I had been to Soba on Ellsworth Avenue in Shadyside a few times for their (amazing) happy hour and appetizers, but never for dinner. So, when my mom asked me to pick a place for an early birthday dinner, I wanted something I hadn’t had before, and somewhere that would feel like a special occasion – yet not over the top. Soba this past Wednesday was the absolute perfect choice! Soba is a pan-asian restaurant, and offers traditional Asian preparations from China, Japan, South Korea and Thailand, as well as new American dishes with an Asian Twist. I couldn’t wait to explore the menu – and it did not disappoint!
We arrived right on time for our 5:30 reservation (made through OpenTable wooo) and were seated in their beautiful, comfortable, very sleek dining room. There are several two-top tables, as well as several larger, and multiple nooks with additional tables. All felt special and intimate. The building which Soba is in, also home to sister Big Burrito spot, Umi, is an old brick row house, which gives the restaurant a dark, cozy, sexy vibe, and occupies the first floor. If you’ve ever walked past this building, you’ve probably noticed their inviting, gorgeous bar/lounge area, with very comfortable, yet contemporary, communal seating. It’s the perfect spot for after-work happy hours, or casual drinks with friends. Adjacent to this area, though, is the much more intimate dining room where we were seated, and as soon as we were, our waiter set the tone for a lovely evening and dining experience.
Sometimes, when service is extra special, I feel the need to make an extra special callout. On this night, our waiter Bert, was everything a server should be and more. Cliche? Maybe. True? Yes. Bert was pleasant, but not over the top, warm and welcoming, attentive, and extremely helpful. (When my mom and I eat together, making order decisions is a struggle. I don’t know why I ever question where my indecisiveness comes from! LOVE YOU MOM.) After much deliberation, we FINALLY settled on a drink order. I went with one of my favorites, the Bee Keeper ($11) : Plymouth Gin, Lemon, Ginger Honey and St. Germaine. It was refreshing and tart – perfect for the late-summer humidity of that afternoon.
Their cocktails are definitely on the pricey side, but they are truly delicious. They have one of my favorite drink menus in the city, as they offer “Originals” as well as “Covers” and “Remixes” which are house mixes, their own take on historic cocktails, and variations of classic blends, respectively. So, for example, their Tetsu Old Fashioned ($12) is made with Makers Mark Bourbon, Black Sesame, and Bitters. Or, you could sample their Kaffir Lime Mule ($12), which is a concoction of Absolut Vodka, Ginger Beer, Agave and Kaffir Lime. I love how well this menu plays into the pan-asian cuisine style – it makes for a very cohesive experience. (Noteworthy – If these prices freak you out, Soba offers an exceptional happy hour special: Weekdays 5-7 in the lounge, you can order from their $6 menu, which includes speciality cocktails and select wines! Also, all draft beer is $1 off.)
Next, the shared plates! When it comes to planned dinners, I am not ashamed to say that I do my fair-share of menu studying the day before, to ensure my thorough understanding of the cuisine to come. (I tend to have EXTREME order-regret when I feel like I made a bad choice. So, to keep my boyfriend sane, I try to be as proactive in preventing this as possible =).) BUT! In this case, even after doing my homework, I STILL didn’t know what to order. SO many things sounded delicious and tempting. This menu is complete with Shared Plates including Crispy Tofu and Pork Potstickers, and an Appetizers section offering Mussels, Crab Cakes and Lobster Tacos. (And that is only naming a few!) There are soups, there are salads, there is SUSHI and TARTARE! How is a girl gonna choose? But never fear, Bert to the rescue! We went with two of his recommendations, the Green Beans Tempura ($8): served with Siracha Aioli, and the Soup Dumplings ($11): Served with Uni Puree. Both were deeeeelish.
