A familiar melody in the form of the Fugees' “Killing Me Softly” filled the dining room at Pirata. But instead of Lauryn Hill weaving together the melody, it is the reminiscent-of-an-island-sound of steel drums. Cheesy? A touch. But gosh darn it if it didn't transport me to a warmer locale with sea breezes and electric sunsets. The creamy banana and coffee rum cocktail in my hand helped too.
Prior to stepping foot into the turquoise blue dining room at Pirata (like stepping into an ocean?), I hadn't heard much about the newest restaurant Downtown. Open for just a few weeks, this Caribbean-inspired spot has quietly started service as other new dining spots in the Golden Triangle made splashy entrances. I am suspecting that Pirata will start to make more noise, as on my first visit it hit all of the right notes — steel drum and otherwise.
The best first step in achieving a successful visit is to order a rum-based drink. Nothing will melt you into the atmosphere than swigging on a piña colada or on one of the many rums that hail from Haiti, Puerto Rico, Jamaica… the list goes on. If you'd like to sample several flavors, flights are available for up to $400 — now that's some good rum (hopefully)! My cocktail of choice was the Dirty Banana, a drink that went down all too smoothly as it tasted like a banana milkshake infused with a jump of espresso. The bar would be a nice place to sit, if you opt out of a table, bubbly blown glass hangs overhead and USB ports line the bar for those who need a charge. In the surrounding dining room, turquoise blue chairs surround marble-topped tables. It's a soothing space.
Based on recommendations from my server and a couple of picks out of curiosity, I ordered dishes across the menu picking from each category apertivos, empanadas, entradas and acompanantes. I skipped the tacos, sandwiches and soups. While choices are wide ranging, the menu is actually quite succinct. It isn't longer than a page, which I appreciate when making choices, and features classic cuisine from across the Caribbean and South America like Ropa Vieja, a Cuban shredded meat dish; and yuca fritas, fried cassava root, which is a traditional Colombian dish.
For starters, I ordered the conch fritters, a Bahamian treat. The conch meat was served as small, fried balls with a delicious mustard sauce on the side. The conch meat itself had tough bits, but the sauce made for an excellent bite. A Jamaican beef patty empanada, large enough to share, followed soon after. This yellow-hued pastry is filled with curried beef and baked, not fried.
Jerk chicken, my favorite dish, came next. The spiced chicken, mostly plump white meat, rested on a bed of soft and flavorful rice. I could eat this rice every day of the year. The chicken pieced apart nicely and paired flawlessly with that epic rice. Sides of papas fritas, freshly cut French fries paired with a spicy ketchup, and Bahamian macaroni pie, a spicy baked macaroni and cheese dish, completed the meal.
Very full and satisfied, I had to try the tres leches cake as well. While the cake was moist and featured a sweet layer of thick whipped topping, I wanted to like it more. Would I order it again? Absolutely. But compared to a meal that impressed, this particular course didn't sing.
Leaving the restaurant, I couldn't stop talking about the meal. It is one of those rare instances in Pittsburgh that a new place wasn't overly hyped, and therefore my expectations were exceeded by miles. And I now look forward to my next visit to Pirata, especially during these cold winter months to come, as it will be a nice escape to the islands. Steel drums included.
Laura Zorch is one of the food-savvy ladies of eatPGH.com, who contribute a weekly Dining Out column to the Tribune-Review.