”. Just saying. Although, I noticed that it didn’t look like they probably have a 10:00 seating there. Turns out the restaurant was also going to be closed the next day and so the chef had only ordered for that night and overestimated how much fish people would be eating. Now, I would typically go for fish, but they were all the same, manly-man types of fish (Mahi-Mahi, king salmon, and swordfish). None of which are my style. Anyway, I think that’s why fewer people were ordering the seafood – there wasn’t much variety. Ok, Ok. So they’re out of both the duck and the veal. The waiter was super cool about it. I felt bad for him. It’s not his fault the back of the house is messing up. He was definitely on the ball though – and arranged to substitute quail and pork chop for us. Phew! Disaster averted and dinner saved!

Amuse Bouche: A local, baby watermelon consommé with a chunk of melon, proscuitto, and blue cheese. Ours came with what tasted like parmesean, not blue, but it worked. I made the mistake of tasting the soup without any of the accoutrements first. Holy sweetness! Wow, super reduced and super sweet. It was my mistake though. Balanced with a bit of cheese, or prosciutto in the spoon – better.

Appetizer: We ordered the tuna with cucumber and plums. The tuna came seared in a pepper crust. It was pre-prepared and sitting at room temperature from what I could tell. No warmth near the crusty part and the inner-raw-goodness wasn’t cold. Not a great start. The cucumber came tossed in sesame oil, but somehow didn’t pair well with a nibble of tuna. Shrug. Not sure what was going on with that one.

Salad: I ordered an heirloom tomato salad. Can’t go wrong right? Wrong. It came with 3-half slices of a red tomato and 3-half slices of a yellow. The red was pretty tasteless with good texture. And the yellow was down right mealy. I’m all for local sourcing, but you have to hold your local producers to the same standards as everyone else. I love a perfect brandywine, but given a choice between a well-raised field tomato, and a mealy heirloom – I’d choose the plain old tomato. Again – just saying. The salad was served with mizuna greens (which were lovely), and crumbled feta with a reduced balsamic vinegar. The vinegar and tomatoes paired well (of course), but the feta was weird – not one of those transcendent, “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” experience. Just feta and tomato battling it out for supremacy in my mouth.

Refresher: The waiter brought a small scoop of melon sorbet between courses. He described it as cantaloupe, but I over heard him saying to another table that it’s some obscure melon variety that they call cantaloupe to avoid confusion. It tasted like the essence of melon, very rich and flavorful – likely a reduced syrup of melon juice. I tasted a few nibbles and appreciated the craftsmanship. I have something against cantaloupe though (it reminds me of rotting flesh – yuck), but that has nothing to do with this poor sorbet, just my own weirdness. My husband helpfully finished mine for me.

Entrée: I had the pork chop, which was at least 12 inches thick. Ok, ok – probably only 2, but it seemed that thick. I ordered it medium-rare, which the chef was willing to do (good sign on quality), and it was perfect! So tender and juicy, with a salty, meaty crust on it. I happily devoured it. It came with a braised cabbage side, which in keeping with the chef’s interest in sweet was SWEET. I could not eat it alone, but it paired ok with the pork. I’m forgetting the starchy thing that came with it so it must have been neither great nor offensive.

We skipped dessert, because I wanted to leave on a good note. That pork chop definitely made up for the previous mis-steps.

Overall, I’m ambivalent. I wouldn’t call it the best place in Pittsburgh, but at the same time, I’m afraid I picked the wrong night and shouldn’t judge based on my poor timing. I’ll definitely be back. The highlight was definitely the front of the house. The waiter was helpful and classy in the face of a bad situation – without any pretense or judgment. For me at least, service is a big piece of the equation, and they definitely have found great staff members. Juries still out on the food though.

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  1. Now THAT'S a review. Thanks for sharing the whole thing. Glad to know that level of service and cooperation is still around - that's a professional FOH.

    It does bring up the question as to what is the "late" seating norm around here. I personally try to get in before 8:30pm for digestive reasons, but I rarely see more people coming in later than 9pm wherever I go.

    1. Great review, thanks for sharing. I haven't had a strong desire to try Bona Terra anyway, just because that kind of involved dinner at that kind of price point isn't typically our thing. But I like hearing how it goes there.

      Just wanted to chime in regarding the seating. Just judging by what I've seen over the years and how much time you would allow at a place such as Bona Terra, I would be quite surprised if they have more than two seatings, at least on a weeknight. So 8:30 would fall into the later of the two. They maybe allow for variances in the times just a bit. But on a weeknight, a seating after 9 would be pretty surprising to me. Maybe a true late seating would work on a Friday or Saturday, but I don't get the impression there would be a huge demand for it here. 7 would be about an average time, and by 8:30 it is already getting to be "late" most places.

      1. I've lived in Pittsburgh all my life and from my experience, 8:30 certainly IS the late seating around here. Other than late nights at the O, Eat n Park at 2 am etc. I can't recall ever having gone out with friends or family for dinner later than 9:00 in Pittsburgh. In DC, NYC, and San Francisco, when we show up at 5:30-6:00 for dinner most places are pretty empty and don't start to fill up until we're paying the check. I'd definitely say we're a town that likes dinner early.

        Thanks for the review, glad you had a decent meal even though it didn't fully meet your expectations. I too have been wanting to try Bona Terra but I cant' convince myself to go there over Alla Famiglia when I'm in the mood for a splurge type Italian dinner.

        1. We ate there in June and had an excellent meal. And I agree with the others that, from my limited experience, 8:30 is a late dinner seating. This is just not a late-eating kind of area.

          Our meal went like this:

          * Chicken mouse tart with bacon-tomato relish (compliments of the chef)
          * Foie gras with finely diced mango and guava (the foie gras shaped like a grilled pork chop, the mango and guava like diced corn and carrots!)
          * Brioche rolls with a roasted tomato butter (at least I think it was “roasted” tomato)
          * A field greens salad with candied pecans, dried blueberries, a Spanish cabrales blue cheese (incredible, maybe better than Maytag), and a raspberry vinaigrette
          * Potato, parmesan, and leek soup with ramp oil and hot chili oil
          * Beef tenderloin topped with ramp butter
          * Roasted duck with a pomegranate sauce
          * Cheese plate with English toffee cheese and a wild berry compote

          Everything was very, very good. The fois gras was probably my favorite. My only disappointment, and this is admittedly nitpicky, was the failure to specifically note on the menu the source of much of what was on our plate. After all, Bona Terra was named one of the top 100 farm-to-table restaurants by Gourmet, so my expectation was that this sort of information would be made very clear. I read an article about the exec chef, Dennis Dick, recently, and the article noted that he had gotten the steaks he was serving during the time of the interview from a ranch in Montana. Well, I'm sure that ranch on the other side of the country is a fine, sustainable establishment, but I was a bit disappointed. There are a number of farms within 100 miles of Pittsburgh that provide excellent, often grass-fed beef. Perhaps they just can't provide the volume he needs, but I believe Legume in Regent Square gets a good bit of its meat from local farms, so I'm not sure why Bona Terra can't.

          Otherwise, our meal was excellent, rivaled only by the meal we had at Mio (that is, in terms of dinners we've had in Pittsburgh). It sounds like you had a one-off experience.