These green beans were the perfect start to our meal. The beans were ridiculously fresh, and maintained their crunchiness, which only heightened the light, crispy flavor and crunch of the tempura. Just delicious. And I absolutely love a good aioli, so this was the perfect snack. The Soup Dumplings were so very scrumptious, and the texture was the perfect complement to the crunchy beans. They were succulent and smooth, and practically melted in your mouth. The broth was thin, tasty, and delicious. The ONLY negative comment I can make is that when I tried to lift one of the dumplings with my spoon, I accidentally poked a hole and the soup drained out =/. They are super delicate. But please believe I ate that dumpling despite this, and I loved it.
(NOT PICTURED BUT UGH I WISH I HAD OMG: My mom’s Thai Corn Chowder ($8) Jumbo Lump Crab meat, Roasted Corn. It was… THE best soup I have had in my life. Seriously. It was sweet and creamy, but not too sweet; the corn flavor was subtle and perfect. The crab was succulent and there was plenty of it.. and just enough Thai spice to keep my wanting more. I am not kidding when I tell you my mom and I passed the bowl back and forth sharing bites until it was gone. I just couldn’t get enough – and can’t wait to go back and order this again. It might have been my favorite thing I ate all night.)
Finally, and sadly.. the main course and final dish of the meal. After, yet another, tough decision, I went with the Miso Black Cod ($30) : Barbeque Pork, Rice Cake, Ssam Jang, Pine Nuts.
This dish was so delicious and flavorful. The black cod was buttery and light, and literally melted in my mouth. It was the smoothest piece of fish I think I’ve ever eaten. And the crispy, flaky skin was the perfect complement to the buttery texture. And wow, was that barbeque pork tasty. After doing some post-dinner research, I found that Ssam Jang is a thick, spicy, Korean paste, typically used within wraps, or as a dipping sauce. In recipes I have found, it looks like the standard ingredients are Fermented Soy Bean Paste, Hot Pepper Paste, Green Onion, Garlic, Sugar, Honey, Sesame Oil. As you can imagine, this sauce was tangy and salty, and definitely very sweet. And although I absolutely loved this flavor, I might suggest that it is not for the faint of heart. The flavor of the BBQ sauce was powerful, and there was alot of it. (Noteworthy!!: For my second drink, I asked the wonderful Bert for a wine recommendation based on the $6 happy hour menu. He suggested the Clifford Bay Sauvignon Blanc. And it was an absolute perfect pairing.) I don’t know anything about wine pairings (something I would love to learn in the future) but I can tell you that the citrusy, crisp, dry flavor of this selection was just wonderful with the savory, sweetness of this dish. I highly recommend this combo! It was exactly what my palate didn’t even know it wanted.
Another noteworthy component of this dish were the delectable rice cakes. (I just love sampling cuisines I’m not familiar with – I learn something with every experience.) Korean Rice Cakes are very chewy in consistency, which was a perfect added texture to this savory dish, and are made with rice flour, condensed typically by steaming. Overall, this entree was light yet filling, and incredibly flavorful.
I really loved Soba. It was the perfect spot for a special occasion dinner. Beyond this, their menu is expansive, accessible, and it’s a great place to try and explore difference Asian cuisines!
Overall Experience: 4.5
A few nuggets of advice:
- It’s definitely a little on the pricey side. But the entire menu is worth exploring. If you don’t want to spend too much – just come and split several shared plates. The portions are large – and then you can sample everything!
- To that point, I do suggest trying their entrees. My mom ordered the Roasted Chicken ($22) -a Ramen dish- and she loved hers as well.
- Sample their cocktails! You can get wine anywhere – and this cohesively-styled pan-asian drink menu is simply wonderful.
- Come for Happy Hour! A $6 expertly-crafted cocktail? You can’t beat it.
- Make reservations! They are on OpenTable. But if you’re coming for Happy Hour in the lounge, that seating is first-come, first-serve.
So the next time you’d like to suggest a spot for a happy hour with friends, or a special-occasion dinner with family, try out Soba! I really think you’ll love the sleek interior, and exciting Asian-inspired menu.
5847 Ellsworth Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15232