One of the most appealing things about my group of friends is the fact that they're always on the hunt for new and exciting places that are far from the hustle and bustle of the typical chain establishment. "BYOB" is often the word (or acronym) of the day when it comes to choosing a destination to visit as a group. This is due to the fact that my friends are a lot like me in that they have a deep appreciation for wine. This appreciation, while celebrated, has a tendency to significantly increase the total our already outrageous tab. When we have the opportunity to bring our own wine, we tend to order based on ingredients and hunger level rather than price.
This weekend, one of my "friends of the round table" was celebrating her CENSORED birthday. At the suggestion of yet another f.o.r.t. the birthday girl chose Cafe du Jour on Pittsburgh's historic South Side. The restaurant is elusive in it's own right. It has no website so I was forced to look up reviews beforehand. Yelp revealed a heavy-up on 5 star experiences with a few scattered 3's and 4's which had me excited. But there is one woman I trust above all others, and she is the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's China Millman. To my dismay, her review was less than excellent, but it did give me an idea of what to expect.
I, thinking I was going to be late, was the first to arrive. The restaurant is not easily identifiable in and amongst the boutiques and bars of Carson Street (like I said, elusive). I examined the space as I waited for my party (who I later found out were late only thanks to the impossible parking situation on the South Side. If you read my review of DISH you know that parking is a bear any night of the week in the South Side. I fully advise taking the bus if at all possible if you're headed there).
A sign on the door read "Reservations only, please" which I found initially shocking. A Carson Street establishment was turning walk-ins away? This place must be elite! I immediately realized why this was the case, however. Another Pittsburgh staple, the dining room was narrow. But the difference with Cafe du Jour was that half of this dining room was taken up by the kitchen and did not extend very far back. This left room for only four or five tables inside. I sat and waited at the table reserved for us in an unbearable sweltering heat when, luckily, the manager on site (maybe he was the owner?) noticed me waiting (and possibly schvitzing like a shmendrek) and asked if I wanted to move our party outside. Seeing as it was a beautifully sunny Saturday, the gorgeous patio was a welcomed adjustment.
When the rest of my f.o.r.t.s arrived, the candles were lit and the mood was set. And it was time for the wine.
We had (not surprisingly) each brought our own bottle. This may sound a bit excessive, but we like to do things lavishly. Sadly, one bottle lost it's life on 11th Street as it slipped through eager, hungry fingers and shattered on the sidewalk. Its a good thing my f.o.r.t.s came prepared with more than enough to supply replacement.
My choice poison that evening was a Cab Sav purchased from my local state store. I have to be honest about two things right now: 1.) I chose the wine based solely upon it's label. It had a funny name and a twisted tree on the front which I found oddly beautiful. 2.) I can not, for the life of me, remember what the name of that wine was. I searched the internet but "Cabernet Sauvignons that start with F and have a tree on the label" does not yield many accurate Google or Bing responses. I will do some homework and update you later!
We each passed a glass around trying each others' wine until it was time for the appetizer.
Though the baked brie and shrimp crepes both caught my eye, we -- as a table -- opted for a double order of the Spinach &Asiago Dip which was served with cherry tomatoes and basil and a warm French baguette. The dip came straight out of the oven and was still bubbling when it was brought to the table.
One word: ADDICTING! We ended up spooning it directly in to our greedy little mouths as we waited for the extra baguettes we were forced to order thanks to the heaping servings.
And then it was on to the entree.
If you're considering Cafe du Jour you should note that not only is it BYOB, but it's also a cash only establishment. Luckily there was an ATM across the street, so I withdrew $30 for the evening. Most entrees are between $17 and $25 so with bringing my own wine and splitting the appetizer (all were portioned perfectly for sharing), so I hoped to be in fine shape with $30. However, when our waitress rattled off the daily specials, one dish piqued my interest. Not listed on the menu was a featured small plate of asparagus with a creamy lemon caper mousse wrapped in alfalfa sprouts and lightly smoked salmon. This was by no means an entree, but I'd already had my appetizer and it sounded far too delicious to pass up. So I forwent my original choice of the Pan Seared Scallops (at $21) and opted for the asparagus and what sounded like an equally delicious salad in order to remain in budget. I worried this would turn in to a sacrificial decision, but as it turned out I was pleasantly mistaken.
One of my favorite combinations happens to be goat cheese, beets, spinach, vinaigrette and really, any kind of nut (PID not included). So when I saw their beet salad, I hoped it would satisfy me to the point that I forgot about my scallop option. Both it and the absolutely outstanding and creative asparagus did just that. The salad was a bit lacking in terms of ingredients. I wanted more beets, more cheese, more nuts and more spinach. But I'd already had enough carbs and starch in me from the earlier consumed French baguette. However, I've never been so pleased with a dish as I was with the asparagus. I considered myself very lucky to have come on the day they were testing it! If it's not on the menu when you get there, PLEASE request this dish. We need to make it a permanent CdJ fixture! I've attempted to recreate it since, and while I consider myself a decent cook, I couldn't come close. The salmon was extremely fresh, the lemon caper mousse was light and fluffy and there were just enough sprouts to add texture and not take away from the taste (which was outstanding).
The birthday girl opted for the scallops which she so generously let me sample and I must say, I'd recommend them any day of the week. Perfectly seared with the right amount of infused herbs, it melted in my mouth as a scallop truly should. And the couscous pilaf timbale that accompanied the scallops? Se magnifique!
Though I was spent, my f.o.r.t.s moved on to dessert.
We were told the desserts change daily, much like an assortment of the appetizers, which fits appropriately in to the restaurant's name and theme. Last night's dessert du jour (yes, "dessert" in French is, boringly enough, still "dessert") was a flourless chocolate cake with a raspberry puree. I tried a mini mouthful and was in flourless heaven.
Drinks: Unknown Cabernet Sauvignon, BYOB @ $2 per stem (I originally paid $16.99)
Appetizer: 2 Spinach & Asiago Dips (grande version) @ $7, divided by 8 of us = $1.75
Entree: Salmon Asparagus special @ $9
Spinach & Beet Salad @ $7
Dessert: 2 Flourless Chocolate Cakes @ $4, divided by 8 of us = $1
Tax: 7% sales tax (Allegheny County only) (I'm guessing around $1 for each of us)
Tip: $5 (a little over 20% of my portion) for good service
MY TOTAL: $25.75 (I stayed within my budget!)
Cafe du Jour is one of Pittsburgh's best kept secrets. As much as I truly respect her opinion and am well aware that she, and not I, is the expert, I have to strongly disagree with China's review. Our service was punctual, the atmosphere (once we moved outside) was elegant and the food was by far the best I've had in quite some time. It seems from the reviews I'd seen that the Trout is not the way to go, so I suggest steering clear of it as I did. But for a group of eight giddy, wine filled friends this experience was one for the books. I would say if you're going to make the trip, do it in the springtime so you can experience the patio and avoid the heat of the adjacent kitchen. I have already recommended this place and will continue to do so and I can't wait to take PID there to share my enjoyment. It was Cafe Du-licious!
*a special thank you goes to f.o.r.t. Derek Reighard for taking these great pics for me with his lovely camera as well as post-gazette.com for letting me steal two shots of the restaurant which were much better than the ones I took.